At the end of October the Devon FA Girls’ Emerging Talent Centre went on a road trip to the other side of Country to take part in the Canary Cup 2023, hosted by Norwich City Community Sports Foundation. Read on to hear about what turned out to be a quite brilliant experience…
Devon FA has long provided a Centre for girls on the FA’s Talent Pathway, first as a Centre of Excellence and then until 2022, as an Advanced Coaching Centre. Slight changes to the FA’s vision and goals two years ago now means our programme is known as an FA Girls’ Emerging Talent Centre, a model that is replicated all over the Country at around 65 different Clubs, County FA’s and organisations. It’s aim is to provide better access and opportunity for girls from all different backgrounds and locations into the FA’s Talent Pathway, something we are very proud to offer in the County of Devon.
Amongst the almost exclusively positive feedback from players and parents over the last couple of seasons, there has been a request to explore opportunities to take fixtures further afield and play against new opposition. Whilst we already have a very comprehensive fixture programme that provides fixtures against other ETC’s from the Southwest Region as well as a large number of games against boys/mixed teams from Devon, it’s always nice to face new teams from out of the region.
So when the opportunity came to sign up for the Canary Cup 2023, providing an opportunity to take part in a tournament against a whole host of new teams, we jumped at the chance. It’s at this point that we must give the biggest of thanks and shout-outs to the amazing parents, staff and players who committed to this trip, nearly 400 miles and 6 hours away (that’s without the traffic delays and road closures that were experienced!). It’s a huge effort to rearrange work and other family commitments to be able to make this trip on top of the financial implications, and we are incredibly grateful to everyone who attended and helped us represent Devon in such a big way.
The tournament itself was split into two days, with the u14’s on day one and the u12’s and u16’s on day two. Here is the story of how each day unfolded….
DAY ONE – u14’s
On arrival at the stunning venue, The Nest, for the u14 tournament it was obvious this was going to be a well organised event. Two full sized 3G’s pitches (one brand new), multiple quality grass pitches and a fantastic indoor facility with refreshments, seating and everything you could need.
As always, the Devon players arrived on time looking excited and ready for the day ahead. With 7 teams in attendance, the tournament format meant we would get a chance to face each of them in a group stage, with the top four moving into the knockout stages.
First up were the hosts, Norwich City. A slightly nervous and edgy game ended in a quite predictable 0-0 draw. A decent start and a point on the board is never bad for the opening game, particularly as the other opening game also ended goalless between Colchester and Brighton.
Game 2 opponents were Peterborough United. Another tight contest was 1-1 for some time before we took control of the game and fired in two goals to take a 3-1 win.
Next up was Brentford and the Devon girls were starting to grow in confidence. A great performance gave us a 4-0 win.
Game 4 and 5 both followed suit with 2-0 wins over Cambridge United and then Brighton & Hove Albion. We were now in full flow.
In fact, we’d qualified for the knockout stages after game 4. But with one more group game still to play, there was no time for complacency. A quick re-focus from the coaching team to encourage the girls to play every game with the same intensity obviously worked as our most dominant display of the day followed with a 5-0 victory over Colchester United.
Group stage complete, and we had accumulated 16 points from a possible 18. The top 4 were confirmed with the semi-final draw pitting us against Norwich City who had finished fourth. The other semi-final would be between Peterborough and Cambridge United.
A rematch of the first game of the day awaited, but under very different circumstances. Instead of being the outsiders and an unknown entity, we were now the team to beat.
A very controlled semi-final performance followed, though Norwich did threaten a couple of times with dangerous counter attacks. A 2-0 win saw us deservedly progress to the final where we would face Peterborough United, who had been the toughest opponents of the day so far.
What followed was a very tense encounter. An excellent tactical decision from the opposition saw a tweak to their formation to try and deal with our attacking style. This mostly nullified our attacks down the right-hand side which had caused havoc all day long.
