Nya Kirby starred but was unable to prevent Palace’s under-18 side exiting the FA Youth Cup at the hands of their Newcastle United counterparts.
The performance of the 17-year-old seemed almost effortless at times. Kirby’s guile on the ball, movement and range of passing made him comfortably the best player on the pitch, akin in a way to Yohan Cabaye but not completely similar. It is clear to see why he was previously highly rated at Tottenham Hotspur and was part of the England under-17 squad that won the World Cup last year.
Kirby gave the Eagles the lead after just eleven minutes in this 3-2 defeat, confidently converting a penalty that had been won by Joseph Hungbo who drove into the penalty area but the ball was handled by Lewis Cass as the Magpies defender attempted a slide tackle. Kirby calmly rolled the ball to the goalkeeper’s left.
If there was any minor fault to be highlighted from Kirby’s game, it would be that his set-piece delivery was poor. The Eagles had several free-kicks in good positions but neither Kirby nor Hungbo could either pick out a team-mate or produce a good effort on goal from any of them.
Palace were very strong defensively, something that has also been an improvement of the first team in recent months. The under-18s are clearly well drilled and their organisation is typical of their manager, former first team defender and club captain Paddy McCarthy. Centre-back Kyle Lynch was excellent – tackling well and matching the physicality of Newcastle’s big target man.
The young Eagles were generally dominant for the first thirty minutes and worked hard both on and off the ball, led from the front by captain James Daly. However, Newcastle grew into the game and equalised nine minutes before the break when Adam Wilson surged into the penalty area and powerfully fired under Northern Ireland youth international, Ollie Webber.
Palace’s main weakness was that they lacked conviction in the final third. Kirby and Andrew Demby often did well to move the ball forward but plenty of chances were wasted by the front four. Daly, not usually a striker, worked hard and battled well against two physical centre-backs but lacked a clinical edge, summed up when he failed to convert from six yards after meeting Lynch’s inviting cut-back. The talented Brandon Aveiro, playing in the number ten role, also struggled against the physically superior Magpies.
The second half lacked key moments with both sides too cautious, seemingly unwilling to take a risk. Neither goalkeeper was forced into anything more than routine saves and some naivety crept into performances, with sloppy passes and clearances a common theme as the half dragged on.
But the game eventually rekindled its earlier spark as it edged towards its conclusion. With six minutes left to play, Hungbo finally produced a good cross which was only partially cleared by Newcastle, allowing right-back Tariq Ossai to thump home from twelve yards. Palace appeared to have won the game, bound for their first fifth round tie in eight years, as they celebrated in front of the impressive crowd of 1,774 – made up of supporters from both clubs, including a small group from the Homesdale Fanatics who produced a good atmosphere.
Except it appeared the celebrations were premature. Newcastle equalised deep into added-time when Elias Sorensen hooked the ball into Webber’s net to set up an additional thirty minutes. It was gutting for Palace who had matched their Category One opponents for the full ninety minutes.
Amusingly, a handful of spectators assumed the game was headed for a replay as they made their way to Selhurst’s exits upon the final whistle, although those who left the ground ceased to miss too much. Newcastle winger Deese Kasinga had caused Palace problems but he appeared to go down very easily in the penalty area under Lynch’s challenge, but the referee insisted on pointing to the spot – much to the disbelief of McCarthy and his players.
Kelland Watts failed to bow to the pressure of the HF’s jeers as he stepped up to take the resulting penalty, sending Webber the wrong way in front of the Holmesdale Road end.
Palace appeared bereft of energy as extra-time ticked over, their only chance to equalise came when Kirby could only find the side-netting from a 25-yard free-kick. A change in shape from the 4-4-1-1 that they started with to their more familiar back three failed to shift the momentum Palace’s way. Instead, it seemed likelier that Newcastle would add a fourth rather than Palace would find an equaliser – the Magpies had two more good chances and forced Webber into one very good save.
Kirby, though, did himself no harm in his attempts to become the latest first team debutant from the academy. Many youngsters have found it tough to break through since promotion due to the Premier League’s difficulty and the deemed high-risk of throwing a youngster into the first team. Only Frank de Boer’s brief tenure offered the slightest hope that there is a genuine pathway for youngsters into the Eagles’ first team, with Levi Lumeka and Jason Lokilo impressing under the Dutchman.
Current first team boss Roy Hodgson seems keen on Kirby, claiming he would keep a close eye on the youngster following his England exploits, and the midfielder is the likeliest to become the first academy player to be a first team regular since Wilfried Zaha.