A new era for the Cymru MU17 squad begins on Friday as they travel to Poland to compete at the 2023 Syrenka Cup in preparation for the UEFA qualifiers later this year.
“I’m excited for the week ahead,” explained manager Craig Knight to FAW.cymru. “There has been a lot of planning and we’re looking forward to taking part in this competition. The opportunity to play against three different national associations is a real bonus, as we like to give our players the opportunity to test themselves against different teams in different environments, so it all adds to the learning experience of our pathway.”
Cymru will open the tournament against the hosts on Sunday in Grodzisk Mazowiecki. They will then face Romania on Tuesday, 22 August in Warsaw and Georgia two days later at the same venue. “With this age group it’s something of a middle ground,” Knight added. “You’re going from an age where everything is primarily about development without such an emphasis on results. You have to find a balance, and we want to use this tournament to take a look at different players, work with them on and off the pitch, and see who is ready to represent us in Israel next October.”
Back in May, Knight became the first Cymru intermediate team manager since 1981 to lead a side to a major tournament finals as the MU17 squad competed in Hungary. Although the side were eliminated at the group stage, their participation at the tournament ended with an impressive 3-0 win over Poland. “I’m desperately hungry to experience it again,” said Knight. “It was another level in terms of the preparation and the media spotlight on the players and ourselves. It was a pleasure to be around it and to be the first team to do it in over 40 years reinforces what we actually achieved.
“There was a lot to learn from it and a lot of reflection,” he added. “We’ve just completed a really good review that’s going to be beneficial to our age group and other age groups when they qualify for major tournaments in the future. It’s important to understand that this age group are in a transitional period of the pathway. We’ve got a great support staff and we do a lot of work on integration as some of the boys are in different stages of their development and experience, and they all have different characters and personalities.”
Wolverhampton Wanderers defender Brayden Clarke played every minute of all three games in Hungary, while Ronan Kpakio was involved in the qualifying campaign. Otherwise, this is a completely new squad for Knight, and he is excited to see how his players deal with everything that comes their way in Poland next week. “There’s an acceptance that not everything will go smoothly on the pitch,” he explained. “But it’s how we deal with those moments individually and collectively so that we’re better prepared for October. We give players a lot of autonomy as they are the one’s who have to make decisions in real time. We will support them, but they have to take ownership of situations as well to become successful.
“In terms of my role, I’m very fortunate and privileged to have the opportunity to work with these players from so many different backgrounds and clubs, you get to meet so many different people. It’s really rewarding in that respect. We’ll be travelling to Poland, staying in hotels, passing through airports etc, and when you’re carrying the badge you have to be respectful and humble, and we do a lot of work on that from an early age. We want to make this group really tight-knit.”
Meanwhile, the alignment between the intermediate teams and the senior squad has ensured that there is an exciting future ahead for Cymru. “It’s about getting the balance right between cap accumulation and those experiences around the senior squad,” Knight added. “What we have got that’s quite unique in Wales is that we will train alongside the senior squad when we are on camp together, and the connection between the players is a real motivation to stay in our system when they see the path that is open for them.”
Cymru MU17: Logan STRETCH (Sheffield Wednesday), Luis LINES (Coventry City), Ronan KPAKIO (Cardiff City), Billy CLARKE (Swansea City), Brayden CLARKE (Wolves), Iestyn JONES (Swansea City), Charlie WALKER-SMITH (Crystal Palace), Rhys MORRISH (West Brom), Bruce LEEMING (Blackburn Rovers), Jac THOMAS (Cardiff City), Mackenzie BRADBURY (Wolves), Carlie STEVENS (AFC Bournemouth), Luis GARDNER (Everton), Zak KING-PHILLIPS (Bristol City), Josh SALMON (AFC Bournemouth), Oliver BOSTOCK (West Brom), Elliot MYLES (Norwich City), Cruz ALLEN (Derby County), Louis GRIFFITHS (Oxford United), Josh GENTLES (Rangers), Adam BRETT (Brighton & Hove Albion), Zac JAGIELKA (Liverpool).