Devon Agonisingly Close to Incredible Cup Victory

Devon Schools FA U14 Girls came agonisingly close to victory in the ESFA U14 National Cup Final.

For the first time in 42 years, a Devon County representative team reached a National Final as the Devon Schools FA Under 14 Girls’ squad travelled to Stoke City’s bet365 stadium to take on Lancashire Schools FA.

There is no hiding the fact that, on paper at least, Devon went into this game as huge underdogs against a team that are serial winners of this competition having featured in 10 of the previous 12 finals at under 14 level, winning 7 of them.

With all the hype and tension around the build up to this game, enhanced by the fact this was a 5:30pm kick off and the last final of the day, it was of no great surprise that the game itself was edgy right from kick off. Both sides keen to try and assert some dominance in possession and in territory.

It was Devon who created the first opportunity of the game in the 4th minute as Molly Stroud’s delicious ball in from a free kick in the wide left position was met by Brooklyn Brothers on the run but she could only head the ball wide of the far post. Shortly after it was Lancashire’s turn to deliver into the box from the first corner of the game, but a dangerous ball in was headed away superbly by Evie Parrott and then by Kennedy Garside from the return delivery.

Devon have been at their most dangerous all season when getting in behind opponents full backs and it wasn’t long before Sophie Pearse latched onto a brilliant Brothers pass to whip a great ball across the box, unfortunately nobody able to get on the end of it. It was Brothers then who tried a speculative drive from 40 yards that went high and wide. Devon were beginning to build a bit of pressure, attacking well down both sides with full backs Parrott and Jasmine Legge playing froward into Pearse and Maisie White in the wide forward positions with regularity and precision. Pearse forced a corner from another good move which was well defended by the Lancashire defence and White was looking on form with her quick feet and close ball control.

At the other end, Devon’s defence were looking strong with Ella Rowe and Chloe Curtis at the heart of the back four and Emily Bown in goal quick off her line to pick up several overhit passes. 20 minutes played and with the game still goalless, the first substitutions of the day were made with Amber Zhang and Layla Dent coming on for Devon in attacking areas.

It wasn’t until the 23rd minute when Lancashire really threatened the Devon goal, as a corner fell nicely for them but was blasted over the bar from 10 yards out. White then went close for Devon as she got on the end of another good passing move but struck her volley across goal and just wide. The intensity from the Devon girls in this first half was noticeable as good closing down from Dent presented Pearse with the ball 30 yards from goal. A quick burst to the egde of the box gave her space to shoot, with her strike being well saved low down by the Lancashire keeper.

Maya Roberts and Farrah Ambrose then entered the game off the Devon bench and slotted seamlessly into what was a very impressive first half performance, just without being able to find that all important breakthrough as the half time whistle went at 0-0.

The second half started in much the same way as the first had finished with Devon looking more dangerous. A wonderful ball over the top from Stroud very nearly created an opportunity for Pearse who was once again looking to get in behind but again Devon could not quite create that clear goal scoring opportunity.

Then came a huge moment in the game as Lancashire, against the run of play, took the lead. A free kick from the left was superbly tipped onto the post by Amy Lockyer, now in the Devon goal, with the rebound falling straight to a Lancashire forward who somehow struck the ball twice against the crossbar. After a couple of blocks the ball then dropped straight onto the foot of the Lancashire striker who knocked the ball into the net. Such an unlucky way to concede but Devon were now behind.

Visibly shocked at the goal, Devon took a while to get going again and a good Lockyer save down low to her left prevented Lancashire doubling their lead before Legge’s excellent defending stopped a threatening looking attack.

In the 49th Minute Jess Westacott, now back on the pitch, was so close to getting on the end of yet another impressive counter attack but was unable to fully connect with White’s low ball into the box. Needing some inspiration, a formation change was made as Kennedy Garside re-entered the game and moved to a right wing position in what now looked like a 4-4-2 shape for Devon. An instant impact from Garside saw her pull the ball back for Brothers who whipped a lovely ball into the box but just too close to the keeper.

The game was now end to end at this point with Legge, Rowe, Curtis and Parrot again having to hold firm in defence and put in some well-timed and very strong challenges. Yet again at the attacking end of the pitch the ball would just not fall kindly for the Devon attackers and with only 10 minutes remaining it very much looked like time was running out. Frustration was becoming apparent on the players faces, who had given their all for the first hour of this game which was starting to get a little bit scrappy.

But there is something special about this group of players. The self-belief and determination they show means they never give in. Could they create just one more chance?

Some adjustments to lineup and formation saw Devon begin to get back on the front foot as the game headed into the final minutes. Bit by bit the game was being played more in the attacking third of the pitch but still that goal scoring opportunity would not come. Five minutes of stoppage time were indicated and it was with the final kick of the game that the chance was finally created. Legge’s long throw fell to Westacott on the left wing. Her lofted ball towards the edge of the box was knocked down by Brothers into the path of Zhang. A lovely layoff from Zhang found Parrott breaking into the box and she fired a brilliant shot into the top corner of the net to send the Devon players, staff and parents wild. The noise created by those Devon spectators in the stadium was quite something. It was just reward for the performance Devon had given in the game with penalties the absolute least they deserved.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be and Devon were defeated in the shoot-out 5-4 after sudden death. 7 Devon penalties were all well taken and hit the target but the Lancashire keeper, who was later awarded player of the match, was there to make 3 fine saves. Heartbreak for these young girls who had given absolutely everything in this game to battle and find a way to draw level in the last second. The overall experience of making a national final and the joy of that Evie Parrott goal will live long in the memory, and there is no doubt that everyone associated with these girls and with Devon could not have been more proud of each and every one of them. The season is not done yet, with an upcoming South West Counties Cup semi-final to play.

Devon Squad: Emily Bown, Evie Parrott, Ella Rowe, Chloe Curtis, Jasmine Legge, Molly Stroud, Brooklyn Brothers ©, Kennedy Garside, Sophie Pearse, Maisie White, Jess Westacott, Amy Lockyer, Maya Roberts, Farrah Ambrose, Amber Zhang, Layla Dent

Additional players: Bella Lewis, Neeve Thomson, Leela Cartwright, Annette Atkin, Madison Williams-King