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Utilita Kids & Girls Cup

New Kids on the Block

15 December 2022

Over the years, the Utilita Kids and Girls Cup has been responsible for giving the next generation a once in a lifetime opportunity to grace the National Stadium.

For some former winners, including Premier League star Will Hughes, it gave them the taste for more.

Crystal Palace midfielder Hughes came through the ranks at Derby County, making his professional debut in October 2011, but the 27-year-old had been prepared for the big stage long before he announced himself for the Rams.

In May 2006, as Leeds United and Watford geared up to battle it out for a place in the top flight, Hughes was ready to step out onto the turf at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff ahead of the 2006 Championship Play-Off Final.

“The Final itself, I can remember going the day before and all of our families were there, and we had a nice meal,” he recalls. “On the day, I remember being on the coach and everyone was excited. Thankfully, we came out victorious in the end.”

Will Hughes 4.jpg

As the crowd filtered in, there were over 60,000 fans in attendance that day as the Hornets cruised to a 3-0 victory and a proportion of the attendance watched Hughes and his team-mates – a side which also featured former Burton Albion man Matt Palmer – in action, as the Rams secured their own 4-0 win over Leeds in the Final.

“We were playing before the Final, but you get the buzz of the atmosphere of the game itself,” Hughes explains. “There were a lot of people milling about. It was the Millennium Stadium, and you see how big it is and the aspirations you have to want to go on and achieve that.

“My biggest learning curve playing for Derby at such a young age in the EFL was that I had to grow up quickly. At that age, you’re not really playing in stadiums, so it gave me a good experience to go on and achieve that in the EFL itself.

“You never know who’s watching, especially on a day like that when the Play-Off Final was quite soon after. It could put people on the map.”

Another notable name to feature in the competition is Bayern Munich and Germany star Jamal Musiala, who turned out for Brentford in the 2013 Final before claiming a second successive victory with AFC Wimbledon in the 2014 Final, scoring an excellent first-half hat-trick in a 7-1 victory.

Jamal Musiala 1.jpg

The following year, the competition would discover Blackburn Rovers talent Adam Wharton, who made his bow for the Lancashire side earlier this season. At 18 years of age, the midfielder can already profess to lifting a trophy under the arch – not bad going!

But it was a sprint for the youngster to make it to Wembley Stadium in time to play his part in the triumph.

“It’s a funny story, actually,” he says. “We were playing on a Saturday or Sunday and I was on tour with Blackburn at the time in Holland. We were flying back to Manchester the night before, so I wouldn’t have been able to make it probably.

“Thankfully, one of the coaches said he’d fly to London with me on a separate flight from Holland, so I was able to get to the hotel late that night and play. It was a close call, but we got there!”

Wharton, along with his school friends, relished the opportunity to take a few hours out of their studies to play in the tournament at Blackburn’s Community Trust’s sports centre, the BRIC, just a stone’s throw from Ewood Park.

“It was my whole life back in the day and it still is,” he continues. “It’s great to be able to play and enjoy yourself, especially as a kid.

“We played in the tournament every year with a bunch of schools from Blackburn. When you win that, you go onto another tournament where you represent Blackburn. We went to Bolton Academy for the next tournament, where we played other Clubs from the Championship at the time with schools representing them, such as Wigan and others.

“We won that and went to the Final, where we played at Wembley against a team representing Bournemouth before the 2015 Play-Off Final on the pitch. We won on penalties 3-2 and then got to watch the Play-Off Final.”

Adam Wharton 9.jpg

In August, the teenager made his Rovers debut in the Carabao Cup before making his league entrance later that month, notching his first senior goal for the Club in October, but Wharton’s experience of playing in the Kids Cup Final is still one that will take some topping.

“It was one of the best moments of my life at the time,” he adds. “I’ll never forget the day. It was a great moment and something I look back on, for sure. Those are the moments that stick with you, no matter what you go on to achieve in your career.

“The more kids that can experience them moments, the better.”

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