Brave and spirited performance not enough at Ewood Park
The Hatters’ fantastic run in the FA Youth Cup ended at the quarter-final stage as, despite an excellent performance, Paul Driver’s side were beaten 1-0 at Blackburn Rovers.
The Town were left to reflect on what might have been after going close on several occasions – only to find Rovers goalkeeper Andy Fisher in inspiring form at Ewood Park.
Backed by almost 200 supporters, the Hatters feared the worst in an opening 15 minutes dominated by Rovers which cumulated in Lewis Hardcastle’s low free-kick deflecting beyond Town goalkeeper Liam Gooch.
At that stage, 1-0 down, the signs looked ominous for the young Hatters against their Premier League academy opponents as Akin Famewo’s clearance struck his own post.
But the Town’s response was tremendous, and only a string of fine stops from Fisher kept the Hatters at bay, including a stunning finger-tip save from the goalkeeper to divert a Jack Snelus shot onto the crossbar.
At times the gulf in academy status was barely visible as the Hatters took the game to their hosts – but, despite a late rally, the Town couldn’t force extra-time and Rovers held on to secure a semi-final meeting with either Chelsea or Reading.
It all began with Driver making one change to the side that beat Preston on penalties in round five with Kavan Cotter replacing Harry Bean, who dropped on the bench.
Rovers, fourth in the Premier League’s Northern Under-18s division, came into the game eyeing a third semi-final place in six seasons and almost grabbed the lead within 60 seconds only for Tre Pemberton to sky over Gooch’s crossbar from 10 yards.
Back came the Town and leading goalscorer Freddie Hinds had the visitors’ first effort, driving a shot into the arms of Fisher from distance on six minutes.
However, six minutes later, a touch of fortune had Rovers ahead. Hardcastle hit a free-kick from the edge of the penalty hard and low – low enough to take a deflection off the Hatters’ defensive wall – and the ball bobbled past the stranded Gooch.
It could have got worse for the Town on 15 minutes when captain Famewo’s vital clearance struck the foot of the post and away as Rovers exploited the Hatters right flank.
But that near miss only spurred the Hatters on and, for the remainder of the half, it was the travelling Town supporters inside Ewood Park who were the more impressed as their side came close to levelling.
As the team gradually found their feet and passing rhythm, Snelus saw a shot from a narrow angle pawed away by Fisher on 18 minutes. From the resultant corner from the left, George Murray’s shot on the turn from close range was parried away superbly by the Rovers keeper.
In search of a leveller, the Town knew they had to be aware of Blackburn threat on the break and Gooch needed to be aware on 24 minutes to keep out Ramirez Howarth’s shot from the left-hand edge of the penalty area.
The Hatters, however, continued to patiently pass the ball up the Ewood Park surface, and another flowing one-touch move on 26 minutes saw James Justin clip a cross-cum-shot wide of the target.
As the support grew in noise from the stands, the Town almost treated them to a spectacular equaliser. From a left-wing corner, Snelus struck a true drive that arrowed fast towards the top corner. Sadly for the Hatters, keeper Fisher got the faintest of fingertips on the ball to divert it onto the crossbar and to safety.
Undeterred, the Hatters maintained their forward momentum with Cameron McJannet – the goal hero in the fourth round at Oldham – shooting wide from the left on the half-hour.
As the break approached, Blackburn upped the ante but the Town defence held firm to go in trailing just by one at the interval.
Sixty second after the restart Hinds hit a snap-shot wide of the target but, on 61 minutes, it was hearts in mouth for the Town when Rovers thought they were 2-0 in front. After Stefan Mols’ shot was deflected behind for a corner, Andy Wharton’s close range header seemed for all the world it would beat Gooch – only for the Hatters keeper to casually pluck the ball out of the air to save.
With the game stretched, it was end-to-end stuff. On 73 minutes Gooch held another Blackburn header from a left-wing corner before the Hatters countered and Tyreeq Bakinson’s low effort from the edge of the box was saved by Fisher.
As time ticked down, Fisher was then able to claim a deflected Justin free-kick with 10 minutes left before Gooch stopped a low shot from Joe Rankin-Costello at the other end moments later.
Rovers spurned a good chance to seal it with six minutes left when left-back Josh Askew drilled a shot wide and across goal, but then back came the Town: substitute James Verney showing pace and trickery down the right to win a corner. Played short, it was hung up to Famewo at the back stick who headed wide.
With three added minutes to play, Cotter almost conjured up a last-gasp equaliser to force extra-time, only for his shot to be held by that man Fisher.
And there was almost a sniff in the dying seconds when Kyran McGhan-George went down just outside of the box with just one Rovers man to beat – only for the officials to wave play on.
But that, was that, and a tremendous run in the competition came to an end with a performance to be proud of despite the defeat.
All credit to everyone involved – and huge thanks to the 200 Hatters fans who made the trip to Ewood to cheer the boys on.
Remember to get down to Kenilworth Road next week to cheer on the boys as they aim to secure a place in the national League Cup final when they entertain Swindon.
Town: Gooch; Justin, McJannet, Famewo, McGhan-George; Bakinson, Atkinson, Snelus, Cotter; Murray (sub Bean 68), Hinds (sub Verney 68).
Hatters subs not used: Jones, Davey, Brown.
Attendance: 716, including at least 200 backing the Hatters – an unbelievable effort.