Charlton U13s and U14s: Madrid Cup Diary

Charlton’s U13s and U14s recently competed in the Madrid Cup against top European and International competition and Head of Academy Coaching Rhys Williams was on hand to provide a day-by-day diary of the trip to Spain funded by Valley Gold:

Day One

Our party of 18 players and 4 staff met at the Sparrows Lane Training Ground on Thursday morning ready to be driven in our minibuses to Gatwick Airport. The Madrid Cup is a prestigious U14 event, and Charlton have not previously attended. A number of European heavyweights are competing in this high-quality competition. Athletico and Real Madrid, Barcelona, Porto, PSG and Arsenal are all here, so we are amongst some of the finest clubs in Europe.

For the English teams the selection process is slightly more complicated as our players are registered by school year (from Sept 1st) whilst international competitions work on a January 1st basis which means our oldest U14 players are ineligible. We therefore select from both U14 and U13 groups and this adds a different dynamic both to the social mix and the tactical familiarity between the two teams. We have prepared well for this and over the last fortnight have changed our training groups accordingly to ensure the boys get to prepare for the tournament together including preparation games against Crystal Palace and Millwall.

Our journey to Madrid went smoothly and with the hour’s difference, we were in our hotel very near to the tournament venue by 4 pm after a short coach ride from the airport. Dave Chatwin who is leading the team made considered selections in pairing up roommates and following a brief set plays training session, food and a team meeting the boys were dispatched to their rooms to rest up for a busy first tournament day ahead.

For some not only was this their first opportunity to represent Charlton in an international tournament, but it was also their first flight and trip abroad. The opportunity to play abroad and experience a different culture adds value to the personal development of the squad in more ways than just football.

Day one has gone pretty well. We faced three 40-minute fixtures in high temperatures meaning the whole squad would be called upon to perform throughout the day. Our first test was a stiff one against a strong Real Madrid side featuring the son of Marcello in their starting eleven. Nerves were to be expected and we conceded a very soft goal which can be put down to the occasion. We went two behind disappointingly from a free header from a corner. Our second-half performance showed some promise, and we showed a little less respect to our hosts in competing much better. We held out well but were unable to come back so it finished 2-0.

We then faced a Danish Club BK Marienlyst and started to show an improvement in form winning 2-0 whilst still not quite flowing yet. Our final game this evening saw us defeat Crossfire from Seattle 1-0 in our best performance of the day and in a game that was streamed on TV with our excellently performing Centre Back being interviewed after the game. We sit in a pretty good position at the end of day one with two further fixtures to come tomorrow in our 6-team group.

We returned to our hotel for some food and Dave set up some fun for the lads after dinner that led to a great laugh and a very happy squad, before closing the day with a de-brief meeting and letting the boys know of the plans for the morning.

Day Two

The opportunity for us to be able to come to a tournament like this is irreplaceable and we are incredibly grateful to Valley Gold for the ability to attend such a prestigious event. Aside from the experiences already mentioned above, the players gain the opportunity to learn about the 24/7 nature of what a professional footballer’s life really looks like – Wearing the club badge comes with responsibility. Showing discipline and good manners is a huge part of our culture and being in the public eye on the journey, at the airport and in another country is no greater test. Eating and hydrating well, resting at the right times, preparing properly, both individually and collectively and being allowed some independence away from the coaches (safely of course) must become a habit if they are to succeed as they get older. Dealing with the disappointment of a selection decision or a result and developing the resilience to bounce back are all important skills. Remaining positive around the group under such circumstances is not always easy but being a good squad member is essential and being ready to perform when called upon is even more important. As the boys grow older in our system, learning to “fight for the shirt” is something that must become ingrained. A tour like this gives us the opportunity to start to address and develop these important life messages and without your support, this would be so much more difficult.

Day Three

My day started with an alarm that goes off 15 minutes before the wake-up call set for the boys via the hotel reception. On trips like this, we take the boys’ phones away from them at bedtime to discourage the “blue light” and the temptation to stay glued to them rather than getting important sleep. My next activity was to go and bang on doors to make sure everyone is ready to go. I am not relishing the day we depart as we have to be out of the hotel by 4 am and that could be a challenge for all of us!

