Saints Under-18s battled to a breathtaking 3-3 draw with Aston Villa on Saturday afternoon.
Marcus Barnes, Josh Sims and Jake Hesketh overturned a two-goal deficit to break into a stunning 3-2 lead before Jerell Sellars levelled the scoring immediately after with his second of the game.
Coach Jason Dodd was impressed by the side’s character after they battled their way back into contention, following a fairly comfortable first-half showing by Villa.
The opening stages of the encounter were starved of goalmouth action, with Kevin Toner’s poorly-directed header from Khalid Abdo’s free-kick the only early opportunity for either side.
It seemed that, due to sturdy defences thwarting attacking players constantly, that it’d take a moment of brilliance or an error at the back to eventually bring the opener.
HARRY MCKIRDY provided that sublime piece of play required to break the deadlock as the half-hour mark approached. The youngster skipped past several challenges in the box before calmly slotting the ball underneath the onrushing Harry Isted.
Saints were only provided a small amount of time to compose themselves before the hosts doubled their tally through SELLARS’ improvisation. Niall Mason’s attempted corner clearance was powerfully sliced across the face of goal and that was capitalised on by the striker who swiftly raised his leg to hit the ball into the roof of the net with the outside of his foot.
That failed to deter a Saints side striving to get a grip on the game though, as Armani Little proved to be a nuisance for the home side.
The creative midfielder found space for a 20-yard shot that he unfortunately scuffed before his free-kick from the left of the area forced a goalmouth scramble before Villa frantically cleared the danger on the stroke of half-time.
HALF-TIME: ASTON VILLA U18s 2-0 SOUTHAMPTON U18s
A resurgent Villa side charged through the Saints midfield immediately after the restart, with Sellars finding a glimpse of goal, only to see his long-range effort dragged narrowly wide.
That didn’t continue as a trend for the second half though, as a fired-up Saints side began to pen back the home side.
The energetic Josh Sims drilled a speculative shot from an acute angle that fizzed into the grateful arms of Villa ‘keeper Dylan Forth before BARNES was more successful in front of goal just before the hour mark.
The striker cleverly sped into space unmarked to meet Hesketh’s pass from a short corner with a composed, side-footed effort across Forth and into the far corner.
Barnes’ goal highlighted how Saints were the driving force in this was emphasised in the most emphatic of circumstances when SIMS whipped in a stunning goal.
Such exquisite build-up play from Saints resulted in Barnes cleverly flicking the ball into the path of the winger, who shaped up for a curling strike that soared over Forth and crashed into the top corner off the post.
Villa’s misery was compounded just three minutes later when a fine comeback was completed through the determined HESKETH.
The midfielder burst through the hosts’ defence and fell to the floor under pressure in the area. Despite tumbling to the ground, the ball was still in reach and the youngster clipped it past Forth.
Unfortunately, Hesketh’s desire was mirrored by SELLARS as the striker dragged his side back into it in similar fashion. He met a speculative lump towards the box and collided with Isted in the process. Sadly for Saints, Sellars was first to leap up and prod into a gaping net before the ‘keeper would recover as the score was tied again.
FULL-TIME: ASTON VILLA U18s 3-3 SOUTHAMPTON U18s
Speaking after the game, Dodd was delighted with the response from the U18s after they went in two goals down and felt it showed a great attitude on their part.
The coach revealed that there were no stern telling-offs at the break and said the youngsters’ second-half characterised what the whole U18s team are aiming to be like constantly.
“We really struggled in the first half,” he admitted to Saints Player. “We couldn’t get close to them. It’s not as if they played us off the park – they were setting up and going in the channels and we just didn’t deal with it that well. We didn’t deal with the second balls.
“At half-time we didn’t really have to have a go at the boys. They were as disappointed as we were. We just expected and demanded that they went out there and put it right because we didn’t turn up in the first 45 minutes. They were honest enough. These kids know where our standards are now and it was just one of those where it just didn’t happen – that doesn’t happen that often – but we were asking them to go out there and show what we’re about.
“The second half was what we’re about. It was fantastic. There was some excellent play; we had them on the back foot. We got the ball down and played and that’s how we wanted them to start the game, but it didn’t quite go for us. It’s disappointing to give a soft goal away so they could get their equaliser.
“They were time-wasting two minutes into the second half. Fair enough. I don’t mind that at all. That’s the way they do it. They were managing the game and the ‘keeper was taking forever to get the ball into play. That seemed to turn around when we 3-2 up – they seemed to get a bit livelier then! That’s football. We have to understand that that’s how it is. That’s how they set up – we’ve got to deal with it.
“When we got into the 3-2 position, it wasn’t a case of ‘okay, we’re going to sit back.’ No. We were in the ascendancy and we wanted to go on and score some more goals. We were capable of doing that. The only disappointing thing is it was a soft goal to concede. In the end, we’ve come up here and got a point. We’re really happy.
“It would be easy to go out in the second half and lose the game by two or three. As soon as we got that first goal, you could see the lads were hungry for it, which is fantastic for us.”
Dodd lavished praise on Sims for the manner in which he struck the side’s second goal and felt that epitomised how he’s impressed everyone at the Club.
Recalling the stunning strike, Dodd said: “We were in perfect position to see it. You won’t get a better goal than that for quite a while!
“He’s been on form for us. He’s on the radar of Martin [Hunter] and the U21s. He’s trained with the First Team. The manager and the staff have been impressed with him. If he can continue to carry on scoring goals like that and put the work in then he’s going to get noticed.”
Southampton Under-18s: Isted, Leggett, Nehemie, Little (Willard 63), Clinton, Debayo, Barnes, Mason, Irvine (Demkiv 57), Hesketh, Sims. Unused substitutes: White (GK), Deasy, Wood.
Aston Villa Under-18s: Forth, Zazrivec, Wildin, Strain, Lyons-Foster, Toner, O'Brien, McKirdy (T. Strain 63), Sellars, Abdo, Calder. Unused substitutes: Bannister (GK), Lewis, Taylor, Green.