Academy football returned on Saturday with a seven-goal thriller as Chelsea’s Under-18s edged out Manchester United 4-3 at Cobham to remain a perfect two-out-of-two in the Merit Stage of competition.
A fascinating contest in the warmth of a sunny April morning swung to and fro, with the visitors establishing an early lead through Ethan Hamilton only to trail at the break as Juan Castillo and Conor Gallagher, from the penalty spot, put the Blues in the ascendancy.
Joshua Bohui soon levelled things up again though and, despite another Gallagher penalty, a late Nishan Burkart goal looked to have assured a share of the spoils for the Reds, but George McEachran’s stoppage-time winner gave all three points to the hosts.
Playing at home in the league for the first time in more than six week, Chelsea had a nearly fully-fit squad available to them, and Jody Morris called upon the additional experience of Jacob Maddox from his extended Youth Cup team in midfield, but there were otherwise seven first-year scholars and one schoolboy in a youthful looking starting eleven.
They began with typical vigour too, forcing early mistakes from the United rearguard without quite being able to turn them into proper opening, but found themselves in the unfamiliar position of trailing after just ten minutes. Good play on the right between Bohui and Angel Gomes eventually worked out for Hamilton, who slammed a left-footed effort past Jamie Cumming with the aid of a hefty deflection.
It didn’t take long for Morris’ boys to hit back. Taylor-Crossdale, close to picking the lock after a neat exchange with McEachran, came inside from the right and crashed an effort that beat Theo Richardson in the away goal only to crash back off the crossbar. Castillo, though, collected the rebound and steered an excellent strike into the top corner with his weaker right foot to score for the second game in succession.
Cole Dasilva and Gallagher both tried and failed to add to the scoresheet before Taylor-Crossdale came to the forest again to help turn things around. His driving run through a crowd of red shirts was brought to an abrupt halt by the flailing Richardson, who was beaten from the penalty spot by Gallagher, who made it 2-1.
The United stopper, to his credit, was the sole reason his team were still in the contest at half time. A truly superb save to deny Taylor-Crossdale was followed up by a brave stop at the feet of the always-lively Hudson-Odoi, with the best his team-mates could do in support was a tame Zak Dearnley shot that went well wide.
Gomes, the talented England Under-17 midfielder, had been at the heart of anything notable the visitors had produced in the first 45 minutes, but a recent knock prevented from from continuing after the restart as he made way for DJ Buffonge. Formerly of Fulham, it was instead another player transplanted from London who struck next, as the former Brentford forward Bohui latched onto a fine through ball from Lee O’Connor before firing beyond Cumming accurately into the far corner for 2-2.
Taylor-Crossdale continued his own personal battle with Richardson in response, improving brilliantly to collect McEachran’s flicked through ball but, once again, watching on with frustration as the newly-signed Reds’ custodian adjusted his body to get down and turn it away for a corner.
Buffonge had an appeal for what would have been a soft penalty fall on deaf ears, making it an even more bitter pill to swallow for Man Utd when McEachran was awarded one moments later for a trip that looked just as unconvincing in real time. It was given by the linesman rather than the referee, but it mattered not to Gallagher, who confidently despatched his second spot kick of the day to make it 3-2 and restore the lead.
A string of injuries fractured the flow of the game as the clock ticked into the final quarter of the match, the pace and intensity of the action clearly taking its toll. Bohui and Hamilton were forced off for United, as was Taylor-Crossdale for Chelsea shortly after he twisted and turned his way into a shooting position only for Richardson to once again intervene.
One of the substitutes, Nishan Burkart, appeared to have claimed a point for Kieran McKenna’s side when he was on hand to make it 3-3 with the follow-up to Tyrell Warren’s blocked header, but a lengthy period of stoppage time game both sides hope.
Reece James and Richard Nartey both saw headers from McEachran free-kicks come to nothing before McEachran himself stepped up to decide things, sweeping home gleefully from six yards out after another typically lung-busting run down the left by Castillo.
The win keeps hopes of a league and cup double very much alive for Chelsea, with a trip to Manchester City next weekend presenting another stern test of their credentials. Before then, however, the Development Squad are back in action on Friday night against Sunderland at Stamford Bridge, with tickets on general sale now.
Chelsea: Cumming, James, Nartey (c), Guehi, Castillo, Gallagher (McCormick), C.Dasilva (Colley), Maddox, Taylor-Crossdale (St Clair), McEachran, Hudson-Odoi
Subs not Used: Thompson, C.Brown
Goals: Castillo, Gallagher (2 pens), McEachran
Manchester United: Richardson, Tanner, Kenyon, Warren (c), O’Connor, Whelan, Boonen, Hamilton (Spratt), Bohui (Burkart), Gomes (Buffonge), Dearnley
Subs not Used: Ercolani, Fojticek
Goals: Hamilton, Bohui, Burkart