Cleworth Shines at Solihull

We were hoping for a dramatic start to the season, and we weren’t let down. Eye-catching new signings made spectacular debuts and Phil Parkinson started his managerial reign by getting a result away to difficult opposition. Yet it was an unexpected performance by a youngster that stole the show.

That’s not to diminish all those debutants. Paul Mullin looked too good for our division, which frankly is exactly what I expected; Jake Hyde’s ability to hold the ball up was an integral part of our ability to control the game; Aaron Hayden was imperious at the back; and David Jones scored the greatest goal of all time.

Yet Max Cleworth was the player whose performance was most pleasing.

Nobody really expected Cleworth to be starting at Solihull. We clearly had issues at the back coming into the match, through a combination of injuries and the squad not being complete yet. However, this was a fixture which you wouldn’t expect a youngster to be pitched into.

The other options didn’t really feel right though. We started our final pre-season game with a back three of Hayden, Jones and Jamie Reckord, and it didn’t look right. Both Jones and Reckord are more comfortable in other positions, and clearly Parkinson came to the conclusion that he’d rather have a specialist at the back to start the season.

That was a natural inclination considering the opposition. Solihull boasted a dangerous pair of strikers last season, including the 6’ 9” target man Kyle Hudlin, and added two more proven goalscorers over the Summer.

The question was: is the specialist centre back ready yet?

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Cleworth has looked very impressive in pre-season, playing on the left side of a back three. Solid defensively, he fitted into our system nicely when he carried the ball forwards and chipped in with an outrageous assist at Tamworth, dancing through their defence like Kylian Mbappé!

It was no surprise that he looked good in the friendlies though, because he’s been impressive whenever he’s been given a chance.  Our strange sojourn in the Tunnock Caramel Scottish Cup thingy two seasons ago gave him a chance to make an impact in the first team just 29 days after his 17th birthday, and he stood out as we made our way through to a match at Ibrox.

Last season he played one game for us, against Leamington in the FA Trophy, and was our best player. He then earned rave reviews on loan at Caernarfon.

He’s the fourteenth-youngest player in our history, making his debut when he was 3 days older than Phil Hardy was. If he can have a similar career, we’ll all be very happy!

Was he ready, with just 5 first team games under his belt, to make his league debut at such a difficult venue? The answer was resounding.

Selected in the middle of the three, presumably to offer him some protection, he took about ten minutes to settle and then set about his task with assurance. Unflappable in the box, he slotted in seamlessly.

Parkinson’s bravery will, potentially, be rewarded in many ways. Firstly, Cleworth’s performance has potentially added a useful member to his squad when he might have looked to give him experience out on loan.

Secondly, Parkinson’s faith in Cleworth sends a clear message to other young players coming through the club: one he was careful to articulate post-match. We might be stocking up with spectacular signings, but Parkinson is not scared of giving a chance to youth if they deserve it.

So many promising youngsters have left us in recent years because our budget restrictions meant decisions had to be made on their futures before they could fully develop Hopefully our changed circumstances and Parkinson’s willingness to give youth a chance marks a turning point for Dan Nolan’s proteges.

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