As Paul Tait’s Everton Under-21s headed to Nottinghamshire on Tuesday evening they did so in the knowledge that, like their counterparts in the Under 18 league, they remain in the danger zone of Premier League 2 having won only one of their 8 league games so far having scored only 7 goals and conceded 19.
So a trip to face Mansfield Town in the Football League Trophy should have been a welcome distraction, especially as it presented an opportunity for the youngsters to show what they can do against seasoned professionals riding high in 4th place in League Two. It was a bit of a pleasant surprise then that the “youngsters” included club captain Seamus Coleman and Jordan Pickford’s deputy, Joao Virginia along with first team squad members Youssef Chermiti and Lewis Dobbin. Experienced players at U21 level, Ryan Astley, Kyle John and Mackenzie Hunt also made the interesting line-up. It was a clear indication of some intent by the club and support for the beleaguered younger members of the group against the Football League team managed by former Liverpool player Nigel Clough.
In recognition of the big task that faced them, Paul Tait selected a 4-5-1 formation with a few players lining up in very different positions, namely right back Kyle John at left back, centre forward Francis Okoronkwo as a right midfielder and left back Mackenzie Hunt as a holding midfielder. It was a brave choice and after a season to forget so far, this was a night to remember.
Seamus Coleman leads out #EFCU21 at Mansfield tonight as he picks up more match fitness.— Everton (@Everton) November 7, 2023
Watch the #EFLTrophy action at https://t.co/7PnfmRVb3B or follow @EvertonAcademy for score updates. pic.twitter.com/0Ev2ft51G3
Lewis Dobbin, in particular, was looking very sharp and dangerous. He produced run after run at the Mansfield defence and was unlucky to see two early efforts go close, one well hit shot saved and another that he lifted over the bar.
Another strong first half move saw Chermiti link well with Coleman as the latter attacked the right of the box in trademark fashion. The skipper for the night was clearly pushed in the back as he steadied himself to shoot but stayed on his feet as the ball was smuggled to safety. Chermiti who showed some nice touches, chest control and a burst of pace also had a rasping shot well saved. The Blues were very good value to be level at half-time having created the better chances without seriously testing the home goalkeeper.
The second half saw a more determined effort by the League Two team and a raft of substitutes saw more of the club’s “big hitters” introduced through the second half as Nigel Clough sensed the young Blues were more than a match for his side.
Although it was more even, the Blues continued to create the better chances, a central run by Coleman feeding Chermiti who brought a good save, a Hunt surging run and shot that saw another fine stop and an attack where Chermiti refused to give up on a loose ball amongst uncertainty allowing Dobbin to fire an acrobatic volley which was turned aside.
Dobbin then smacked a shot against the crossbar before Virginia showed a few reasons why he has progressed to be number 2 keeper at Everton this year with a few tidy stops.
The move of the match actually came 10 minutes from time as the two fastest players on the pitch, Lewis Dobbin and Coleman’s 65th minute replacement Roman Dixon, broke at breakneck speed. Dixon left the opposition full back in his slipstream and played a perfect ball back to fellow substitute Owen Barker who unfortunately skied over. It would have ranked as one of the goals of the season had it gone in and young Barker’s misery was compounded minutes later when he himself turned his ankle and had to be substituted.
As the prospect of penalties became increasingly likely, it was a spot-kick in the last minute of normal time that actually presented the Blues with the chance of victory. Chermiti forced his way beyond the last defender and was clearly impeded, dusted himself off before confidently firing the penalty down the middle. 1-0. There was still time for more drama as, in added time, Virginia produced a magnificent diving save to push the ball for a corner. He then claimed the dangerous corner kick confidently under pressure to secure the win.
It was a very impressive performance after a difficult period of late. The experience and intelligence of the first team squad members undoubtedly made a difference but a special shout to two of the regular U21 players, Mackenzie Hunt and Kyle John, for magnificent performances which would have impressed the watching Ian Woan and Kevin Thelwell.
It was a good night all round in stark contrast to the match at the weekend.
The Saturday game had ended in disappointment yet again for the young Blues, the only real positives being the first appearance of two Irishmen at different ends of the footballing career ladder. A 45 minute stint for veteran club captain Seamus Coleman and a goalscoring return to action for 21 year old Northern Irishman Sean McAllister were the key features in a 3-1 defeat at Manchester United.
The Blues fell behind as early as the 7th minute as a United attacker escaped the attention of Coleman and squared for Joe Hugill and he gave Fraser Barnsley in the Toffees’ goal no chance. 0-1.
It got worse for Everton as, in the 30th minute, another piece of poor defending allowed United to double their advantage. Shola Shoretire, spotting that Everton were not deploying a “draught excluder” player at the foot of their defensive wall, struck a 20 yard free kick low under the airborne Blues players and almost apologetically inside the near post leaving goalkeeper Barnsley rooted. 0-2.
The Blues did pull a goal back 8 minutes after the interval as a breakaway move involving Frankie Okoronkwo and Isaac Heath saw the ball end with Sean McAllister. To be honest, it looked to be a cross that he aimed for Okoronkwo at the far post but it ended up perfectly in the top corner of the goal with the United keeper well beaten. 1-2.
United were set to restore their two goal advantage in the 79th minute and it was that man Hugill again. The former Sunderland youth player and North-East team-mate of Blues’ Okoronkwo, too easily lost his marker Eli Campbell and slotted home leaving Barnsley with little chance.
In summary, within the space of just over 3 days, the young Blues had tasted a confidence-sapping defeat and a morale-boosting victory. Such is life for the players at this level.
There’s now a wait until Wednesday 22nd November when the Blues take on Athletic Club of Bilbao in the Premier League International Cup. The only certainty is that there will be a few more smiles and a spring in the step next time they train at Finch Farm!