There is no greater test for an aspiring young professional at a Premier League club than to visit a League Two club at their ground on a blustery autumnal Tuesday night. It’s a reality check. Instead of playing against other teenagers, the Under 21s were pitted against seasoned professionals. The English Football League Trophy has rules designed to maintain the integrity of the competition by insisting that Football League teams play a minimum of 5 players that featured in their last League game. Doncaster did just that and for good measure brought on another 2 of Saturday’s starters in the second half.
By contrast, Everton had a starting X1 where not a single player has ever played a competitive minute for Everton’s first team. 23 year old goalkeeper Billy Crellin, who at least has some pre-Everton Football League experience with Fleetwood and Bolton and 21 year old Mackenzie Hunt, team captain for the night, provided the “experience”. With the exception of 20 year old Katia Kouyate and 21 year old reserve goalkeeper Jack Barrett, the rest of the squad were all teenagers.
All that said, Paul Tait’s young men put up a good fight and for the last 15 minutes of the first half were the better team without being able to lay a serious glove on the League Two outfit. There was quite a mismatch physically between the two sides, Doncaster had quite a height advantage overall and of course their older players were physically stronger in challenges.
The first half was goalless although the Toffees goal-frame was hit 3 times and Crellin had to be decisive in his command of the 6 yard box as Doncaster sought to exploit the physical disparity between the two sides. During the Blues’ best spell, we saw a great Roman Dixon burst into the penalty area and his cross was met but headed over the bar by the still-climbing Halid Djankpata. A great run by Kouyate, playing on the right rather than his usual left wing berth, saw him beat several men and get a corner from his shot. Shortly afterwards, the same player created space cleverly to curl a left-footed goalbound drive only to see a good defensive header spoil what would have been a classy strike.
The second half saw Doncaster take more control and as Paul Tait made substitutions to protect Eli Campbell and Luke Butterfield, both returning from lengthy injury, the screw began to turn. In the 57th minute Marsh, somewhat fortuitously, put Doncaster ahead after a pass kindly deflected off Everton’s 17 year old centre back Brad Moonan into his path. 0-1.
In the 12 or 13 minutes after that first goal, five 17 year olds had entered the fray and, no disrespect to them, it was increasingly “men against boys”. The second goal came 9 minutes from the end as Biggins, on the edge of the area, sold a great dummy to engineer space for his right footed drive which left Crellin helpless. 0-2.
Special mention for Toffees’ skipper on the night, Hunt, who was outstanding. He’s spent time with the seniors this season and it showed in his composure under pressure. He even ended the game in the unusual position of centre back rather than his usual left back or left wing.
The youngsters should not be too downhearted about the performance as physique was a major factor. To give credit to the Yorkshire outfit however, they showed real know-how and played some nice football too. The young Blues will learn from these occasions.
Manager Paul Tait remained positive afterwards. He told evertonfc.com
“We were delighted with some of the play in the game and some of the resolute defending,”
“For the last fifteen minutes of the first half we had some control and created some half chances and some good chances.
“That gave the lads a bit of belief and I thought we started the second half well but then we started turning the ball over too often and giving it away too often – under pressure from them to be fair.
“The first goal changed the game. It knocked the stuffing out of us and it was a lucky little ricochet.
“I’m proud of the players. We don’t want to lose games and we wanted points tonight in this tournament but we had six scholars on the pitch at the end of the game whereas they had experienced players on their bench who they could rest and then bring on.
“It’s a great learning experience for us and we’re looking forward to our next group game against Burton Albion.”
On Crellin and Hunt, Tait added: “Billy was excellent in goal. He was our most experienced player and that showed tonight when we needed him.
“Macca [Hunt] was also excellent and he showed his versatility going in at centre-back. He was really good in possession.”
Meanwhile, last Saturday, Leighton Baines’ Under 18s welcomed Stoke City to Finch Farm but suffered another defeat, this time 1-2. Stoke had scored two second half goals one of them a 84th minute penalty before Blues’ midfielder Jack Patterson scored a late consolation.
Next fixtures are in 3 days’ time for the Under 21s against Norwich City at the Walton Hall Park ground and, for the Under 18s, a daunting trip to neighbours Liverpool on Saturday 23rd September.