Under-18s | The season in review

Jack Wilshere leads his under-18s out at Emirates Stadium

The highlight of Jack Wilshere’s first season in charge of our under-18s squad was our run to the final of the FA Youth Cup, but the development of many players under Jack's tutelage has also been a massive plus-point.

Jack's first win as head coach came in September, courtesy of an emphatic 4-1 win over north London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. Given that Wilshere played in countless north London derbies, there was no shadow of a doubt that the team wouldn't be fired up for it and they produced a stunning performance, as a goal from Ethan Nwaneri and a hat-trick from Omari Benjamin brought us victory.

That proved to be a catalyst for more decent performances, including a last-minute Myles Lewis-Skelly goal to draw 4-4 with West Bromwich Albion, as well as wins over Norwich City and then Aston Villa in the Premier League Cup, however we would exit that competition at the group stage. 

Once December came around, the focus shifted towards the FA Youth Cup. The journey started in the third round on a cold, windy, and wet night at Meadow Park as we put Millwall to the sword by winning 6-0 to end 2022 on a high, and the new year also began well with a dramatic 4-3 win over Norwich in league action at London Colney. Two late goals, including a stunning strike from Ismail Oulad M’Hand completed an impressive turnaround in the closing stages. 

The fourth round of the cup saw us make the long trip to face Newcastle United at St James’ Park. A baltic evening in the north-east was an opportunity for us to seek revenge on a side that had already beaten us in the Premier League Cup, and Osman Kamara came off the bench to fire home a late winner to send us into the next round when we would make the short trip to Vicarage Road to face a resurgent Watford.

We made the worst possible start as we were two goals down inside 13 minutes, but after a Wilshere-inspired team talk at half-time, our Young Gunners scored four goals in an 11-minute frenzy to turn the tie on its head and triumph 4-2.

That gave all of our players the chance to fulfil a childhood dream by representing Arsenal at Emirates Stadium, a fitting reward for their fighting spirit. It was also a special moment for our head coach as he would get the chance to coach a side on the touchline for a club he dearly loves.

It would prove to be memorable for all involved. Cambridge United came to N5 and led 2-1 midway through the second half. We got back on terms thanks to an Amario Cozier-Duberry penalty, and then we grabbed a last-gasp winner courtesy of Lino Sousa’s delightful pass to Michal Rosiak, who snuck in to prod home at the back post to get us into the semi-finals.

Confidence was high and that helped produce some standout results in the league, including 4-1 wins over Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion; the latter seeing Benjamin hit his second treble of the campaign - he would ultimately finish top of the under-18s' scoring charts with 14 to his name.

A daunting task was handed to us in the Youth Cup semi-final, as despite once again receiving home advantage, we were up against Manchester City. The Blues were top of the Under-18 Premier League North and had only conceded one goal while scoring 15 on their run to this stage of the competition.

In what was to be another dramatic game, the visitors went down to 10 men after just six minutes when Lakyle Samuel brought down Benjamin to deny him a clear goalscoring opportunity, and Rosiak dispatched the free-kick. The away side eventually drew level and forced us into extra-time, but as we were closing in on penalties, Lewis-Skelly glanced a header into the back of the net to book our spot in the final for the first time since 2018.

The final would be a London derby against the team who ran away with the Under-18s Premier League South, West Ham United. The away side brought a strong contingent of 7,000 fans across the capital, and would return home with the trophy. We started well with Benjamin firing us ahead but the Hammers showed why they went on to win the league by responding well and eventually triumphing as 5-1 victors, albeit with a flattering scoreline.

Although we didn't pick up the silverware, the journey in the competition was special and included memorable comebacks along the way. Given the multiple changes to the squad, going mighty close to winning the FA Youth Cup deserves credit and it sets a great precedent to build on for next season.

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