County side advance to championship semi-finals
Northumberland County Schools' U18 team finished off their league campaign in style with a victory over arch rivals Durham Maiden Castle.
The success takes the U18 team to five wins out of five in the league and sees the team finish top with an impressive unbeaten record and goal difference of +15.
The reward will be a home draw in the semi-finals of the Northern Counties Championship against the runners-up from the west league.
The victory against Durham was far from straightforward, however, and the hosts could argue they were hard done by not to take at least a point from the game.
Visitors Northumberland started the game the brighter of the two teams with midfielder Jonny Fox (Monkseaton) going close with an effort almost immediately from the kick-off.
This was followed by efforts by Jack Butler (KEVI Morpeth), Kieron Brannen (Monkseaton) and Jack Cooper (Tyne Met), but without testing the Durham keeper.
Eventually Northumberland did find the net when a corner was won following good play down the right.
Tall centre back Craig Burdis (QEHS Hexham), ironically a Durham ‘local’ who, whilst living in the region attends Queen Elizabeth High School in Hexham, made his way up the field and, following a deep corner from Fox, was available to blast home at the back post.
At this stage, Northumberland were probably good value for their lead.
As the half went on, however, the hosts began to find their way back into the fast-paced encounter, playing the ball well through the thirds of the pitch with good, accurate short passing.
Their patience and composure on the ball allowed them to get a foothold in the game and their resilience stopped Northumberland from achieving dominance.
To this extent, away custodian Callum Harley (Tyne Met) was required to make two excellent saves late in the first half, one a spectacular tip over the bar, to keep Northumberland in front. As the half-time whistle blew, the entertaining encounter was finely poised at 1-0.
As the second half began, it was Durham who began the brighter and put Northumberland under some real pressure.
Playing quickly and to their strengths, the home team began to gather momentum and may count themselves unlucky not to be awarded a penalty early in the half.
Following good play by the Durham forward, it appeared that he had been tripped in the box by Burdis. The referee, however, disagreed and play was allowed to continue.
Durham by this point, were the better team and Northumberland were again indebted to Harley who continued his fine form of the first half by pulling off another two fine blocks. As the half went on, Northumberland were defending resolutely.
But with only five minutes to spare, Durham found their equaliser from the penalty spot.
After some good combination play by Durham, a mix up in defence led to a forward being pushed in the back and this time the referee adjudged a foul had been committed. The Durham midfielder stepped up to take it and made no mistake, burying a shot low to the keeper’s right hand side.
To Northumberland’s credit, whilst not playing their best football of the season, the boys in red showed a clear determination that the game should not be considered over and the equalising goal clearly gave the North boys energy.
In an energetic final five minutes and with momentum against them, the Northumberland boys somehow found a way back into the game and with almost the final kick of the game, midfielder Sam White (Ponteland) received a square ball on the edge of the box, shifted it onto his preferred right foot and drilled an excellent effort low into the bottom corner.
Moments later the final whistle blew and the match was over. It was Northumberland who collected the three points and for the third consecutive season retained the Derek Watson Memorial Trophy.
To add to a fantastic week for the Northumberland boys, three of the U18 team have been selected for the English Schools’ U18 national team following successful trials.
It is the first time the county has had three international representatives from the same team since 1996 and is the second successive season the team have produced international players, following Ursene Mouanda’s inclusion in the squad last season.
The three players are Jack Butler (KEVI Morpeth), Jack Cooper (Tyne Metropolitan College) and Danny Barlow (Monkseaton High School).
The boys will now join the international squad for a training camp and friendly game against Australia at the end of January followed by a further training camp in February in preparation to defend their Centenary Shield title against the home nations later in the season.
U18 team manager Steve Swinyard said: “We, as a group, are absolutely delighted for the three boys and are very proud of their achievements.
“It is a very difficult process to get through and so they done fantastically well to do so.
“It is a great honour to represent your country in anything and it will be a truly memorable experience for them.
“As players, they will be going into an elite environment and working with excellent coaches and playing with top players.
“I hope this can only help them to improve further and with any luck it may also put them on the radar of professional clubs around the country.
“All three of the boys are brilliant lads who consistently show the right attitude and dedication required from top players.
“Their performances for the county team have been of the highest level this season and they deserve recognition for this.
“I, of course, wish them well and will be a keen onlooker and supporter of all of their games.”