Tuesday's 1-0 win over Dundee United saw John Potter's Pars Under 20s team record their 7th victory in 14 SPFL Development League games this season. The team are in 7th place in the 17-team division, and of the 10 teams below them, 8 are Premiership clubs. The transformation from last season, when Dunfermline finished last in the division, is remarkable and is due to several factors.
Last season's Under 20s were a very young group of players, mostly aged under 18 and so giving away 2, 3 and sometimes almost 4 full years to their opponents. Physically the team was under-developed, and the progress made on that front in 12 months has seen players such as Johnny Galloway, Reece Duncan (pictured, left) and Stuart Morrison, who all played in the 2015/16 season, now look and play more like young men instead of boys. Centre-half Morrison has been called up twice in recent weeks to the Scotland Under 19 squad, and Galloway - the Pars Under 20s regular team captain - cannot be far away from joining his team mate in the international squad.
New players have also been added to the squad in 2016, some this season and others towards the end of last term. Scott Lochhead, Euan Spark and Evan Horne joined from Dundee United and Ciaran Lafferty from Celtic. Lochhead has been one of the team's best performers this season and was rewarded with an extended contract this week, with his original deal due to end in January. He made his first team debut as a substitute in the Betfred Cup game against his former team Dundee United in July.
Galloway (pictured, above) and Spark have been first team substitutes in a handful of games in recent weeks, although are yet to play. Young strikers Callum Smith and James Thomas also made brief first team sub appearances earlier this season, while goalkeeper Cammy Gill was on the bench, deputising for David Hutton, during the period when Sean Murdoch was injured. The first Under 20s player to start a first team game this season was Conner Duthie (pictured, below), who also made 3 first team appearances last season, after signing for Dunfermline in March. Duthie has been converted from a striker/winger to a left-back this season, and his appearance at Buckie Thistle, playing the full 90 minutes, was his first performance in the senior team at full-back.
The Under 20s play an attractive brand of football, based on a passing game, utilising the skills of Galloway, Lochhead and Duthie, in addition to other players such as Robbie Crawford and Brandon Luke. Smith has taken on the role of the team's main striker - with James Thomas leaving the club earlier this month, only Smith and the currently injured Lafferty are recognised strikers for the Under 20s.
At times, John Potter has brought in first team squad players into the Under 20s team for league games - rules allow up to 5 overage players in Development League games. The inclusion of older players has not always been for the betterment of the team. The 4-0 defeat against Motherwell this season saw the maximum 5 over-age players selected from the first team squad, most of whom had a poor game, and on that occasion had a negative impact on the team's natural game. In contrast, the recent wins over Rangers and Dundee United saw only 1 overage player in the team for each game. In the Scottish Youth Cup, no over-age players are allowed, and the Pars team have progressed to the fourth round, where they travel to face Ayr United on Sunday 4 December.
The team's home fixtures are now being played at Kelty Hearts' New Central Park ground. Although the afternoon weekday kick-offs will make it difficult for some supporters to attend, if you to get the chance it is well worth going to watch the young team. Having been at 14 of the team's games this season (league, cup and friendlies), I have often enjoyed them more than first team matches, certainly from a purely football standpoint. Potter is proving to be an excellent coach of young players, and can be heard talking them through games in a positive manner which is reflected in his team's performances.
All photos in this article by Pars Review.