Five Crystal Palace youngsters who could step up for Project Restart

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26 June 2020
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The much-anticipated return of the Premier League is looming with several new changes. Stands will be vacant, teams can make five substitutions, and perhaps the biggest shock of them all — Roy Hodgson may put his trust in young players.

On the face of it, Crystal Palace should have little to play for. Relegation is implausible, but with seven of their nine remaining opponents sitting above them in the table, so is European football next season. The Eagles look like just another side floating in mid-table obscurity, but the next six weeks could in fact be crucial for the club’s short-term ambitions.

And despite his frustrating lack of confidence in the Academy players, Hodgson may be forced to change his approach with the new fixture schedule and fitness of the league’s oldest squad. It’ll be over 100 days since their last competitive match when Palace travel to AFC Bournemouth, and they’ll be expected to play twice a week in order to complete the campaign. Even the fittest Premier League players could struggle.

Hodgson has never been a man to embed young prospects at will or utilise substitutions, but he may have no other option now. There’s never been a better time to incorporate the up-and-coming talents, but that doesn’t mean the manager won’t have a tough decision to make. While fans may not look too closely into the mid-table battle, there’s still the reward of £1.9 million per position on the line. That will be a huge consideration for Steve Parish and the board, especially with the lost income from playing behind closed doors.

Understandably, supporters will point at Aaron Wan-Bissaka as their justification for wanting to play the key figures of the Under-23 squad. After being forced into the first-team squad due to an injury crisis, the full-back was sold a year later for a record-breaking £50 million — an amount substantially more than a few positions in the final league table could provide. Of course, that’s not guaranteed to happen again. But the club’s senior figures will have to decide if the gamble of two positions and £3.8 million is worth testing out four youth players in the Premier League. Even if they don’t make it in the Palace set-up, the appearances should boost their value to any lower league clubs and could make up for the lost prize money.

They’ll also be used to the new environment far more than the squad’s more senior players. As demonstrated in the Bundesliga, many are struggling to perform with a lack of atmosphere in the stadiums. But the youth players have gone their whole career in such circumstances and may even thrive from playing in the first-team squad without the additional pressure from thousands of glaring eyes from the stands.

Hodgson himself has said he expects to be looking towards some of the younger players. Several have joined in for training sessions, and while not all will be expecting gametime, it’s a promising sign of what’s to come this month. But which prospects are most likely to feature for Crystal Palace this season?

Brandon Pierrick

Brandon Pierrick is likely to be the next big thing to emerge from the club, with the Lambeth-born winger destined for a spot in the first team next season. Palace have looked bare in their attacking positions throughout the campaign and should sporadically include the 18-year-old next year.

Having been with the club since Under-9s, Pierrick was handed his Premier League debut on New Years Day and was involved in the equalising goal against Norwich City. The club’s second-youngest ever Premier League debutant also had a hopeful season with the Under-23s and was the only player to start every game. The first-year scholar even struck three times against Millwall back in November, shortly before signing his first professional contract.

As it stands, Palace have few back-up options for Andros Towsend on Pierrick’s favoured right-hand side. They’ve typically relied on central midfielder Max Meyer when needed, but he’s struggled to impress at Selhurst Park. Wilfried Zaha has been preferred on the left wing and Jordan Ayew’s future appears to lie as a central striker. Pierrick is the natural answer and could be the permanent replacement for a former England international. It would be a huge surprise to not see him as a late introduction in several games before assuming a more serious role next season.

Tyrick Mitchell

Promising defender Tyrick Mitchell is another player who has been knocking on the door for some time, and this could be his opportunity to step up after injury setbacks.

Patrick van Aanholt has been the leading left-back this year with Jairo Riedewald covering in an unnatural position, and there’s no denying the former has become a fan favourite. But while Riedewald impressed when needed — at a time when Mitchell himself was injured — it could be time to give the Under-23 sensation a chance. After all, he could be Palace’s left-back for the next decade and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Van Aanholt himself has praised the 20-year-old, and if transfer rumours are to be believed, Crystal Palace opted against a pursuit for Norwich City’s Jamal Lewis — a player with over 80 appearances in the top two tiers — in favour of handing Mitchell an opportunity. Admittedly, he’s managed just seven appearances this season due to injury so may not feature early against the likes of AFC Bournemouth. But Mitchell is exactly the type of player who could benefit from the additional two substitutes available for the remainder of the season.

Nikola Tavares

Central defender Nikola Tavares is in desperate need of minutes and at 21-years-old should be seeing first-team football next year whether at Selhurst Park or out on loan.

Having joined the Academy in 2017 after the closure of Brentford’s Academy, Tavares has impressed in a position packed with ageing stars. The likes of Scott Dann, James Tomkins and Gary Cahill will be unlikely to cope with the demands of the new schedule, but unfortunately for Tavares, history suggests Hodgson would prefer to play experienced squad members Jairo Riedewald or Cheikhou Kouyate out of position rather than rely on youth.

It’s been a whole year since Tavares was due to be part of South Africa’s plans at the African Cup of Nations, and he missed out solely because of complications over passports and documentation. He’s previously had a taste of international football with Croatia Under-20s and will be desperate to take the next step in his career to gain further international recognition. Crystal Palace should do all they can to make sure that’s in Selhurst.

Nya Kirby

The next few weeks could seal Nya Kirby’s future, whether it’s in South London or elsewhere. It’s nearly three years since former manager Frank De Boer was impressed with the midfielder in pre-season, but the 20-year-old still awaits his professional debut with the Eagles following Hodgson’s arrival. He’s displayed his talents throughout this time in the Under-23s and with a loan spell at Blackpool last season, and it’s clear that Kirby is more than just potential.

It’s perhaps a surprise that he’s stuck around and not pursued regular minutes in the Football League this season, but he has suffered several unfortunate moments. The exit of Under-23 manager Richard Shaw is likely to have hampered his development, and in most Premier League clubs he could have expected a handful of cameo appearances by now.

The Under-17 World Cup winner has been named as an unused substitute three times by Hodgson, and given the Premier League’s updated rules regarding substitutions, Kirby should expect some minutes and add some well-needed flair to the middle of the park. He even operated on the left-hand side in the latter stages of his loan spell with the Tangerines and can provide some useful cover.

Kirby has two years left on his current deal, but if he remains out-of-favour with Hodgson in the closing weeks of the campaign, he may start to look elsewhere rather than spend another season sat in the Under-23s.

Jadan Raymond

Jadan Raymond shouldn’t be included on this list, but may feature as a drastic measure from the Palace hierarchy. The highly-regarded 16-year-old has been offered a two-year scholarship with a professional contract to come into effect midway through, but his eyes have been turned by interest from abroad.

His current deal is set to expire at the end of the month and early reports from Portugal suggest a deal is close with Vitoria Guimaraes, while Benfica and Valencia are also believed to be tracking the midfielder. In one last attempt to keep the England youth international at Selhurst Park, the promise of gameplay in the Premier League may be enough to entertain him.

As a box-to-box midfielder, the youngster can compete anywhere across the midfield and is comfortable with the ball at his feet. He’s been an integral part of the Palace youth teams to date and they’ll be desperate to keep a player of his calibre around with the Academy developments well underway. He’s by no means Premier League standard just yet, but an appearance would represent far more than just a matchday impact.