Whatever happened to QPR's fairytale of New York? Column
Thursday, 8th Dec 2016 16:28 by Simon Dorset
AKUTR's columnist Simon Dorset looks back on QPR's formidable Under 18s tournament victory over Liverpool and Inter Milan in 2013, and follows up on where the victorious squad members are now.
Back in August 2013, an aeroplane carrying QPR’s Under-18 squad touched down in New York, a handful of days later they had seen off all competition and were returning home as the holders of the Newark International Soccer Classic. With the emergence of one of that victorious team as a genuine first team player while another is a regular in the match-day squad who has just been rewarded with a new contract, now seems an ideal time to check on the progress of those players.
The tournament was hosted by St Benedict’s Preparatory School, who had just claimed their second consecutive high school national championship, and featured youth teams from four continents. QPR opened proceedings against FC Greater Boston Bolts, a founder member of the US Soccer Development Academy. After 17 minutes, a mistake by the Bolt’s goalkeeper allowed Tyrell Mitford to opportunistically open the scoring. A burst of two goals in five minutes swung the match in the American team’s favour, but a towering header from Cole Kpekawa earned Rangers a satisfactory draw.
The following day, Rangers comfortably saw off the Players Development Academy, a “non-profit corporation dedicated to the promotion and development of youth soccer in New Jersey”. Just before the half hour mark, Darnell Furlong headed in a corner only for PDA to equalise with half time approaching. Rangers eased ahead in the second half with Olamide Shodipo ruthlessly exploited being granted the freedom of the PDA’s penalty area and calmly slotting home. Mitford, on as a second half substitute, then plundered a hat-trick in just 8 minutes as Rangers capitalised on their superiority.
On a welcome day off, the squad went to Ground Zero in New York to pay their respects to the victims of the 9/11 atrocity, before resuming against more recognisable opponents in Inter Milan. Undeterred by being a goal down to the tournament favourites at the break, Rangers struck back in style in the second half. Reece Grego-Cox was a constant thorn in the Italian’s side, his efforts finally paid dividends when he was hauled down to win a penalty; Aaron Mitchell thumped it past Ionut Radu to level the scores. A quarter of an hour later, Mitchell looped his header from Furlong’s pin-point cross into the top corner of Inter’s goal and with time running out he completed his hat-trick with a sumptuous drive to send QPR through to the final as Group A winners.
Liverpool overcame the hosts, Maccabi Hafai from Israel and Fuddercol from Colombia to win Group B and to set up an all-English clash in the final. Among their squad were Sheyi Ojo, the highly rated Adam Phillips (touted by some as the next Steven Gerrard), Daniel Trickett-Smith (who they paid Crewe £1m for) and Sergi Canós (who was recently bought by Norwich City for £2.5m), but they were no match for a rampant QPR team who raced into a two goal lead with first Shodipo and then Mitchell benefiting from defensive errors; Canós pulled a goal back for Liverpool just before half time.
Just eight minutes into the second half, Grego-Cox curled a long-range shot well beyond the grasp of the Liverpool goalkeeper to extend Rangers’ lead and less than 90 seconds later Mitchell’s lung busting burst from midfield was spotted by Osman Kakay. Mitchell’s finish was clinical. Rangers absorbed all the pressure that Liverpool could apply while remaining dangerous on the counter attack and with just 14 minutes to go Andreas Komodikis neatly controlled Brandon Comley’s flighted through ball and slip his shot under Liverpool’s keeper. All that remained was to celebrate their victory on the final whistle and for Furlong to collect the trophy; Mitchell winning the “golden boot” as the tournament’s leading scorer added additional gloss to one of Steve Gallen’s proudest moments during his long career at QPR.
Despite playing four matches in five days, Gallen felt confident enough in his young team to pick the same starting eleven for both the semi-final and the final so it is how the intervening years have treated these players that I shall focus on.
One of our own?
While bidding a fond farewell to Frankie Sutherland over the summer, I noted that a few of the class of 2013 had been released; they have all found new homes. Harly Wise is now on Hartlepool’s books, Andreas Komodikis plays for St Albans City and George Butler has signed for Team Solent in the Sydenhams Premier League reuniting him with Tyrell Mitford whose goal scoring exploits should see him given a chance at a higher level. Sutherland, by the way, recently signed for Woking in the National League.
