Senior Professional Development Lead Coach Hamza Serrar is thrilled with the manner in which his under-18s side have started the 2021/22 Professional Development League 2 campaign.
Ahead of the season, Serrar’s young Addicks travelled to Shropshire for a pre-season training camp as the side stepped up their preparations, culminating with a friendly against Manchester United.
“Obviously it’s been a little bit difficult with COVID and coming back into a building full-time,” explains Serrar, who joined the club’s academy almost seven years ago. “With the scholarships you always get newcomers so it’s really forming a new team, putting a new team of under-17s and under-18s together. We’ve had our challenges in terms of a few lads that came back injured already from last season as well as some positive COVID cases, but we’ve managed to get through it.
“We’ve had a fantastic pre-season,” he continues. “We managed to get away for a week in Lilleshall and we played Man United at the end of that week, which was brilliant. It always takes a bit of time for a team to gel together. The style of football is always the same at Charlton anyway, but it’s just my new ideas and getting that connection between myself and the team.”
The young Addicks followed up what Serrar describes as a humbling 2-0 reverse in their season-opener at Peterborough United with a pulsating 3-3 draw with Sheffield United at Sparrows Lane, before recording successive triumphs against Crewe Alexandra and Hull City respectively.
“We started the league season with an okay performance but a disappointing result away to Peterborough,” admits Serrar. “We lost 2-0 and that was a good lesson for the boys not to underestimate any teams and not to get ahead of themselves. That was quite humbling.
“Then we played Sheffield United at home and I think that’s when we turned a corner - it was a 3-3 draw which we should have won. I thought the competitiveness of the team and the desire to get something out of the game was so evident.
“We went on from there to Crewe and won 1-0 away with a great performance from the lads. It should have been more, we were so dominant. Last weekend we played at home here against Hull and won 5-1 and played some really good football. It’s the best football we’ve played so far and I think things are starting to click together and everything is in place.
“Throughout the game against Hull we had nine under-17s on the pitch,” he adds. “It’s really exciting. All 10 first-year scholars are pushing the second-years because they’ve got that much talent and desire. It’s just making the group competitive and the training sessions are looking like the game because everybody wants a spot, everybody wants to start at the weekend. It is where we want to be and I think it’s only been eight weeks since we’ve been back and it seems like we’ve been together for years. The team is gelling well and the player care programme is also a massive help in terms of team building and getting them out of their comfort zone a little bit. We see a different side to them.”
The academy coach expressed his immense pride to see the Addicks conclude the Papa John’s Trophy tie against Crawley Town in SE7 with eight academy players on the pitch as Mason Burstow bagged a debut goal, while also reserving particular praise for an exemplary professional in club captain Jason Pearce.
“You couldn’t have written it down, could you?” says Serrar of Burstow’s composed finish with what was his first touch in senior football. “Coming on and scoring the header with his first touch! Deji [Elerewe] started the game and at one point we had eight academy players on the pitch, and they’re all playing well... Josh Davison scoring a brace, Charles Clayden getting an assist, Charlie Barker, Jacob Roddy, Ben Dempsey and Nathan Harness, who made his debut in goal and had a fantastic game.
“They are obviously surrounded by a very mature leader in Jason Pearce, who has really been supportive for this football club and the academy. He is really, really good with the boys here and helps them with everything that they need, whether on the pitch or off the pitch. He just talks to everybody, gives them advice so there’s a really good feel about the place.
“The first reward you get from situations like this is that the boys see the pathway and then they know that they’re not miles away from being involved with our first-team,” adds Serrar. “We have a manager who is very inclusive and really cares about the young talent in the club which is really refreshing. It gives a positive energy, not only for the players but us as staff.”
And with that comes opportunities in the under-23s for some of Serrar’s starlets, as demonstrated by Daniel Kanu and Mack Reilly, both of whom travelled with Anthony Hayes’ squad to Princes Park for the recent 3-0 victory over Reading in the Premier League Cup.
“Obviously the likes of Deji Elerewe - he has stayed there with the first-team and the manager uses him,” Serrar explains. “He hasn’t had one training session with us; he went over there, he impressed and he stayed there. Many under-23s as well are going up to the first-team and training and playing, which then means a few of our under-18s go up to the under-23s and get that exposure. It’s been a blessing for all of our young lads here.
“Daniel Kanu in particular is a great example of somebody who works so hard. He worked so hard in pre-season and he was waiting for that opportunity, and when that opportunity came he took it. In his first start against Sheffield United he scored twice and he was a real threat. And he came on against Reading on Wednesday for 10 minutes and he showed what he can do and he can cope, even at that level. We’re really excited about the talent that is coming through from the squad this season.
“Mack Reilly is another one who normally plays down the middle as a nine. We’re playing a 4-3-3 at the moment so he’s having to adapt to play on the left and he’s been exceptional. He scored twice last weekend [against Hull] and got one assist, and against Sheffield United he scored twice. He’s another one who has had a very good pre-season.”
The recent international break saw four academy prospects receive call-ups with James Beadle, Ryan Viggars and Euan Williams all representing their respective countries at youth level, while Hady Ghandour earned his senior Lebanon debut.
“It makes the job worthwhile when you see players like these that we’ve worked with for years going and representing their country at international level,” beams Serrar. “It just doesn’t get better than that does it? It’s amazing.
“I’ve been through it as a player when I was young - 16, 17. When you come back from an international camp you just feel that couple of inches taller because you’ve represented your country, you’re filled with pride and confidence and that can only do us a lot of good in the academy and in our teams - both under-23s and under-18s.”
Serrar’s under-18s side kick off their Premier League Cup campaign this weekend, when they host Queens Park Rangers.
Charlton fans can support the academy by signing up to the Valley Gold scheme. Valley Gold enables fans to support the clubs academy in unearthing the talents of tomorrow, as well as giving them the chance to win cash prizes.