The 2018-19 season proved to be a challenging one of transition and mixed fortunes for Swansea City Under-23s.
The likes of Oli McBurnie, Daniel James, George Byers and Joe Rodon had played instrumental roles for the under-23s the previous year as they recorded a hugely impressive fourth-place finish in Premier League 2, as well as reaching a second consecutive Premier League Cup final.
Their subsequent promotions to the first team meant that several first-year pros were handed the task of trying to fill their shoes.
Nevertheless, this opened the door for no fewer than 17 players to make their debuts for the development side over the course of the season under Gary Richards and Cameron Toshack – including second-year scholars Mason Jones-Thomas, Daniel Williams and Cameron Evans, as well as 16-year-old defenders Jacob Jones and Tivonge Rushesha.
The under-23s were unable to preserve their two-year stay in Premier League 2 Division One – the top flight of development football – but they enjoyed significant success in the cup competitions.
First, they beat League One sides AFC Wimbledon and Charlton Athletic on the way to qualifying for the Checkatrade Trophy knockout stages for a third year running, as well as reaching a third consecutive Premier League Cup semi-final.
There were also first-team debuts for Cian Harries, Brandon Cooper, Tyler Reid and Liam Cullen in August’s Carabao Cup showdown with Crystal Palace.
Meanwhile, in his first year as the development side’s leading striker, Cullen managed an impressive 10 goals in Premier League 2; a tally only bettered by Brighton’s Aaron Connolly.
Despite encouraging draws against Derby, Everton and Arsenal, the Swans had to wait until November for their first league victory – doing so courtesy of a thumping 4-1 rout of Tottenham Hotspur, in which Cullen scored twice.
The striker also bagged a brace in another memorable away day at title-chasing Derby two months later, as the Swans ran out commanding 5-1 winners.
By this time, they had already been eliminated from the Premier League International Cup. However, the youngsters gave a very impressive account of themselves in the Checkatrade Trophy.
After a young and inexperienced side were beaten 5-0 at Stevenage, the Swans responded with Aaron Lewis’ late strike earning 1-0 win at Wimbledon before a long-range effort from Adnan Maric was enough to see off Charlton and secure top spot in Group G.
They also gave Bristol Rovers a scare in the second round at the Liberty Stadium, before eventually succumbing to a narrow 2-1 defeat.
Cullen found the net again as the Swans beat Chelsea 2-0 in mid-February for only their third league win of the campaign. But there was to be no fairytale finish on that front as, despite encouraging draws with Arsenal and Brighton, a run of four games without a win culminated in their relegation from the top flight of development football.
Although, the young Swans were still able to maintain their impressive record in the Premier League Cup.
They responded brilliantly from defeat at Oxford in their opening match; topping Group E ahead of Wolves, before beating Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest in the knockout stages to set up a semi-final showdown with Everton at the Liberty.
Despite injuries forcing them into first-half substitutions, the Swans produced a spirited performance against the newly crowned league champions, who boasted players with widespread first-team experience, before eventually succumbing to a 2-0 defeat.
A generally difficult season for the under-23s but, with a clear pathway for our youngsters, it was certainly one with plenty of positives for them to build on next year, as they do battle in Premier League 2 Division Two and aim to retain their top-flight status at the first time of asking.