After two hard fought matches, the FA Youth Cup Final was likely to be determined by a moment worthy of winning the prestigious trophy. Late in Tuesday night’s second leg at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea captain Conor Clifford provided it, with a quite stunning goal from outside the penalty area to give the Blues their first success in the competition in over 50 years.
It served as reward for an evening of attacking football, and whilst the end product rarely qualified as excellence, the approach play and individual skill was worthy of high praise. Josh McEachran and in particular Jacopo Sala had outstanding evenings and helped the team on their way, but for the second time, Aston Villa forced them to come from behind. Tony McAndrew’s boys deserve every credit, and are easily the best team Chelsea have played in the competition.
Both teams fielded the same line-ups as the first leg, meaning a level of familiarity was present at kickoff, even if the majority of the 10,400 in attendance may not have been able to identify many of those present on the pitch. By the end of the night they were serenading Sam Walker, Jeffrey Bruma and others in song, and may yet be for years to come. Dermot Drummy’s boys started well, spreading the ball wide to both flanks, and threatened early first through a sliced cross from Jacopo Sala which went over, and then a shot from Kaby which whistled just over the top corner.
Villa briefly threatened when Ryan Simmonds showed agility to hook an acrobatic volley towards the top corner of the other goal but Walker got across well to direct it around the post. They were content to sit back early and let Chelsea have the play, but would have been regretting it had Marko Mitrovic or Bruma taken their gilt-edged chances around the quarter-hour mark. The Dutch defender first found himself wide open at the far post from a corner but stooped to head wide, before flying down the right wing and sending a cross over which offered Mitrovic a close-range tap-in, but he was unable to make contact and the chance was spurned.
Whilst the hosts continued to create openings but not take advantage of them, the visitors did, and in clinical fashion. The diminutive Simmonds popped up on the right and delivered a devilish cross from which striker Kofi Poyser converted, glancing a quick header into the corner and past the despairing dive of Walker. Just as in the first leg, Villa had taken the lead against the run of play, and thus were able to almost dictate the flow of the game. Ebby Nelson-Addy and Richard Blythe would retreat into holding roles deeper in the field and with wingers Tomos Roberts and Samir Carruthers covering the advancing full-backs, Chelsea were stifled and struggling for space in which to play.
Indeed, the only chances to immediately follow came from outside the area, and neither Kaby’s tame weak footed effort or Clifford’s high shot were threatening to Benjamin Siegrist. Bruma’s scuffed left-footed shot after a mazy and marauding run had the Swiss scampering, but it trickled wide of the post. Holding the lead until the break, Villa and McAndrew will have undoubtedly gone into the Stamford Bridge dressing rooms the happier of the two teams, but Chelsea will surely have taken heart from their showing, in the knowledge that the odds were in favour of them scoring a goal eventually.
True to first half form, the tempo was high after the restart, with plenty of ball for the wingers, Sala and Gokhan Tore. Whilst the Turk often toiled and was indecisive, the Italian was on top of his game, and everything began to flow through him, via the silky smooth McEachran. Early in the second half the former sent another dangerous cross in from the right, with pace and direction, but nobody gambled on getting on the end of it. Shots were to come from further out, and when Aziz Deen-Conteh chanced his arm from 25 yards, it took a world-class stop from Siegrist to stop the ball arrowing into the top corner.
It was Rohan Ince’s turn to have a shy at the increasingly peppered Villa goal, glancing a header wide from a corner. He was needed in a defensive capacity at the other end shortly afterwards though, putting himself in the right place at the right time to intercept a cross, having covered well on the break in the first place. After a shaky first leg and uncertain opening quarter to the second, he began to thrive and outperformed his more senior defensive partner on the evening.
As Mitrovic saw his header cleared off the line and Clifford put another shot over the crossbar, the tension began to rise as the question of whether a goal would arrive at all crept into Chelsea thoughts. The answer was an emphatic yes, and it came from the move of the night. Kaby won the ball in his own half and kicked off a move which led to McEachran wriggling free into space and playing a lovely ball in for Sala down the left. His first-time ball across the face of the area was met by Mitrovic at the near post, and all he needed to do was open his body and guide the ball into the net . In front of a capacity Shed/East Lower corner, joyous celebrations provided the impetus to go on and search for a winner.
Sala’s tail was well and truly up and having just provided a goal with his weaker foot, chanced his arm at goal from distance. It went over, but not by a great margin, and was indicative of the sort of confidence flowing through those in blue shirts by this point. They still had a job to do defensively though, and were thoroughly reminded of that when substitute Darius Darkin found himself open in the penalty area with the chance to shoot. Instead, he opted for a pass to Poyser, but Ince was on hand to remove the danger. A shot would have been the favoured option, and it was a definite let-off.
Back to the siege on Siegrist’s goal, and McEachran began to dazzle. A run of sheer magical perfection saw him beat three men before laying the ball off to Sala, who saw his shot blocked. If the ball was on his left foot McEachran might have looked to finish the run with a shot, but uncertain on his right side, chose to let somebody else have a go. Shortly after, it became irrelevant. More Chelsea pressure created space for Clifford on the edge of the area, and this time he got it right, sending an arrow into the top corner to win the Cup in spectacular style. The Bridge erupted in celebration, with a goal truly worthy of sealing the win.
Villa threw on Arsenio Halfhuid in a desperate attempt to chase the game, but left space for Chelsea to break into. Gokhan will have been disappointed not to add another to the scoreline when he hit the crossbar twice with one effort, his first shot bouncing off the top of the goalframe before landing on it a second time. He swiftly made way for the fresher legs of Milan Lalkovic, whilst George Saville also saw time in relief of the injured Kaby. The Portuguese midfielder suffered what appeared to be a serious injury in stoppage time and was unable to join his team-mates in celebration post-match. It therefore must be mentioned how well he played on the night and how much he has improved this season. Hopefully the injury will prove to not be serious and he can celebrate with the rest of the squad tonight.
Carruthers sent a late, desperate shot wide but Kevin Friend ended their chances of an unlikely response with the final whistle, signalling the start of the victory party. The squad took a lap of honour, obviously delighted, before the goalscoring hero Clifford lifted the FA Youth Cup. A fantastic way to end the night, and to cap a good youth season. Who knows, it could be the first trophy of three in the next fortnight.
What a story that would be…
Team: Walker, B.Clifford, Ince, Bruma, Deen-Conteh, C.Clifford (c), Kaby (Saville 90), McEachran, Gokhan Tore (Lalkovic 88), Sala, Mitrovic
Goals: Mitrovic ’64, C.Clifford ’83
Villa: Siegrist, Berry, Williams (Darkin 71), Devine, Deeney (c), Blythe (Halfhuid 87), Nelson-Addy, Carruthers, Roberts, Simmonds, Poyser
Goals: Poyser ’32
A full match gallery is now available, courtesy of Dan Davies.