Football’s a funny old game.
For much of the 2010-11 season, Chelsea’s Under-18s have played well, but struggled for luck and results.
On a remarkably cold Saturday morning at home to Charlton, however, that took a swing in the opposite direction.
Having been second best for much of the morning, a strong finish from the Blues saw a last-gasp Walter Figueira goal clinch three points which will bring much warmth.
After a heavy reverse last weekend at Fulham, the team chosen by Dermot Drummy was an even younger one. Schoolboys Figueira and Ismail Seremba started after good displays as substitutes last weekend, with Aziz Deen-Conteh and Archange Nkumu dropping out.
It meant a return to right-back for Todd Kane, with Ben Sampayo and George Saville in the centre of defence.
Anton Rodgers had an early effort from well outside the penalty area but his volley was tame and easily dealt with by goalkeeper Connor Gough, and it was to prove a rare moment of action going forward for the hosts.
Instead, Charlton made plenty of gains and dominated the first half. England Under-17 international Jordan Cousins led a swift counter attack and drew a smart save from Jamal Blackman, before Tosan Popo – once a Blues schoolboy – hit the crossbar from eight yards out following a melee in the box.
Further chances fell to Cousins and Joe Piggott, but they were either ineffective or dealt with by Blackman. Chelsea struggled to find a way through the midfield, with three slight forwards up against much bigger defenders.
Indeed, whilst Charlton were not the biggest team, each outfielder was bigger than their direct opposite number. It meant that little pockets of space for the midfielders were hard to come by, and efforts at goal were restricted to long range, such as Affane’s wayward effort midway through the half.
A late tackle from Cousins on Sampayo drew the ire of Saville, but a stern word from the referee with the Charlton captain defused the situation.
Popo had another sight of goal quickly closed by the in-form Blackman, whilst Piggott and Callum Harriott both will have wanted to do better with their finishes before half time.
Much of the visitors’ good play had come down the right, where Connor Morris and the speedy Adebayo Azeez were combining to good effect. However, they had been unable to conjure up a goal, and the two teams went in at half time scoreless.
No changes in personnel came before the restart, and little changed in the flow of the game. Morris advanced to benefit from Nditi going missing and found himself with a shooting chance, but rather snatched at it and missed the target.
Azeez, Piggott and Bradley Jordan also tried their luck without success, and as the game ticked past the hour mark one wondered if the Addicks’ profligacy in front of goal would come back to haunt them.
Devyne kept them acutely aware of the danger at the other end when he displayed quick feet to work a shooting opportunity, and only narrowly missed the near post with a skidding drive.
Jordan Houghton entered the match with twenty minutes remaining, making his Under-18 debut. He slotted into the anchoring role in midfield, and with Seremba making way, a slight change of shape saw a narrow midfield look adopted.
The closing stages of the match saw the play stretched, and Sampayo was called upon to make a last gasp tackle to stop Charlton cashing in on a swift counter-attack. The visitors had used all three substitutes in attack and had fresh legs, whereas Chelsea named no subs and called upon Under-16 players, who had been playing elsewhere on site.
Fankaty Dabo was called down as a potential option but Drummy would only use the one substitute. It therefore came as something of a surprise to see the home team finishing the stronger.
Some lovely intricate build-up play saw the chance of the game fall to Figueira with minutes of normal time remaining. He took the ball down inside the area, turned to shoot, but leant back just enough to see his effort clear the crossbar.
It appeared as if that would be that, and the teams would share the spoils, but deep into stoppage time the hard work paid off.
Endless endeavour from Devyne saw him best Semi Ajayi in a battle for the ball down the right side. A few stepovers followed before a left-footed cross.
Figueira got away from Harry Osbourne for a split second, and it proved enough. He turned, flicked the ball past Gough and whilst he didn’t get hold of it, there was enough contact on the ball to put it over the line before the defender could clear.
The goal was awarded, and the full time whistle almost immediately followed. After a hard lesson learned away from home last week, this was a performance of greater character, belief and effort, and it was rewarded with a confidence-boosting winner.
The second-year pair of Saville and Sampayo did well at the back, with neither actually being natural in that position, whilst Rodgers and Stenning combined well in possession ahead of them.
Whilst the game was frustrating in long spells for Affane, Seremba, Figueira and Devyne, their mentality was commendable, and that above all – for everyone in blue today – will be savoured. Charlton played well and would have beaten better sides on another day, but it wasn’t to be theirs this time.
Team: Blackman, Kane, Sampayo (c), Saville, Nditi, Rodgers, Stenning, Affane, Seremba (Houghton 70), Devyne, Figueira
Goal: Figueira ‘90+2