These trips are exciting for the staff too, but they are intense and tiring with a weight of responsibility for ensuring the safety, time-keeping and good behaviour of the squad. Coupled with the emotional investment in football, it takes a lot out of you! On this trip, alongside myself we have Dave Chatwin (who will lead the team) as coaches, accompanied by Dahnoy Edwards (physio) and safeguarding officer Dean Jarman. We try and share the load and give the boys a different voice throughout the trip. I have also “scouted” our opponents in the group, watching the other games when we have rested between games with an eye on preparing the boys with some tactical knowledge of what to expect when we play the other teams

In the morning we faced IF Brommapolkarna from Sweden and Almira Wacker from Austria potentially needing two wins to progress to the Quarter Finals. Bromma are the biggest participation club in Europe with over 4000 players registered and with a similar record to us in the tournament so far. They looked like the biggest threat to our progress and are renowned as a top development club with the likes of Anders Limpar and Dejan Kulesevski developed within their programme.  A decent performance saw us win 1-0 against a good side and we moved confidently into the last group game.

The Wacker game was remarkable for all the wrong reasons. We started poorly and in a completely fair tackle one of their lads was injured and carried off. Another tackle and another injured Wacker player and then another! Their bench was apoplectic accusing us of being a dirty team. Then their goalkeeper comes for a cross and collides with our striker and again is injured. The temperature rises further. There is tension as the Austrian parents confront ours! We then go down to 10 as our left back is deemed to have punched their winger off the ball! It didn’t happen and the ref did not see it but sent him off anyway. We scramble home 2-1 and due to the high emotion, our boys do not conduct themselves quite as sportingly as we would like, not that the Austrians were any better! Their staff refuse to shake hands and the ref “yellow cards” another of our lads after the final whistle leading to him receiving a red as he had already been booked. We absolutely did not see this coming, and it was not a nice experience. We remove the boys and ourselves from the confrontation and debrief them in the changing room. Even in such a difficult moment, there is much to learn and messages to reinforce around standards and discipline. The two lads sent off will now be suspended for the first knock-out game in the evening, but we are thrilled to progress into the “real” competition.

We meet CD Leganes from Spain for our evening fixture in the quarter-final proper of the tournament who had topped a group that included both PSG and Arsenal, pushing our English colleagues out of the competition. Prior to the start of the game, it is confirmed that both our boys are suspended and there are tears and high emotions from one in particular. We name our side and then discover that they have mistakenly suspended the wrong player. More tears for the lad who is wrongly identified and now can’t play. The one who now can is in no fit emotional state to start so ends up on the bench as he tries to recompose himself. This is not our strongest line-up, but the boys meet the challenge head-on and we start really well and look the better side. We are getting very little from the officials and this is a test of emotion and discipline for staff and players alike, a continuation of our earlier experiences. Right on half-time, our Centre Back makes a great tackle to avert the danger as a Leganes player breaks into our box. Unbelievably the referee awards a penalty and then sends off our player for offensive language. He leaves the field sobbing. We are frustrated and angered at what looks like an incredibly unfair couple of minutes, and they score the penalty before the half-time whistle blows.

We are in trouble. Four of our eleven are in tears and we have very little time to get them back! The whole squad huddles and we re-group. Deep breathing and some words of encouragement and inspiration are all we have to offer so this could be a calamitous second half. These are young lads, not emotionally ready to deal with this, but they are magnificent. The score remains 1-0, but we run harder, we pass better and we outclass the opposition but cannot find the equaliser. Two of our lads clash heads and one needs hospital attention for a nasty cut under his eye, but we keep fighting and have a great chance to score in the last minute, but their keeper makes a fine save and our run is over, although we show remarkable resilience and great sportsmanship in defeat.

I ask the boys to go and applaud the Leganes supporters and our boys receive a rapturous reception from them and our own parents who have travelled. We return to the changing rooms and our boys are emotionally in tatters. All we can do now is to return to the hotel, lick our wounds and try to go again tomorrow……except that we find out we have another game against Rayo Vallecano at 8 pm (our fourth of the day). How tough can this be?!  We allow the lads some space and this settles them. It is likely that the boys will actually get over the disappointment quicker than the staff. We feel harshly treated and sad for our players, particularly those that have been at the sharp end of injustice. We know we could have won and we are devastated for what might have been.