A game of few chances saw us come close with an effort that went just wide before a scary moment at the other end saw a Peterborough shot clip the outside of the post. But there was no breakthrough and the game ended 0-0 meaning a penalty shoot-out would be required.
We all know how tense a penalty shoot-out can be, and for those 10 minutes or so everything seems to pause. World Cup Final or local grassroots game, there is no escaping the fact that a penalty shoot-out is one of those things that just can’t be replicated.
Five penalty takers were selected by each team and the referee’s coin toss decided it would be Peterborough to take the first penalty. A well hit shot was saved brilliantly by Bella Lewis in the Devon goal. Chloe Curtis then calmly slotted the ball home with our opener, advantage Devon! Peterborough’s second was hit over the bar before we took a 2-0 lead with Brooklyn Brothers finding the net. Penalty number three was buried by both teams with everything seeming to be going well for us. Peterborough scored again and then a possible momentum shift as unfortunately our fourth penalty was missed. Peterborough then smashed in their fifth penalty and suddenly it was 3-3. But one important fact remained, Devon had one more penalty to go with centre back Ella Rowe stepping forward. The crowd fell silent and a huge jumbo jet from nearby Norwich airport flew over as Rowe placed the ball, only adding to the tension. The referee’s whistle blew, and Rowe’s penalty was hit well with the keeper diving the right way. A hand on the ball from the keeper had the Devon supporters worried, but she could not keep the ball out of the net… GOAL TO DEVON and a 4-3 win on penalties!
There was elation from players and parents and mutual respect shown by both sets of girls for the effort both teams had put in.
Devon had won and were crowned Canary Cup 2023 Champions!
Day one was complete, but there was still much more to come 24 hours later!
DAY TWO – u12 and u16’s
Nothing could match the excitement of the day before, and the u14’s dramatic penalty shoot-out triumph…….could it?
You bet it could!
With both our u12 and u16’s competing on day two, and a total of 20 teams across the two age groups, this was looking like being another exciting day full of twists and turns.
Both age groups would be split into two groups, with the top two teams in each qualifying for the knockout rounds.
The u12’s were on first, and just like the u14’s the day before their first game was against the hosts, Norwich City. It was another tight game, and also ended 0-0. A solid start.
The u16’s opening game would be against Peterborough United and we made a great start with an early goal before adding a second later on to secure the win thanks to a wonderful Georgie Knott goal which looked like it would be hard to beat for goal of the day (read on for more on that).
The second round of games saw both teams win 2-0 as the u16’s beat Cambridge United and the u12’s picked up a really important victory over Oxford United to kick start their day.
The u12’s then had another 2-0 win, this time over Brentford before quickly following up with a 4-0 triumph over Peterborough United. Three wins on the bounce had secured a place in the semi-finals with a group game still to play. It’s worth pointing out at this point that the quality of football on show from the u12 teams in difficult conditions was something to behold. Saying it was wet and muddy does not do it justice. At this stage of the day, our lovely white socks were more of a soggy brown!
After a break the u16’s were back in action against Brentford and a bit of a lethargic performance looked as if it was going to end in a 1-1 draw before we grabbed a winner. An important goal that, much like the u12’s, meant progression to the semi-final with one group game left.
The u12’s finished off the group stage with yet another 2-0 scoreline, this time beating Cambridge United which meant we finished joint top of the group with Norwich City. Both teams were also tied on goal difference, goals scored and having drawn in the head-to-head game. So, a coin toss was used to decide who would be classed as group winners, with Norwich getting the nod. This meant we would face Brighton & Hove Albion, who had won their group, in our semi-final.
Before this though, there was one more u16 group game to be played against one of the Birmingham City teams (the ‘reds’). A quality game was evenly contested with the score 1-1 going into the final minute, a result that would see us win the group. But there was no intention from our girls to settle for a draw and with literally the last kick of the game, Faye Dixon fired a 25 yard strike high into the net to win us the game. A brilliant goal and a brilliant way to finish off the group stage. A result that would see us play the other Birmingham City team (the ‘blues’) in the semi.
