Under-18's 15/03/2019

FA Youth Cup: Liverpool Preview

by Jack Mirkovic

“As far as we’re concerned we’ve got as good a chance as anyone to go on and win it.”

Those were the rousing words of Graham Stack, who along with Tom Hart, take the club’s fearless Under-18 team to face Liverpool at Anfield in the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup on Sunday, KO midday.

The Hornets have already knocked Birmingham City, Southampton, Ipswich Town and Leicester City out of the competition and now have the six-times finalists in their sights.

“The game is a wonderful occasion for a group of players that deserves the opportunity to play against a good side in a very special stadium,” said Stack, the Academy’s Goalkeeping Coach.

“Reaching the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup is a remarkable achievement but the players and staff are hungry for more. I am excited for our players to once again show their qualities as young footballers while playing with a team spirit and commitment that has been a pleasure to coach. We will be clear and prepare the players the best we possibly can for us to go to Anfield and win the game. The players have belief and trust in one another to cause yet another upset.”

Stack, Hart and Lead Under-23 Professional Development Coach Hayden Mullins went to Gigg Lane to watch Liverpool thrash Bury 5-1 in the quarter-final. Their chief threat is posed by forwards Bobby Duncan and Paul Glatzel, who have scored 52 goals between them this season, including 10 in the FA Youth Cup.

“It gave an insight into what we may come up against,” said Hart. “Liverpool have some good quality individuals as you’d expect, but the lads know on our day we can give anyone a game. We’ve had a tough draw in the Youth Cup and have overcome some big clubs. We will respect them but not fear our opponents. We should have a good support up there, lots of family and friends, and there has been no motivation needed for training this week. The lads are so excited.”

No-one will be more excited than Ryan Cassidy. He has scored six goals in this season’s competition – as many as Liverpool’s Glatzel – and hopes to extend that run at the famous ground of the team he supports.

“Ryan’s working hard as well as the rest of the team, but he will ultimately only put the chances away which are created for him from midfield players, from defenders, from goalkeepers and at the moment he’s more than often hitting the back of the net and therefore a lot of our work goes into those chances leading up to him,” said Hart.

Stack won the FA Youth Cup with Arsenal in 2000 so knows all about what it takes to perform in the business end of this competition. He is relishing coaching a team as much as he did playing in goal for one.

“I still get the buzz before the game which is very similar to how it was when I was a player, but perhaps the biggest difference between playing and coaching is that it’s now completely out of my control come kick-off time whereas obviously when you are a player and you’re involved in these types of games you can make a difference and perform and the coaches sit back as such,” he said.

“The shoe’s on the other foot now. Our work gets done in the build-up to the game and then the onus is on the players to go out and perform, like when I was a player and I ended up lucky enough to go on and win it.”

This is the furthest the Hornets have gone in the competition since they got knocked out by Tottenham Hotspur in 2005, and now they are bidding to reach the final for the first time since 1989.

“The biggest thing about a cup run is not just what it brings to the players, but what it brings to the club in general,” said Stack. “You know the sense of progression and development and it’s clear that success on the pitch breeds confidence and that bodes well for next season. It then, of course, becomes attractive for young players to join what we’re trying to build here as a club.”

The winner of Sunday’s showdown will meet either Manchester City or West Bromwich Albion away in the one-legged final next month.

Tickets costing £3 (adults) or £1 (over-65s, young adults & juniors) will be available in person at the Anfield Ticket Office up to 10am on matchday. There will be no ticket sales after this point.

First Team 15/03/2019

Gracia: “It’s Something Different, Something Special”

Watch Javi Gracia's pre-match press conference above, or read on below.

By Kevin Affleck

Javi Gracia wasn’t giving much away in his press conference yesterday. He was in parsimonious mood. 

He wouldn’t give an inkling into who he might choose in goal, you had no chance of sucking him into stoking up this new-found rivalry with Crystal Palace and forget any talk of him potentially leading his side out in a semi-final at Wembley, let alone the final.

He was the calmest man amid a hive of activity and hype at the club’s training base in London Colney. But don’t for a second mistake that for a lack of passion. As Gerard Deulofeu said in an interview with The Times this week, Gracia “is a quiet guy, but when he has to be intense and aggressive, he is. And that’s good because you know what you have to do with him.”

Gracia stayed very much on script, very cool, calm and collected as he knows his side need to be dead-eyed on Saturday lunchtime, but he dropped his guard ever so slightly near the end of the press conference when you got a glimmer of just how much this one means to him.

“It’s something different, something special,” he said. “We are so close to play in a semi-final. We feel it and know it’s important.”

Not half.

“I’m looking forward to the game,” he said. “All the players are as well. It is a very good chance for us, but also Palace as well. We have to play well and when the game is finished, we’ll see if we are able to achieve the semi-final at Wembley or not. It’s a final and the last chance to carry on in this competition. We are going to play like we usually do.”

The approach has served the Hornets pretty well so far this season, leading them to the league double over the Eagles.

“Playing against Palace is always very demanding,” said Gracia. “We got very good results, but we needed to work very, very hard in all the games. The next one will be the same. They have a very good squad and a very good coach. It is a pleasure to see Roy Hodgson and his staff. It’s true we beat them twice, but all the games have been very, very close and in all of them, we won, but it could have been another result. We have to be ready knowing it will be a very close game again.”

Gracia never makes a special plan for one opposing player, never details someone to do a man-marking job. He won’t veer away from that philosophy when it comes to dealing with Wilfried Zaha. “I am not thinking about one player because collectively we need to be ready to compete. I am not only thinking about Zaha.”

Every one of the six cup games Gracia has taken charge of at this club have been away from home, so he’s looking forward to the comforts of Vicarage Road on Saturday and feeling the support of a sold-out crowd.

“Palace have new players and are stronger than before but playing at home is our advantage,” he said. “We’ve never played before at home [in the cup under me] and it is something I want to enjoy, playing with the support of our fans.”

The Head Coach made seven changes at Manchester City in a move that looked like he was prioritising the FA Cup, but Gracia said it was a horses-for-courses team, picked with a specific strategy in mind. The way they performed so well in the first half suggest he got it spot on.

“We try to win all the games,” he said. “The most important one is always the next one and we always try to choose the best players. In the last game we thought we needed those with legs to run a lot, to defend a lot, to play with our plan. The next game will be another plan, another team, another game and we’ll be ready to compete at our best level and choosing the best players. I always have to find the balance with the players I have. I try to find the best balance to get a good result, to play well. It’s important for me. I must now try to find the right option to compete against Palace.”