Dahnoy accompanies our injured boy to the hospital, Dean phones his Dad who is back in England and we approach our Arsenal counterparts to see if their physio will cover our next game. He agrees and we are very thankful to them. We come together again, and Dave lifts the lads as best as he can for one last push. We are exhausted – all of us! The physical demands coupled with the emotional weight of an incredibly difficult day will surely take its toll this time. At least we get two pairs of fresh legs back from the lads that have served their suspension. Our Centre Back is now suspended so we re-shuffle the pack and go again. Vallecano look a better side than Leganes, but we are brilliant and we have somehow find the courage and commitment to play the way we set out to with the perfect mix of restraint and aggression when defending and fluidity and quality in our attacking play. We go a goal up, and we get past half-time and go further ahead. They score late from a brilliant free kick, but we hang on for the win to play for 5th place possibly against PSG. It is 9.30 pm by the time we get back to the hotel, but our mood has U-turned. We eat and get the boys straight to bed. The staff have earned a refreshing glass and we chat with the Arsenal and St Joseph’s staff from Dublin over a nightcap. What a day!

Day Four

We get a bit of a lie in comparison to the first two days of the tournament with an 11 am kick-off against Turkish side Antalyaspor who eliminated PSG in a penalty shootout last night. They are the first opponent that does not play a form of 4-3-3 and poses some different tactical problems, particularly in midfield with their fluid 5-2-2-1 shape. We start the game very strongly and again play some excellent football. We hit the post twice, test their keeper and are dominating a decent opponent. We take the lead and it would not be unfair if we were three goals to the good. Half-time comes and we have been excellent, but this is a dangerous score-line though and unsurprisingly they have a better spell with the ball. We defend excellently and restrict their scoring opportunities. We then hit the bar with a screamer! before thinking we have scored a second but it is disallowed for offside! The clock runs down and we win to finish 5th behind winners Athletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Leganes, an unbelievable achievement in such illustrious company.

It is impossible to predict the future, but some of our players have shown true quality at this level. There is a long way to go, but on this evidence, we have players with the potential to entertain Addicks fans at the Valley in years to come. The support that Valley Gold offers to enable our Academy players to attend such a quality tournament is invaluable. The last three days have stretched our players to the edge of their limits. Coping with the occasion and learning to perform consistently to a high level under pressure against high-class opposition is an essential requisite of being a professional footballer, especially at the top. This experience has fast-tracked our players in so many areas of their personal development. They will be better players and people for it.

Of course, many of the lads will sadly not make a career in the game. Nonetheless, we have been able to provide some lifelong memories that they will look back on for years to come. Now that the tournament is over the boys were allowed to use the hotel swimming pool and very quickly a 15 a side game of pool volleyball was taking place against the Irish lads also staying in our hotel. There is a danger that we forget that they are young children and the laughter and happiness that ensued as new friends from another country were made was beautiful to observe from an unintrusive distance.

Tonight we are all attending the Atletico-Real derby – the icing on the cake of what has been the experience of a lifetime. To all of you that contribute to Valley Gold, we are so grateful for your support. I want to thank you all and my colleagues including new Academy Manager Tom Pell (who undertook much of the planning and organizing for the trip) alongside our small team of staff who have been exceptional in leading the trip and caring for the boys. Working in the Academy at Charlton can be challenging at times, but the reward for us all comes in watching our players grow and develop from youngsters into first-team professionals. We continue to demonstrate our ability to punch hard above our weight and the performance of this squad at this tournament is right up there with the best that I have experienced in my seventeen seasons at the club. Know that you are all making a huge impact on the development of our future stars and thank you all once again.

Valley Gold enables supporters to play a pivotal role in the future of Charlton Athletic by helping the club to unearth talented footballers through its youth system. Valley Gold is entirely supporter-funded, with membership costing £120 per year. As a member of Valley Gold, you will also have the opportunity to scoop up to £5,000 in regular cash prizes. To learn more about the scheme or to become a Valley Gold member, please click here.