Everton Under-18s coach Paul Tait says he feels immensely proud of his squad following the conclusion of their 2021/22 campaign.
Tait has worked with a younger group of players in comparison to previous seasons and paid tribute to their progression and maturity on and off the field.
“What has impressed me most is how our first-year scholars have grown up and developed,” Tait told evertonfc.com.
“It’s been really tough for them because they’ve spent two years with the difficulties of COVID. We’re almost, in a way, playing catch up with them. To have that added hurdle [the pandemic] for them, and the fact they haven’t had any second-year scholars to lead the way and set the standards, shows how difficult a start it has been for them.
“They’re learning what it’s like to be full-time footballers and they found that transition difficult, but recently I’ve been really proud with the attitude and dedication that they have shown.
“I think the real positive from this season would be the progression of the Under-16s group into the Under-18s.
“I’ve never had so many Under-16s players competing in the Under-18s league for us.
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“We have had around five or six who have made the jump up and it will really accelerate their development moving into the scholarship year for them.”
Highlights from the young Blues' season were victories over Fulham and Sheffield United at Goodison Park in the FA Youth Cup.
While their run ended in defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford, Tait believes the experience of playing high-stakes matches in iconic stadiums will serve his young players well.
“Looking back at the Youth Cup, I thought our performances at Goodison were very good,” he added.
“The style of play and performances were excellent, and the results followed that.
“It was great to get some of the second-year scholars back for a few games and get that group of players back together. I thought that was a real positive.”
Everton finished 10th in the U18 Premier League (North) and, while Tait admitted there is work to be done to improve on their performances next season, he underlined his admiration for his players' professionalism and desire to learn.
“We know we could have done better in the league, but this is a young team and they’re coming up against opponents with a lot of second-year scholars,” Tait expressed.
“That’s really tough when you’re an Under-16s player or a first-year scholar, but the fight, application and character that they have had to show in those games will stand them in good stead.”
Tait also reflected on his personal development over the campaign.
“I’ve learned a lot about supporting the lads away from football,” he said.
“It hasn’t just been about how good of a technical and tactical coach I am; it’s been more about the soft skills – communicating with the boys and being there for them.
“A lot of these players are making their first steps into full-time football, and it hasn’t been easy for some of them.
“I’m quite proud of the way that we have supported them. It hasn’t just been me, it’s the tremendous support network that we have in the Academy.
“The physical and psychological challenges that the players go through in their first six months as professionals are huge, but you see them come out stronger on the other side.”
On the immediate priority for his young players after a busy 2021/22 campaign, Tait added: "There may be some eyes on these players as they progress into the higher age groups next season but now, they deserve a break.
“It’s important they go away, refresh, let their bodies recover and spend some time with their families so that they’re raring to go for pre-season come July.”