Durham into National final
Durham were good value for money albeit with a narrow 2-1 victory over Staffordshire to take their place in the Final of the ESFA U18 Inter-county Trophy Trophy at Stafford Town FC.
On a fantastic venue and a glorious day for playing football the game lived up to expectations and was a brilliant advertisement for U18 football at the highest level. With such a high prize at stake the game predictably set off at a high tempo and was evenly contested during the opening 20 minutes. Staffordshire’s England U18 goalkeeper Aidan Stone clearly set out his intentions as he powerfully came through a crowded goalmouth and claimed Durham’s first inswinging corner. Durham’s strike force of Andrei Ardelean and Jak Hanson stretched the Staffordshire defence and Jay Redman played in Ardelean for the first clear chance of the game but he turned away from goal to play in his teammate and the chance was lost in the exchange as Staffordshire's impressive centre back Connor Grant marshalled his defensive teammates. At the other end of the field Owen Bradbury whipped in a dangerous cross from the right for Ed Capewell and Durham goalkeeper Kieran Stoker had to make a point blank save to keep Staffordshire at bay. On 20 minutes Hanson played a sublime ball with the outside of his foot to Ardelean and his powerful run forward brought a good save from Stone. On 25 minutes Hanson linked up well with Durham playmakers Redman and Dan Mitchell to force Stone into action again as Durham continued to gain a stronger foothold in the game which at this stage was very delicately balanced. Both sides continued the high athletic tempo and the Durham defence of Callum Webster, Tom Joyce, Nathan Kett and Fraser Colling stood firm and moved the ball about with confidence while full backs Webster and Colling provided extra width in support of their team mates. The Durham engine room of Mitchell, Adam Little and Billy Hall were involved in a strong midfield battle with their Staffordshire counterparts of whom the powerful Tom Edge was the pick of the bunch. The first half came to a close with chances continuing to be created at either end - Redman drove the ball into the side netting from a good position for Durham and Staffordshire's Joe Minton forced a save from Stoker - but without either side able to make the breakthrough.
The game resumed with both teams illustrating that all was to play for in this tight encounter with a series of corners at either end stretching the resolve of both defences. Durham were looking dangerous on the counter with their flowing movement and quality delivery from midfield and Little hit a good strike from the edge of the penalty area which was turned over by Stone at full stretch. Staffordshire were forced back as the game progressed and they brought the lively David Neligwa into the game to provide more width and pace to their attack. The more effective substitution though came from Durham, who brought Dan Maddison into the game on the hour mark and he immediately had an effect with his intelligent and precise movement off the shoulders of the Staffordshire defence. On 75 minutes Durham broke the deadlock. Redman swung another corner into the penalty area which was met by Little whose powerful header cannoned off the crossbar and was followed up by Mitchell to head through the crowd of defenders on the line to open the scoring. Durham’s confidence from the goal was immediately evident and Hall, Mitchell and Little were orchestrating play and the tireless Redman played in Maddison who showed great composure to wrong-foot the defender and finish past the stranded Stone to make it 2-0. To their credit Staffordshire refused to accept the game was over and Edge sent in a testing cross to the far post which was met by Minton who placed his header firmly past Stoker to reduce the arrears; 2-1 and game on. Sam Steele came into the game and lived up to his name to add some strength and athleticism to the Durham midfield who were tiring after such a herculean effort. This was illustrated as Little withdrew suffering from severe cramp with every effort to run and challenge. Staffordshire were throwing everyone forward as the clock ran down and were always vulnerable on the counter from Durham but the nerves were all in the Durham camp as they played through the frustrating seven minutes of added time. The Durham lads refused to let all their good work and efforts be undone and some desperate challenges and spoiling play was necessary in the dying minutes and the final whistle came as great relief but ultimate joy as the Durham squad and their supporters realised their dream of heading into the final.
An elated Kieron Stoker summed up the feeling in the Durham camp when he stated ‘We can put the pressure of the semi-final behind us now as we played the way we always do. Really looking forward to the final.’
Scorer of the winning goal Dan Maddison selflessly stated ‘This was a massive team performance which gives us the confidence we can go all the way and win it now.’
Equally delighted team manager Rob Hope stated ‘There is no shortage of ability, awareness and creativity in this squad. Today’s victory came from an application of that skill and talent in a concentrated and consistent way right across the game. They also had to dig in and make the desperate challenges and pressurise their opponents at the end of the game to ensure the win. They fully earned the victory today and deserve their place in the final.’
Essex beat Hampshire 5-1 in the other semi-final to make an Essex – Durham final.