MIKEY HARRIS has praised the introduction of the newly-formed Merit League 1 division.
Harris’ side brought their Youth Alliance League south west division campaign to a close last weekend with a 3-0 loss at Bristol Rovers.
Despite defeat, though, the Blues finished in fourth place – inside the top five spots needed to compete against the best south-east sides in the inaugural 12-team format.
The Furze Lane outfit will now face fellow south west sides Bournemouth, Plymouth, Swindon and Exeter as well as south-east counterparts Barnet, MK Dons, Peterborough, Luton, Southend, Watford and Stevenage.
The Blues, who begin the Merit League next Saturday (February 7), are further boosted by the news that points earned in the Youth Alliance League do not carry over, meaning all teams start on a level playing surface.
Harris explained: ‘The league has split into two so the top half of our division now plays the top half of the south-east division.
‘There is a draw for who plays who home and away which we are awaiting and then you play all the teams once, either home or away.
‘We start again next Saturday in a new league with zero on the points board.
‘This is the first time this has happened but I’m glad it has.
‘I would be laughing if I had from now until July off!
‘But in all seriousness, it’s a good thing for the boys to have made the top league.’
Harris reflected on his team’s fourth-place finish.
He admitted qualification for the Merit League was always going to be a welcome by-product of the Academy’s philosophy to stretch and develop the players, rather than a predetermined aim for the season.
Members of the under-16s set-up were given regular game time as Harris and boss Mark Kelly sought to give those battling for prized scholarship terms a fair opportunity to impress.
He said: ‘As I have said all along I wasn’t really concerned where we finished.
‘But obviously with regards to stretching the boys in the academy, we want to be in the top league playing against the top academies from the area.
‘That was something that we were hopeful we would be able to put ourselves in a position to achieve.
‘But we would have never put the opportunity and the experiences that we want to give the boys down the pecking order of trying to finish in the Merit League.
‘It’s a nice by-product of how well the boys have done this season, though.
‘There will be some strong teams from the south-east that we will get to play, which again is a different experience for the boys but one which will be really good.’
n Pompey Academy travel to Southampton’s Bath Development Centre for a friendly on Saturday (11.30am).