Ross Juniors U17 team defied all expectations to take Hereford U16s to penalties in the final of the Herefordshire Football Association Youth Cup on Sunday. Hereford won the cup by slotting their first three penalties, while Ross failed to convert any, leaving the players disconsolate, having come so close to what would have been a famous victory.
Through February and March, Ross had shown their best form, going unbeaten for five games, including the hard fought semi final at Shobdon. They were handed a reality check the week before the final by losing 2-0 away to Bartestree Colts - a team Ross had twice beaten 4-1 earlier in the season - on a day when nothing went as the visitors planned.
Ross knew that Hereford would present a sterner challenge still, as the Bulls have been very successful this term, topping the U16 Junior Premier League Midlands Central Division. There was Ross talk of damage limitation and playing for pride, and certainly few thoughts of matching their opponents. The Bulls put Ross under consistent pressure in the first half hour, but failed to score through good defending, particularly from centre halves Tom Hassan and Jonno Wright; good goal keeping from Ethan Lerego; and one excellent goal line clearance from Ben Fletcher. Ross had begun to establish themselves more, when Hereford took the lead just a few minutes before the break, after picking up a lose ball just outside the area.
Coaches Tony and Mark Fletcher encouraged their charges at half time, rightly saying that Ross had weathered the storm and were still very much in the game. This led to a spirited second half where Ross were more threatening than Hereford, with foraging runs down the right from Ollie Lloyd and chances on goal from Seb Lawson. Fin Mudie-Jones helped to control the midfield alongside Max Jennings continuing the industrious work from Jack Smith, Fin Fletcher and TJ Swallow in the first half. Mid way through the second 40, Tom Hassan floated a sublime left foot free kick into the Hereford box which the defence failed to deal with and Joe Thomas headed home the equaliser.
Both teams pressed hard for the winner, Jeremy Dijkens putting in a physical shift at right back, but the full time whistle meant twenty minutes of extra time would be required. Tony Fletcher later chose Adam Davies as his Ross Man of the Match, not least for his flexibility in moving from left wing to right wing to midfield, and his effort in trying to cover every blade of grass on the pitch. Ross' second goal at the start of the second period of extra time came from a Davies corner, again causing a melee in defense, this time Alfie Robinson firing a goal from short range. Ross' celebrations were enthusiastic, but they knew they had seven or eight minutes to hold on. They were only a minute away from winning, when ex Ross player Jamie Payne curled a shot from outside the area into the top corner for Hereford's equaliser. From a Ross perspective, the less said about the penalty shoot-out, the better, Hereford winning 3-0 after the first six kicks.
It was a hard pill to swallow, but the lads will look back on a fine performance, pushing a much more experienced team so close. This Ross team has the potential to do well into next year, as most of the side are only sixteen in an U17 league. There are three games left in the season to try and secure a top half place in the league.