2015 was a great year for the Stevenage FC Academy with a number of highlights both on and off the pitch. Here we look back at some of those key events:
Under-18s start 2015 on fire
Having ended 2014 with an honourable FA Youth Cup defeat to Everton and an IMG Cup campaign in Florida over Christmas, the Stevenage Under-18s started 2015 on fire. Three wins and a draw from their final four Youth Alliance games ensured a top six finish in the South-East division for the first time ever. This qualified them for Merit League 1, which saw the top seven teams in the South-East division play the top four teams in the South-West division. Boro went on to finish a respectable sixth in Merit League 1 after five wins and three draws from these 11 games.
Youth team captain Ben Kennedy shot to prominence in the opening months of 2015 after making his debut as a sub against Oxford in January. His dedication and spirit shown during the FA Youth Cup run of 2014/15, plus his 14 goals, caught the eye of the first team management and the exciting Northern Irish youth international took his first team opportunities with a number of eye-catching performances.
That includes two goals in a vital away win at Hartlepool; a dramatic substitute appearance in the 4-2 home win at Southend where he won a penalty, scored a goal and provided an assist in just 22 minutes on the pitch; and a crucial penalty in a 1-0 win away at Cheltenham. He then returned from summer surgery to inspire Stevenage to an improved run of results in October and November.
Back in March academy graduate Ryan Johnson was one of three shortlisted as the LFE Apprentice of the Year in League 2 as part of the Football League Awards 2015. This award recognises outstanding young professionals at Football League clubs who excel both on and off the pitch. The record of the player in all competitions since he became an apprentice are taken into account, alongside his education attainment, disciplinary record and any other outstanding achievements.
Portsmouth's Connor Chaplin went on to take the overall award but this nomination was still a great achievement for Ryan and the Academy.
New Cheshunt Partnership
In April a new partnership between Stevenage FC and Cheshunt FC saw the launch of the new Elite College Programme (ECP) at the ambitious Ryman League club. The two year scholarship mirrored the Elite Development Programme at Marriotts School in Stevenage and Cheshunt chairman Dean Williamson called it ‘a fantastic partnership with a Football League club.”
Gorman and Casey go pro
In May both Northern Ireland youth international Dale Gorman and George Casey signed their first professional deals with Stevenage FC, becoming the latest graduates of the Academy.
Sarll steps up
Links between the first team and the Academy were further improved in June when Darren Sarll was promoted from Head of Youth to First Team Coach as part of Teddy Sheringham's new coaching staff. Whilst working with the first team Darren would still remain involved with the Academy, working heavily with staff as they continue efforts to bring through the next generation of Stevenage players through the Academy.
Various new signings and trialists featured heavily in Stevenage’s pre-season schedule but so did a number of second year scholars. Nathan Kerr (pictured above), Matt Smyth, Louis Yamfam, Robbie Sweeney and Ben Jackson all made appearances in first team friendlies, with goalkeeper Jackson also travelling to the squad’s pre-season training camp in Seville. Kerr and Smyth have also been on the bench for first team fixtures this season.
Dipo signs first pro deal
In July Dipo Akinyemi signed his first professional deal. The 18-year old striker struck six times for the Under-18s in the second half of 14/15 after signing from Potters Bar Town. He also scored twice in the pre-season friendly win at St Neots Town, catching the attention of manager Teddy Sheringham and further impressed in the friendly against Nottingham Forest. Dipo would go on to score his first professional goal in the 2-2 draw at Newport County the following month.
September saw second-year scholar Jack Storer sign a professional deal. The 17-year attacking midfielder impressed for the Under-18s in 14/15 and was named on the bench in two League Two games. Jack then made his professional and Football League debut as a late sub at Leyton Orient in August, aged just 17 years and 229 days.
Academy Weekend a success
In September the club held its first Academy Weekend, to great success. With the Academy improving across all age bands from Under-9 to Under-16 levels, seeing some great international success stories and also seeing the growth of the youth structure with the introduction of Shadow Squads, Development Centres and Elite College Programme schemes at Marriotts School and Cheshunt, events took place across the weekend to celebrate this progress.
Over 150 fans watched the Under-18s start the weekend in dramatic style by coming from behind to beat Northampton 2-1 thanks to two late goals. Elsewhere at Shephalbury youngsters were able to enjoy a fun day with games, a BBQ and raffle helping to raise further funds for the Academy. Later that day over 300 youngsters from around the Academy structure and their families packed into the North Terrace to enjoy the Stevenage v York game, with the younger Academy age groups parading around the pitch at half-time to generous applause from home and away fans alike.
Then on the Sunday the Academy programme continued with fixtures against MK Dons covered on social media. In total there were 10 wins from 10 games on Academy weekend, with 102 goals scored in Stevenage colours!
Another FA Youth Cup run
The Under-18s enjoyed a decent FA Youth Cup run in 2015, reaching the third round. Despite playing the final 30 minutes with 10 men, the Boro youngsters won 3-0 at Aveley in Round 1 thanks to two goals from Michael Cregan and a late free-kick from Nathan Kerr.
Round 2 threw up a tricky looking away trip to Cambridge United and wet and windy conditions on the night certainly proved difficult. A goalless 120 minutes at the Abbey Stadium led to penalties, with Boro running out 4-2 winners.
That set-up a third away trip in this season's competition, this time to Wigan Athletic in Round 3. Despite a bright start by Stevenage they failed to take early chances and two Latics goals in quick succession around the quarter hour mark did the damage. A third from the penalty spot seconds after half time extended the scoreline further, although Luke Slater did pull one back with a fine run and shot from outside the area.
Remember you can find out more about the Stevenage FC Academy, including Under-18 player profiles, Under-18 graduates and details about Shadow Squads, Development Centres, college schemes and trials by looking under the Team tab above.