It was a daunting task for the current year 10 team to not only emulate their own success from last year, winning the Liverpool and Merseyside cup, whilst also reaching the national final but also setting out to defend the U15 national title won by the year above last year!
With this huge task set out before them the current U15 team knew they had a difficult season ahead of them. They knew the aim; to progress through 9 rounds against opponents from all over the north and central England.
After the progressing through the early rounds, the team would face a series of difficult tests. In round 6 we hosted a very good Manchester Creative Academy. After initial dominance and an early goal from Tom Costello it looked like we would go on to take a significant advantage before half time. Unfortunately, the Manchester school immediately raised their game after they conceded. The tide quickly turned in favour of the visitors, quite deservedly equalising not long after our goal. A feature of the U15 team this year has been their resoluteness, discipline and determination not to capitulate under pressure. After weathering the Manchester storm without conceding further, SFX managed to take the lead once again just before half time with Morgan Kinsella adding a headed goal. The score would not change in the second half despite good chances presenting themselves for both teams. An excellent save from Lewis Campbell in the dying seconds ensured that it was SFX who progressed into round 7.
Round 7 presented an extremely difficult prospect, hosting the regular ESFA finalists, Thomas Telford School. Again, similar to the previous round, SFX started in blistering fashion. The Thomas Telford defence struggled to cope with the marauding runs of Fraser Garvey from right back, with that side presenting a flurry of early chances. This early dominance led directly to the first goal, with Tom Costello finishing expertly in the bottom corner after a Fraser Garvey cross. The tide of the first half would change not long after however, when a poor challenge from one of the Telford players forced Fraser Garvey off with injury; a tackle that the Telford player was quite rightly booked for. Missing Fraser’s powerful running, Telford started to dominate the ball. With SFX now starting to concede territory, the pressure eventually told and Telford got the deserved rewards just before the first half. In a fiercely contested second half, it was Tom Costello that again made the difference. An incisive pass from Harry Hatton, put Tom in on goal in the inside left position. With much still left to do, Tom was able to hold off the Thomas Telford defenders and fire the ball into the bottom corner. SFX managed to stay on top for most of the second half but we were unable to get that crucial third goal to seal the tie. With ten minutes remaining the extremely threatening Telford centre forward finally managed to evade our diligent defenders and gain the equalizer. Most teams would have imploded at this stage but with an inner determination that refuses to give up, we managed to overcome this heartbreak to attack Telford one last time. With the visitors pushing for the win themselves, it was SFX who would have the final say in the tie. After a lung busting run off the ball from Matthew Grivosti, Morgan Kinsella was able to find the SFX midfielder in the Telford box. With the Telford keeper quickly running out to close off all the angles, Matthew was able to expertly and delicately chip the ball over the Telford keeper and into the net. The scenes of mass delirium and celebration were a sight to behold and just showed what this competition meant to all the players. With the final whistle sounding not long after, SFX were once again dreaming of the final.
Round 8 was a difficult home tie against the physically strong, Neme Park Academy from Peterborough. SFX were in control of the game from the outset but a combination of a poor playing surface and desperate defending meant that chances were hard to come by. The game was however, settled with a moment of genius. The Neme Park defenders were a little too aggressive in their attempts to retrieve the ball of Tom Costello, with the referee correctly awarding a free kick, 20 yards from goal. From this free kick, Tom Costello was able to bend and dip the ball into the left hand corner of the Neme net.
The semi final would be a difficult prospect, travelling the long distance up to South Shields FC to play, Monkwearmouth Academy from Sunderland. From early on, it was clear that we would be able to pass and move the ball on the excellent surface at South Shields. What was also clear however, was how dangerous the hosts were from set pieces and the enormous kicks from their goalkeeper. Despite SFX dominating possession but without really creating any clear chances, it was Monkwearmouth who would strike first. Another accurate, long pass ended up directly on our penalty spot. After a goalmouth scramble, the ball somehow managed to present itself to the Monkwearmouth centre forward who tapped in from close range. With ten minutes to go before half time, this was a difficult pill to swallow. The next ten minutes would be relentless ariel pressure from Monkwearmouth. The hosts were certainly on the front foot at this stage and it would take an outstanding defensive display from the SFX central defenders, Morgan Kinsella and Josh Hobbs to ensure that we would go into half time just 1-0 down! The conscientious and diligent way, these two defenders concentrated, communicated and attacked every ariel ball was exemplary. Half time was extremely important for myself and Mr Kelly. Ensuring the players remained calm, whilst also being progressive in their passing and forward running was the message. The players expertly put this into action and started to look extremely threatening from the start of the second half. Tom Costello was able to capitalize on a moment’s hesitation between the Monkwearmouth defender and their keeper to cleverly head the ball over their heads and into the net to equalize. SFX were now back into the tie and firmly on the front foot. The second would come quickly and again it was Tom Costello who got the goal. Driving with the ball at the Monkwearmouth right back and central defender, Tom managed to jink himself into a small pocket of space in the inside left position of the box. A thunderbolt strike soon followed that rocketed past the goalkeeper and into the roof of the Monkwearmouth goal. We were keen to maintain the pressure to capitalize on this momentum. A superb long range strike from James Devonport and a break away goal from the returning Joseph Wright, meant that the game was effectively over with ten minutes left to play. Despite a late flurry of corners from the hosts, that were again expertly defended by the two SFX central defenders, it would be SFX that once again would challenge for the national title!
To go eighteen rounds of national cup knockout football across two years, knowing that any slip up eliminates you from the competition is more than outstanding, it is truly exceptional! We know we didn’t do ourselves justice last year at Goodison Park and to have the opportunity to right that wrong and to challenge for the national crown again, whilst also aiming to return the trophy back to SFX that was so valiently won by the year above last year is all the motivation the players need! Whatever the outcome on the 22nd May, be it positive or negative, the players are already winners and they will remember this incredible journey for the rest of their lives!