It was a match that came with the most ridiculous script. Hollywood would barely have accepted it as a realistic proposal, but in what will in all likelihood be the final match played on the Stamford Bridge pitch this season, Chelsea’s Under-18s won a fifth FA Youth Cup, a third in five seasons and a second in three, and they did it in unbelievable circumstances.
Trailing 3-2 to Fulham from the first leg at Craven Cottage last Monday, the young Blues dug themselves an even deeper hole as they went 1-0 behind within five minutes. With a two-goal margin now needing to be overturned on aggregate, they hauled themselves back on terms by striking twice in the space of as many minutes through Charlie Colkett and Jordan Houghton, but by half time Fulham had edged back ahead on the night and restored a healthy 6-4 aggregate lead.
A barnstorming second half that started with a triple substitution by Chelsea manager Adi Viveash could have gone either way but one of the newcomers, Swedish midfielder Isak Ssewankambo, gave his team some hope with a fantastic strike fifteen minutes from time before schoolboy forward Dominic Solanke produced a finale of all finales by scoring twice in the closing moments to claim the silverware.
Make sure you check out all of the best pictures from the night in Dan Davies’ excellent gallery HERE.
With the Under-21s having gone all the way to extra time and penalties away to Manchester City last Thursday, Viveash’s team selection had no choice but to factor in the weariness of some of those who had featured extensively at the Etihad. It mean Ssewankambo, Isaiah Brown and Ola Aina – all typically mainstays of the Youth Cup scene – were named only as substitutes and Andreas Christensen was the only player to have played the full 120 minutes last week included from the off.
Mitchell Beeney returned in goal after Brad Collins had deputised seven days earlier, whilst Christensen was once again joined at centre-back by another Under-16 in Jake Clarke-Salter. Fankaty Dabo replaced Ssewankambo at right-back whilst Jay Dasilva moved back into his more recognised role at left-back having impressed so much in a more advanced role of late.
A hugely influential midfield trio of Houghton, Colkett and captain Ruben Loftus-Cheek was kept together from the off but with Brown and Dasilva absent from their first leg roles and Alex Kiwomya still sidelined with illness, Charly Musonda and Kasey Palmer were drafted in to play alongside Colkett as a trio of playmakers behind Solanke in attack.
A year ago the Under-18s returned home for the second leg of their Final trailing Norwich City by just a goal and started well as Jeremie Boga put them on terms within a quarter of an hour. Any hopes they had of repeating the trick this time around went out of the window inside five minutes when Moussa Dembele sneaked a header in at the far post to send the couple of thousand Fulham fans in that corner into early raptures.
Needing to score twice to at least get a foothold in the game, Chelsea duly sought a response and Musonda was the first to bring Marek Rodak into action. The Slovakian had been busy in the first leg and made the first of many saves on this night when he scrambled down low to palm the Belgian’s shot to safety.
Nonetheless, the hosts looked a little unsure about themselves in the opening stages despite the presence of more than 13,000 fans in attendance, whilst Fulham were clearly buoyant after their early goal. The lively Patrick Roberts went close to putting the Cottagers out of sight when given a chance at the far post but struck the woodwork as he tried to sneak one past Beeney.
Loftus-Cheek volleyed wide from Colkett’s corner at the other end before the Blues struck back. Musonda played a quick one-two with Solanke and darted into the box only to be up-ended by Jordan Evans. The Welsh youngster was cautioned for his indiscretion and Colkett stepped up confidently to convert from twelve yards.
The supporters barely had time to collect their thoughts and to catch a breath before they were brought to their feet again by the third goal of the night and the eight of the tie. Houghton fed Solanke, who once again played a deft lay-off for his midfield colleague to steer a glorious strike into the corner from 25 yards out. It was suddenly 4-4 on aggregate and all to play for.
But with the hard work done, they had to do it all again and then some. Roberts’ give and go with Hyndman gave the England Under-17 international the daylight he needed to fashion a chance and his finish into the top corner showed why he’s been involved with Felix Magath’s first team in recent weeks.
Palmer and Solanke might have levelled things up again with decent opportunities but a barely believable first forty-five minutes concluded with another Fulham goal. More wizardry from Roberts gave way for midfielder Solomon Sambou to have a shot from the edge of the box, and his low effort flew through Christensen’s legs and into the bottom corner.
At 6-4 down overall, Viveash had 45 minutes to bring about another unlikely rescue mission, and he duly went all in. Aina, Ssewankambo and Brown were all called into duty from the bench at half time with the injured Clarke-Salter making way along with the clearly lethargic Loftus-Cheek and Palmer. They were all straight swaps but Brown’s arrival in attack offered more width and a bigger physical presence, whilst Ssewankambo and Aina provided natural athleticism regardless of their travails over the past week.
Ssewankambo proved as much by twice striding forward from deep to go close to beating Rodak whilst Brown also looked to make a quick impact. Dembele kept them busy at the other end though, and took a clattering from Beeney as he attempted (unsuccessfully) to beat him with a lob from the edge of the box.
Chelsea turned the screw and mounted considerable territorial pressure but Fulham defended with resilience and pride, led in no small part by the exceptional efforts of defenders Liam Donnelly and Cameron Burgess. The hosts were largely limited to shots from less than favourable positions and whilst the likes of Brown and Colkett did their best, Rodak was equal to whatever they could throw his way.
Williams and Dembele spurned opportunities to seal the deal for Fulham and with time ticking away, it would take something special for the boys in blue to get their hands back on the trophy. Ssewankambo stepped up to the plate with thirteen minutes left as he unleashed a howitzer of a strike from long range that flew past Rodak and into the corner to halve the deficit and set the stage for Solanke’s main event.
Five minutes later Colkett sent a searching ball into the box, picking out a teasing area between Rodak and his defenders. Solanke ghosted into position and flicked it into the corner to bring everything back to square one at 6-6. Extra Time was looming, but in keeping with the entire spectacle, this one was far from over yet.
Roberts went down the other end and put hearts in mouths by hitting the post for the second time on the night and when Dembele was set to score from the rebound, Christensen was on hand to clear from the line. Sensing it was indeed to be their time, a stoppage time winner secured Youth Cup glory. Brown’s enterprising run fed Colkett on the penalty spot, and he in turn had the presence of mind to find Solanke with a backheel. The striker took a touch to set himself before finding the roof of the net for his 20th and most important goal of a breakthrough campaign to remember.
Fulham had one last chance but Beeney grabbed the ball inside his six yard box and the final whistle sparked scenes of euphoric celebration on the pitch and in the stands. Loftus-Cheek, who was only able to play a few minutes of the club’s last Youth Cup win due to long-term injury, strode forward onto the podium and lifted the trophy he and his colleagues had coveted so dearly.
The past five years have seen some spell-binding tales at this level; the 4-3 turnaround away to Nottingham Forest, the 3-3 against West Ham with a penalty shootout victory, the three come-from-behind wins in a row during 2010-11 and even last season’s extra time battle at Charlton, but this will take some beating. Chelsea Football Club, FA Youth Cup winners again.
Chelsea: Beeney, Dabo, Christensen, Clarke-Salter (Aina 45), Dasilva, Houghton, Loftus-Cheek (c) (Ssewankambo 45), Colkett, Palmer (Brown 45), Musonda, Solanke
Subs not Used: Collins, Christie-Davies
Fulham: Rodak, Sheckleford (Smile 88), Donnelly, Burgess, Evans, Sambou, Hyndman, O’Halloran, Roberts, Williams, Dembele
Subs not Used: Norman, Baba, Redford, Walker