With a couple of other games to be played out in the group stage by other teams, there was a short period to rest and prepare for the semi-final. It was at this point that the coaching team began to reflect on the two days and what a success it had been already for each team to have progressed from the group stage. With the u14’s winning the whole thing the day before, it was clear what the aim would be now……to paint Norfolk completely blue with the colours of Devon FA and win the remaining two age groups.
The u12 semi-final was the first to get underway and it was Brighton who took the lead. This was in fact the only game for any of our age groups during the tournament where we found ourselves behind. A big task then to recover against what was a strong side. But we did just that by dragging ourselves level to take the game to penalties.
Meanwhile, the u16 semi-final was well underway with the game tied at 1-1. Surely not another penalty shoot-out?
Back to the u12’s and the penalties. The increasingly difficult conditions would make this tough for all involved which proved to be the case as several players were unable to connect properly with their strikes, and goalkeepers slipping around in the mud.
Ultimately it was Brighton who were victorious as we fell to 4-3 penalty shoot-out defeat. Naturally there were some very deflated players and parents, but who must have been so proud of their efforts and performance during the day. They’d have been forgiven at this point for jumping in the car and heading home (wet and cold) for the long journey home to the Southwest.
But what followed was one of the fondest moments of the entire trip. Heading back towards the car park the u12’s had to walk past the u16 game and realised that (yes, you’ve guessed it) the match had finished 1-1 and would also be heading to penalties. If one team is going to have a penalty shoot-out you might as well make all three do it, right?
Instead of walking on by and making their way home, each and every u12 player, parent and supporter congregated behind the goal where the u16 penalties would take place. In goal for Devon and facing the penalties was Amy Lockyer, in her first season with Devon FA and called up from the u14’s for this tournament due to the u16 keepers being otherwise engaged (something about a GK training day at St George’s Park and watching the Lionesses train!). Amy had clearly been nervous all day long with a mix of emotions on show. And these emotions were clear for all to see ahead of facing the first penalty. With chin in chest and tears rolling down her face, this looked a tough ask. But who was there to show support and encouragement? The u12 parents and players. It was a genuinely moving moment to see close to 40 people of all ages backing a young player in need of a pick-me-up.
Lockyer responded in the only way she could to pay back this support by saving the first penalty. We scored our first and then the new fan-favourite Devon keeper pulled off a stunning stop for Birmingham’s second. The tears and trepidation had turned into a beaming smile of confidence, with Lockyer recognising the role the u12 players and parents had played.
Penalty two for Devon was put away and we had a 2-0 lead. Like the u14’s the day before though, it’s never over until it’s over as a two well taken Birmingham penalties and two missed from Devon tied the shoot-out at 2-2 with one penalty left to take each. Who would be the hero? Who do you think! Lockyer produced another good save which prevented Birmingham taking the lead for her third stop of the shoot-out. This left Molly Stroud with the ‘simple’ task of slotting the ball home to take us into the final with the standard penalty shoot-out win bundle quickly following with Stroud and Lockyer in the middle.
There was one player though who perhaps wasn’t feeling quite so joyful at this stage. Striker Georgia Vaccaro, who had missed one of our penalties, had not scored so far in the tournament and looked a little lost for confidence in her performances. Used to banging in goals for fun, Vaccaro was experiencing one of those days in the life of a striker where unfortunately nothing was going her way. It was clear to all that she was frustrated with this, but with one more big game to go (the final) there were some cleverly timed words of encouragement from some key individuals, hoping that there was time still for one moment of magic from Vaccaro.
With the other semi-final being won by Norwich it was a game against the hosts, who had won every game so far without conceding, to decide who would be crowned u16 champions. As you’d expect for the last game of a long (and brilliant) two-day event there was quite some crowd gathering around the pitch, lead in voice by the brilliant Devon supporters. Two excellent sides full of confidence played out a cracker of a game. Both sides were probing for the goal that could win the tournament, but the defences were coming out on top. Just as it looked like neither team would be able to find the breakthrough, something quite spectacular happened.