Goalkeeper Mark Smith was released by Rangers at the end of the 2013/14 season, but was immediately picked up by Brentford, his boyhood club. Despite several successful loan spells, including one at Hampton and Richmond where he twice won their Player of the Month award, he suffered the same fate and now vies for the Number 1 jersey with Jake Cole at Aldershot Town. Conor Hudnott who played in goal in one of the earlier matches in the Newark International is still at QPR, but has fallen behind Joe Lumley in the pecking order.
In years to come, we may be able to look back on Cole Kpewaka as an important milestone in QPR’s rebirth. Not because he was an academy player who didn’t look out of place for the first team, but because he was the first one that we received a transfer fee for since Raheem Sterling. The initial disappointment of losing him was quickly tempered by stories of a bad attitude; hopefully he will prosper at Barnsley for whom he has already made a handful of first team appearances.
Furlong and Grego-Cox were the first of these players to threaten to break in to the first team, both gaining some Premier League experience under Chris Ramsey, but have subsequently reverted to our traditional method of youth players gaining experience. Grego-Cox, an Irish U-21 international, is currently on loan at Newport County, while Furlong, who enjoyed a successful spell at Cambridge United last season, is currently at Swindon Town along with Michael Doughty.
I had the good fortune to bump into Shaun Derry pre-season (at Clacket Lane services on the southern section of the M25 since you ask) who was only too willing to discuss a myriad QPR topics, including Furlong whose development he had been entrusted with at Cambridge in the previous season. Derry thought that it was still too early for Furlong to start regularly in the Championship and expected him to go on loan to a League One club; his evaluation was spot on. Derry had been very impressed by Furlong’s attitude and demeanour which reminded me of a story I’d been told by Andy Watkins who had been in Newark with the Under-18s.
The day before the tournament the organisers staged a special gala dinner for all of the teams. The team managers and captains were all expected to make a short speech, but Furlong went further. He led his players around all of the other teams where they personally introduced themselves to their opponents, a remarkably respectful and mature act for an 18-year-old.
Brandon Comley is another from this team who is currently out on loan. Athletic, tenacious and composed in possession, he looks every inch a footballer. After a brief appearance in QPR’s last Premier League match, he is enjoying his second successful spell away from Loftus Road. Keith Curle spoke in glowing terms about him following his time at Carlisle United last season, and he is now currently gaining valuable experience playing week in week out for Grimsby Town. With all due respect to anyone who hails from either Carlisle or Grimsby(!), neither strike me as an even remotely glamourous location, yet Comley positively relishes these opportunities suggesting a great attitude.
Even though Comley has been at QPR since he was nine years old, Osman Kakay, two years his junior, was already at the club when he signed. Nominally a right back, he made his debut for Rangers this season against Rochdale in the EFL Cup in midfield and has regularly been selected in the match-day squad since then. Kakay, who celebrated his seventeenth birthday in New Jersey during the Newark International, was recently rewarded with a new contract extension until the summer of 2018.
Olamide Shodipo probably doesn’t realise quite what a breakthrough he has made and the mantle that is now resting firmly on his shoulders. I believe that Marcus Bean was QPR’s last academy player to make over 50 first team appearances for the club and it has been as good as ten years since he left Loftus Road. Shodipo may still only be a fifth of the way to that target, but the zealous way he attacks fullbacks makes it look easily within his grasp; he richly deserves his recent contract extension.
That just leaves Aaron Lamont - formerly known as Aaron Mitchell. Renowned for his clean striking of a football, scoring five goals in two days in Newark was not at all out of character and, based purely on statistics, he seemed to be the one most likely to succeed. His inability to attract a club higher up the league structure than National League South’s Hampton and Richmond Borough highlights the unpredictability of youth development. Bizarrely, he is playing more games for Kingstonian in the Isthmian League who he is eligible for through the dual registration scheme.
While the QPR team comprising Smith, Furlong, Kakay, Comley, Wise, Kpekawa, Komodikis, Mitchell, Grego-Cox, Butler and Shodipo has had its fifteen minutes of fame, Steve Gallen’s legacy lives on. As fantastic as it was for our Under-18s to win the Newark International, Olamide Shodipo’s elevation to a first team player is the real prize; should one or two of the others join him it will be a stunning achievement considering the years of total neglect our academy suffered and a total vindication of the increased emphasis placed on youth development by Les Ferdinand.
Pictures – Andy Watkins/QPR
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