YOU have probably never heard of the John Madejski Academy, but it played a part in the careers of two of Oxford United’s brightest young stars of recent years.

Tonight, youngsters from the school’s football performance programme face the U’s Under 18s in the FA Youth Cup second round, playing as partner club Reading City.

JMA’s reputation for developing prospects has fostered links with several professional clubs, including United.

“It’s probably the worst draw we could have had,” admits director of football performance Michael Butcher.

“Some of the boys know each other, so we won’t have that surprise factor.

“I’m sure there have already been a few text messages flying about.”

Dozens of JMA graduates have joined professional clubs, including a duo United fans know very well.

Jack Stevens and Shandon Baptiste both joined the school aged 16, as did ex-U’s goalkeeper Manny Agboola.

All three spent a year at JMA before moving to United, with Stevens and Baptiste going on to excel.

Butcher has worked at the school since it opened in 2008 and recalled his first sighting of the goalkeeper.

He said: “I went to watch a trial game at Aldershot towards the end of the Under 16s season.

“I spoke to his parents, they came in to have a look around and felt it was the best place for him to progress academically and with his football.

“If I hadn’t gone to the game that would never have happened, but that’s football I suppose.”

Oxford Mail: Jack Stevens at the final whistle   - Pic by : Richard Parkes.

Jack Stevens Picture: Richard Parkes

Stevens impressed on the pitch and in the classroom.

Butcher added: “With a goalkeeper it’s always exciting, because you don’t know where they could finish.

“He was an exceptionally hard-working student, he travelled in from Newbury way every day, would be in the gym early and studying after school.

“We recognised he was ready for an opportunity so went for a trial at Oxford. I then got a call from Leon (Blackmore-Such, now first-team coach) saying they liked him.”

Baptiste’s route to JMA was slightly different to Stevens, having previously been released by Sky Bet Championship club Reading.

It meant Butcher and his colleagues were aware of the midfielder, but there were some similarities.

Oxford Mail:

Shandon Baptiste Picture: David Fleming

He said: “He’s another one that was quite slight and small, but was always a good technician.

“Working with him day-in, day-out you could soon see his quality and potential.

“He went in with the 18s at Oxford and it wasn’t long before Leon called to say he had an opportunity.”

Both players waited for their first-team chance and took it, with Stevens now United’s No 1 goalkeeper and Baptiste playing in the Premier League with Brentford.

And Butcher reckons they have benefitted from a recent change in approach to young players.

He added: “The system has probably failed kids aged 16 to 21.

“We’re now reaping the rewards of clubs being inclined to keep players longer.

"Before, it was very much a decision was made at the age of 16.

“Whereas a Shandon or Jack you would keep for an extra two or three years because they’ve go the potential to grow.

“If you look at when they broke into the first team at Oxford, it’s when they’d had that time.”

Aged 23, Baptiste is the same school year as Agboola and the pair were offered professional contracts by United at the same time in May 2017.

Oxford Mail: Manny Agboola in action for North Leigh Picture: Ric Mellis

Manny Agboola Picture: Ric Mellis

Agboola had spells at Banbury United and North Leigh, among others, but did not make a first-team appearance and is now with Isthmian Premier Division side Leatherhead.

But Butcher reveals the stopper made quite an entrance at JMA.

He said: “At the age of 16 he was probably better than Jack.

“He came from London, turned up with a cap and rucksack on and was quiet and unassuming.

“We went into a finishing drill and I don’t think he conceded a goal.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody better in a full-time environment here.

“But he was probably closer to his potential at 16 or 17.”

Butcher is looking forward to tonight’s game, with Reading already progressing further than ever before in the competition.

“We recognise we’re massive underdogs and our discussions have been about making it as hard as we can for Oxford,” he said.

“It’s an achievement to get to this stage.

"I just want the boys to show what they can do against a pro club.”