Receiving the ball at hip height around 25 yards out with her back to goal, Vaccaro’s first touch took the ball to the side and on to her favoured right foot, with the ball sitting up perfectly on the bounce. Without hesitation, Vaccaro unleashed an absolute belter of a strike which rocketed past the keeper and into the top corner of the goal, clipping the inside of the post on its way. Queue rapturous celebration as every player sprinted forward to congratulate Vaccaro on the goal, a sign of the bond and team spirit within this group. They all knew how big this goal could be.
It was a sublime goal, genuinely one of the best we’ve seen and showed great resilience from a player who had not been on her best form.
The goal turned out to be the winner, and the u16’s had won the tournament.
There have since been some very warming comments from players, parents and coaches about the trip; a few of which have been summarised below.
"At first, we were a little bit concerned about the travel distance for this tournament and whether it would be worth it. But we couldn’t have been more wrong. It was brilliantly organised by everyone involved and was an incredible experience. It also gave the girls a great opportunity to bond together" - (u16 parent)
"My daughter has literally not stopped talking about this to everyone she has seen since. Being able to play so many new teams, and big clubs as well, was great. And to win on penalties made it even more dramatic and exciting" - (u14 parent)
"We were disappointed to lose on penalties but loved the day and also loved being able to go and cheer on the u16 team win on penalties after our game had finished". - (u12 parent)
"The pitches were so nice and I loved playing against new teams. It’s nice to go to new places and I liked playing in a tournament" - (player)
"I loved playing against different teams and it was such a good day. The pitches were so nice. It was a long way in the car but I liked coming away with friends and family for 2 days and it was amazing when we won the final on penalties. Everyone was so happy". - (player)
"The opportunity for us to take our girls across the Country and compete in events like this is what it’s all about. We’re so proud of how the girls conducted themselves and how well every age group played. It was pretty special seeing the bond grow between players and we can’t thank the parents and families enough for making the commitment to travel up and be there with us". - (Devon FA staff)
SUMMARY OF RESULTS
U12 results & goal scorers
Devon 0-0 Norwich City
Devon 2-0 Oxford United (Lumsden, Zinn)
Devon 2-0 Brentford (Coles, Lumsden)
Devon 4-0 Peterborough United (Dooley, Fice, Fice, Zinn)
Devon 2-0 Cambridge United (Fice, Fice)
SEMI FINAL – Devon 1-1 Brighton & Hove Albion (Allen), Brighton won 4-3 on pens
Player of the day was Isla Knight who was a rock all day long and helped the team consistently build attacks.
U14 results & goal scorers
Devon 0-0 Norwich City
Devon 3-1 Peterborough United (Westacott, Brothers, Pearse)
Devon 4-0 Brentford (Atkin, Garside, Parrott, Heywood)
Devon 2-0 Cambridge United (Dent, Westacott)
Devon 2-0 Brighton & Hove Albion (Cartwright, Dent)
Devon 5-0 Colchester United (Cartwright, Pearse, Parrott, Brothers, Brothers)
SEMI FINAL - Devon 2-0 Norwich City (Pearse, Dent)
FINAL - Devon 0-0 Peterborough United, Devon won 4-3 on pens
Player of the day was Sophie Pearse who was almost unplayable on the right-hand side, ending the tournament with 3 goals and 5 assists.
U16 results & goal scorers
Devon 2-0 Peterborough United (Dixon, Knott)
Devon 2-0 Cambridge United (Coaker, Firth)
Devon 2-1 Brentford (Thomas, O.G)
Devon 2-1 Birmingham City Reds (Mearns, Dixon)
SEMI FINAL - Devon 1-1 Birmingham City Blues (Coaker), Devon won 3-2 on pens
FINAL – Devon 1-0 Norwich City (Vaccaro)
Player of the day was Faye Dixon who had endless energy in midfield to help drive the team to a brilliant tournament win.