While World Cup fans were watching the semi-finals, some 4,000 miles away on a frosty night in Lincolnshire, Paul Tait’s Everton Under-21’s came up against a team of experienced League One professionals at one of the Football League’s oldest clubs. That’s quite a contrast in venues and stakes but the young Blues have been playing high quality football themselves recently and the prospect of making further progress against Lincoln City in the Papa John’s Trophy was the only thing on the mind of the 11 players who took to the very fast pitch wearing the blue of Everton.
That superior experience did count in the end but the Imps did not have it all their own way though. After being a goal down at the break the Toffees stormed back in quickfire fashion in the second half. The game finished a very flattering 4-2 to Lincoln which was also very harsh on Everton.
In the first period, the team played in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Owen Barker, who had lit up the FA Youth Cup tie last Friday, playing just off leading goalscorer Tom Cannon up front. The game also saw the return of Kyle John at right back after being injured the past month.
In all honesty the first half for the Blues, on an almost white pitch due to the frost, was scrappy with possession being surrendered too frequently to gain attacking momentum. Zan-Luk Leban in the Everton goal did make a smart save in the 4th minute from a deflected free kick and Stan Mills did get a good shot away in the 12th minute after being set up by Tom Cannon but, other than some neat midfield play by Isaac Price, it was a 45 minutes to forget. To make matters worse, it was a piece of sloppy play which allowed Lincoln to seize possession in the build up to the first goal in the 33rd minute, the ball being shuttled to the right hand edge of the area and poor defensive positioning allowed Lincoln to get the goal they deserved on the balance of play. Poole was the scorer, 0-1 down at half-time.
The second half saw the introduction of the powerful Francis Okoronkwo in place of young Barker and a change of formation to 4-4-2 as the Blues sought to get back on track. That duo of Okoronkwo and Cannon took all of 90 seconds to combine to get the equaliser in an exciting start to the second 45. A lovely spin dummy by Kyle John saw Mills get possession and he played a nice through ball for Cannon to get to the edge of the area and play across the box for Okoronkwo to score with his first real touch of the ball. 1-1 and game on!
We had to wait just 2 more minutes for the favour between the two strikers to be returned as a nice through ball saw Cannon get the better of his man and thrash the ball across the goalkeeper high into the net from 16 yards. A fantastic start and what a substitution by Tait. 2-1 up.
That lead lasted only 4 minutes courtesy of a baffling penalty award. As the ball rose high in the Blues goalmouth, Leban tried to gather the ball high, didn’t catch it cleanly the ball landed and Seb Quirk managed to clear as a Lincoln player fell dramatically. 9 times out of 10 you would probably see a free kick awarded to the goalkeeper under challenge but the referee saw different. Diamond dispatched the spot kick, 2-2.
The Toffees had a great chance to go back in front in the 64th minute and it was the very mobile duo of Okoronkwo and Cannon combining yet again as a nice ball into the feet of Cannon saw him trick his way past his marker only to blaze wide unfortunately.
That miss proved costly 7 minutes later as, with pressure mounting, the Imps exposed the left flank of the Blues defence again and the ball played across a static centre of defence saw the ball land at the feet of Roughan at the far post and the Blues were behind 2-3.
Showing great determination, the U21s mounted waves of attacks, one thrilling 50 yard mazey run by Mills, who had otherwise had one of his quieter games, saw his left foot drive beaten away and Okoronkwo, from a corner in stoppage time, saw his header saved.
The last goal was simply harsh as, with goalkeeper Leban in the opposition box for the second corner in a row in the last seconds of injury time, Lincoln got the bounce of the ball and broke away with Diamond scoring into the unguarded net from a distance. 4-2 to Lincoln.
| All the goals as #EFCU21 bowed out of the @PapaJohnsTrophy at the last-16 stage at Lincoln City last night. pic.twitter.com/8fSgSNnWJs— Everton Academy (@EvertonAcademy) December 14, 2022
So, the run that had seen Everton unbeaten, apart from a penalty shoot-out at Morecambe in August, was over. Before Tuesday night, they had beaten Football league opposition in the shape of Harrogate Town, Hartlepool United and Mansfield Town, scoring a healthy 12 goals and only conceding 5 in their 5 games. Tom Cannon, especially, will be sad to leave the competition having scored 5 of his phenomenal tally of 15 goals against experienced professionals.
There is no doubt that playing against teams at this level teaches the Under 21s many things that won’t be replicated at Finch Farm. Besides the increased physicality and know-how they encounter, there is the aspect of game management. Paul Tait’s young men did very well indeed and should dwell on the positives, there’ll be lots more to come that’s for sure!
Tait was justifiably proud of his team at the final whistle:
“We’re gutted to lose because we almost had one foot in the quarter-finals. I’m gutted for the lads, but satisfied and proud at the way they played, particularly in the second half.
“In the first half we lacked a bit of belief, gave them too much respect, but in the second half we played with no fear. The shackles were off, there was more creativity and we got two great goals thanks to quality from Tom and Frankie.
“They are an honest bunch of kids who fight for everything and you could see that tonight, they were desperately unlucky not to go through.”