4-2 defeat ends youngsters' title dreams
The Hatters’ Under-18s were involved in two high scoring games as the season came to a close with both games against Portsmouth and Crawley Town finishing 4-2.
Unfortunately, the first of these, on Saturday, was a defeat that handed the league title to Portsmouth; but the second saw a great response to the set back as the team earned a deserved victory at Crawley to finish the season off in style, and secure an excellent third place finish being beaten into second only on goal difference by Leyton Orient.
At Portsmouth, the Hatters got off to the best start with Zac Stephens opening the scoring from close range from a corner but Pompey struck back to lead by the midway point in the half and then two goals in five minutes just before half time opened a 4-1 lead for the hosts. Formation changes to a 3-5-2 almost immediately paid off as Zane Banton had a great chance to close the deficit but his effort was saved. Banton did pull a goal back in the 68th minute with a left foot strike from 15 yards and then pounced on a poor back pass five minutes later but his touch around the keeper took the ball too wide and his effort was blocked.
Despite adding a fourth attacker in search of a way back into the game, the Hatters couldn't get the two goals that would be needed for the point that would set up a must win game for the title at Crawley and Portsmouth held on to clinch the title on a "points to games" ratio system due to an uneven number of teams meaning some sides played a game less than others.
With the massive disappointment still in the mind, the Hatters travelled to Sussex early on Tuesday morning needing to win by seven clear goals to grab the runners-up slot from Orient. In a hectic 15 minutes, the Hatters could have scored four goals with Arel Amu shooting just wide, a Banton effort being saved brilliantly by the home keeper and an Amu shot striking the post. The Hatters did take the lead in that period when a cross from Charlie Smith was drilled home by Leeroy Maguraushe.
The goal seemed to spark the hosts into life and, like at Portsmouth on Saturday, Crawley went 2- 1 in front by the 25th minute. This time, though, the Hatters struck back quickly through Banton to take the game into half time level at 2-2. An improved second half performance was rewarded as Banton added his second and the team's third with 20 minutes to go and the victory was sealed in the 85th minute when substitute, Ekene Amadi finished well from just inside the box. The goal by schoolboy, Amadi, was a great way to celebrate his return to action after an extended injury period over the previous eighteen months.
Paul Driver reflected on the two games and the season as a whole.
"We are obviously disappointed not to have got the point at Portsmouth that, as it transpired, would have given us a chance to win the league at Crawley, and it just doesn't seem right that the team getting the most points doesn't win the league but that's the set up of the league - there is no ideal way of deciding things when we have the anomalies there are in the league.
“We weren't even aware of the points per game ruling until Portsmouth started celebrating at the end of the game, which was, again, disappointing, but we didn't get the point so that's that and we looked to move on quickly and the response to that set back at Crawley was, after a little blip in the first half, commendable.
“Having said all this, Portsmouth's run at the end of the season was superb and I congratulate Paul Hardiman, his staff and his players on their title.
“In the two games, we stopped doing the right things on the ball and, particularly, when defending, the things we had been doing since going on the brilliant run of results since November which had made us the best defensive side in the league. As a result we got punished and it is this that the group must learn from as we look to improve and win the thing next season.
“That aside, I am proud of what the boys have done to achieve a top three finish. We finished above two Championship sides (and I'm sure our fans will note that one of them is our local rivals, Watford) and a number of League 1 teams, and we certainly would have taken third place as the season started and especially after losing the first two games.
“The experience that Lee Hawkes, Zac Jules, Daril Ngwala, Ekene Amadi, Tuki Tayali and Luke Trottman gained as Under-16s playing in the 18s league will put them in good stead for next season and give me a strong pack of ‘new’ players to support the strong group of second years next season."