A stunning strike from Todd Kane in the closing stages secured a share of the points for a youthful Chelsea Under-18 team on Saturday morning in a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace at Cobham.
Dermot Drummy found starting berths for five schoolboys in his starting eleven – including Arsenal trialist Lewis Kinsella – and introduced three more as second half substitutes. George Saville – the only second year scholar involved – captained the team from centre-back, whilst Ismail Seremba once again led the line, flanked by Reece Loudon and Bobby Devyne.
It was Seremba who had the first sight of goal in the opening minutes, latching onto a through ball to get goal side of his man, but his effort was well saved by the Palace goalkeeper.
At the other end, Chelsea’s set piece concerns came to the fore early in the match as the visitors were afforded an opening inside the six yard box but the finish was poor and wide of Jamal Blackman’s goal.
The most notable aspect of the first twenty minutes was, in fact, how often the physios were called upon. Both Loudon and Alex Davey required treatment for facial injuries, whilst little else happened when play resumed.
Loudon, having recovered from taking a ball flush to the cheek, was looking more at home on the left wing rather than in defence, and looked to deliver crosses with regularity. One such effort caused consternation amongst the Palace defence and allowed Kane to arrive at the far post with a sprawling header which unfortunately missed the target.
To say Chelsea deserved the lead they took midway through the first half would perhaps be stretching the truth, but neither side had created a clear cut opportunity, so when Seremba pounced upon a rebound after Bobby Devyne’s effort was parried, the lead was just.
Palace, to their credit, rebounded well and sought to restore parity. Some committed defending and desperate blocking kept Chelsea ahead for a moment, but they were unable to hold out until the break.
A cross from the right after much persistence from both full back and winger found its way to the back post, where Palace captain Alex Wynter rose to power a header beyond Blackman, who got hands to to the ball.
They may have even taken a lead into the dressing rooms at the break were it not for Aaron Dalhouse’s header falling the wrong side of the post, but equally John Swift’s well-saved effort from another superb Loudon cross meant that a share of the spoils was perhaps right at this stage of the game.
No changes followed at half time, and as is rather typical of Under-18 matches, it took a little while for the game to find its pace again.
By the time it had, Palace were ahead, courtesy of some rather static Chelsea defending. A good cross from the right was headed home at the near post by an unmarked Ibra Sekajja.
Adam Nditi was introduced at left-back to add an attacking threat from deep, but having secured a lead, Palace were well and truly on top, and began to go about looking to put the game to bed.
Two shots rained wide of the target whilst another tested Blackman and may have beaten him were it not for it being straight at him. Chelsea struggled to get out of their half, as they often have since Philipp Prosenik went down with an injury, denying them a focal point to play off.
With no substitutes left on his bench, Drummy was forced to send for two reinforcements from the Under-16 pitch elsewhere on site, defenders Sam Bangura and new England Under-16 call-up Alistair Gordon.
Wingers Devyne and Loudon made way, with Nditi and Baker pushed on into advanced positions, and Kane doing everything possible to join them down the right hand side.
Seven schoolboys now occupied outfield positions, and despite the odds being against them to grab an equaliser against a physically capable opponent, they gave everything they had.
Gordon’s arrival in the anchor role in midfield provided some added steel alongside the impressive Nkumu, and allowed for others to get forward.
Nditi was the outlet pass over the top and almost broke clear on occasion, but was regularly denied by the offside flag.
With time running out, the game appeared to be up, but in such situations, sometimes you need a little bit of magic. From Baker’s corner, the ball arrived to the feet of Kane some 35 yards from goal.
In an instant he set himself and unleashed an absolute howitzer of an effort which simply flew past the goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
It was a fantastic end to a game which became more engrossing by the moment and Kane’s goal will certainly be re-lived throughout the campaign as a contender for Goal of the Season.
For a side so young – effectively an Under-16 side – the performance was refreshing and impressive. Results haven’t always gone the way of the Blues this season, but Drummy has stressed that performances and player development come first.
The likes of Nkumu, Loudon and Saville led well today as the more experienced on the pitch, each impressing in spells, whilst for each of the younger boys seeking scholarships with the club, they will grow more and more throughout the season, and that is extremely healthy for Chelsea Football Club.
Team: Blackman, Kane, Davey, Saville (c), Kinsella (Nditi 60), Nkumu, Swift, Baker, Devyne (Gordon 75), Loudon (Bangura 80), Seremba
Goals: Seremba 27, Kane 89