Newport County AFC’s academy put in a determined and brave performance as they exited the FA Youth Cup at the Third Round stage after a 3-1 defeat against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.
A performance full of enthusiasm, desire and drive should make every County supporter proud of their efforts but it was always going to be a tough test against one of the better academies in the country.
Brandon Lonsdale and Luke Brennan gave Rovers a two-goal lead before half-time then Sam Burns made it three on 55 minutes – County refused to give in despite the deficit, and they got a goal for their efforts through Ryan Hillier.
Academy manager Damien Broad elected to name a side boasting numerous first-team appearances – six players had featured for Michael Flynn’s side before either in league or cup competition, namely Joe Woodiwiss, Ryan George, captain Dominic Jefferies, Elis Watts, Ioan Evans and Hillier.
The Young Exiles lined-up in a 4-4-2 formation at Ewood Park with Callum Brain between the sticks behind a back four of Luis Bates, Tom Wright, Woodiwiss and George.
Watts and Lewys Twamley started on the respective wings, Evans and Zach Maher were tasked with controlling the central midfield areas and Hillier and Jefferies were deployed up front.
Blackburn Rovers – a category one academy set-up – came into the tie doing well in the U18 Premier League, recording some impressive results already this campaign by beating Manchester City U18 in the league and Arsenal U18 in the Premier League Cup
That extra bit of quality showed in a first half of very few chances, County look organised in every department but were caught out on two occasions to trail by two at the break.
The opener came on 18 minutes. Rovers goalkeeper Jordan Eastham punted a kick down field, there was slight hesitancy at the back between Woodiwiss and Brain, allowing Lonsdale to nip between the pair and take it on to score into an empty net.
The Young Exiles were caught out again on 22 minutes as Rovers doubled their advantage. In fairness, it was nothing more than Brennan deserved – he was a constant nuisance throughout and finished like an experienced striker from 25 yards when bursting clear to latch onto a long ball over the top.
Brennan wasn’t afraid to get on the ball and run at the defenders, he could be a really talent in years to go, but County did a good job in nullifying most of his forward thinking presence, Brain also making two smart saves early on to keep out the winger.
Rovers had a couple more chances to increase their advantage before half time but were thwarted in their efforts by some resolute defensive work and perfectly timed tackles.
Flavien Enzo Boyomo should have done better than wastefully blast over the crossbar following a clever corner routine on 33 minutes, while Lenni Rae Cirino shot wide in first half stoppage time following more clever work from Brennan.
The 18-year old’s magnificent performance continued into the second half as he continued to control the game for Blackburn, first he set up Chanka Zimba on 50 minutes who blasted wide unmarked before going for goal himself two minutes later and drew a smart save from replacement goalkeeper Louie Cirotto.
It was no surprise then that Brennan was involved as Blackburn trebled their advantage on 55 minutes. The left wing ran right across the field to set up right back Dan Pike who provided the pinpoint cross for Sam Burns to head home.
Other sides would have capitulated on conceding a third goal, but it only went to inspire County into a new gear as they looked to mount an unlikely comeback and they found a way back into proceedings three minutes later.
Centre half Wright’s aerial ability was a useful resource for County at set pieces, both offensively and defensively, this time the ball was swung in and Wright forced a smart save from Jordan Eastham before Hillier tucked in the rebound.
The goal only went to inspire the Young Exiles forward again as they started to seize control of the fixture, substitute Sioni Benham came on and made a huge difference with his attitude to press the home defence and he saw two efforts deflected into Eastham before the 70 minute mark had elapsed.
There were a few chances from there to the game’s conclusion but County couldn’t force another to set up a dramatic finale – a performance befitting of the County shirt but not quite enough to progress on a night against a top academy in Blackburn Rovers.
Blackburn Rovers U18 (4-4-2): Jordan Eastham, Lenni Rae Cirino (Georgie Gent 82’), Flavien Enzo Boyomo, Isaac Whitehall (C), Dan Pike, Luke Brennan, Jalil Saadi, Jared Harlock, Sam Burns (Sam Durrant 68’), Chanka Zimba, Brandon Lonsdale (Zak Gilsenan 68’)
Subs not used: Dowling, Wyatt, West, Wharton
Newport County AFC U18 (4-4-2): Callum Brain (Louie Cirotto 45’), Luis Bates (Aneurin Livermore 69’), Tom Wright, Joe Woodiwiss, Ryan George, Elis Watts, Ioan Evans, Zack Maher (Sioni Benham 59’), Lewys Twamley, Ryan Hillier, Dominic Jefferies (C)
Subs not used: Jones, Graham
Referee: Lewis Dawson