Over the Easter weekend our Under-11s age group travelled to France to participate in the Loon-Plage football tournament, writes Jason Brindley.
Whilst some of this age group participated last season in the Jamon Cup, it was the first time that the majority of the squad have travelled together to play in a European football tournament. Despite our Academy having visited France numerous times before, this was our first invitation to enter this prestigious tournament, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary.
Our U-11s set off early Friday morning, along with our Under-15s, who were also playing in a French tournament. The players were extremely excited and enjoyed the ferry trip across the channel to France.
That evening we took a stroll through Loon-Plage, a small village in Northern France, and paid a visit to the ground where the tournament was being played. They have a fantastic grass pitch, very well maintained, a brand new 4G pitch and an older astro pitch – very impressive facilities for a small French club.
Following the visit the players and staff went for a meal together, before an early night in preparation for the weekend’s tournament.
After a good breakfast of croissant and French bread we made our way to the ground where we had a bit of down-time before our opening game. The players enjoyed a game of ‘Wembley doubles’ and did free-kick practice under the warm French sun.
Soon it was time to get to business with the first group phase beginning. The tournament was made up of 48 teams, the first phase consisted of 8 groups of 6, each team playing each other once, with the top three teams going into the Champions League phase 2.
TNS started extremely bright and finished phase 1 as the top goal scorers, with the best goal difference in the tournament, and qualified for the second phase.
We knew the second phase was going to be much more difficult with the top teams being filtered in. We got off to the perfect start though with two emphatic performances. We were following the other teams in our group closely and Luingnes looked very strong.
We were fortunate in game 3 against bottom team Soissons. Falling behind to an early goal, it took a Levi Baker penalty in the last minute, and further drama with James Nuttall clearing off the line in the dying seconds, to tie up a mouth-watering fixture in game 4 against Luingnes, who also had a 100% record in the group.
Our U-11s started the game fantastically well, moved the ball round quickly and were too strong for the opposition. It was the performance of the tournament for our young Saints, running out 6-0 winners against a good team. We finished the phase 2 second group game with another great performance to maintain our 100% record, as we finished top of the group and qualified for the quarter-finals.
The boys were excited upon awaiting the draw, and even more excited when it was revealed we would face French giants, Lossc Lille, a team who had only conceded 1 goal in the whole tournament.
So we reached the final day. We had made friends along the way with the boys conducting themselves superbly. We had made some supporters too, with a crowd gathered to watch our quarter-final, eagerly anticipating an exciting game.
The match started at a fast pace with a goal within 30 seconds, Lille however were the side drawing first blood. They had a mixture of players as far as size was concerned but were very technical and moved the ball around brilliantly. We knew we needed a reaction from the setback and the players responded brilliantly.
Left winger Charlie Scott equalised and got the Saints back into the game with a rocket of a left foot shot before what could only be described as a moment of pure magic from Callum Francis-Jones. Lille had definitely watched us play as they marked Cal very tightly and refused him time on the ball, being such a threat in front of goal during the tournament thus far.
Callum received the ball just inside the opposition half with his back to the opposition goal, again very tightly marked. He used his body to shield the ball, flicked it up and turned and volleyed it from such a distance. The crowd held their breath at what they saw and let out a roar in delight as the volley looped over the despairing keeper into the net.
Lille had to push on and did so as the game went into the final stages, however TNS put the game to bed with an excellent team goal very well worked, as Levi through on goal selflessly set up Alfie Harrison for a simple tap-in to ease the Saints, who celebrated together.
And so it was into the semi-final, where we were drawn to face English Premier League side West Ham United. Being another British team, and sharing the same hotel, it was natural that we would talk and build friendships. These went out of the window though during the game.
West Ham have one of the most prestigious Academies in the UK, if not the world, with the amount of brilliant players they have developed over the years. To make matters even more interesting, they were also the defending champions from last season. TNS were extremely confident following their earlier performance and can beat anybody on their day. ‘Was today that day?’, we asked ourselves.
West Ham started brightest and scored early on. Callum continued his good form and equalised, as the sides went into the break level. West Ham were very good and seemed to be quicker to every ball and stronger on it. We knew we had to up our game and to try and take it to them in the second half. Doing so left us more vulnerable at the back, keeper Sam Gregory-Cork pulling off a great save with defender Josh Burnett heading the strikers’ second attempt bravely off the line.
Going into the final moments, the young Saints were chasing the winning goal, not being content with the scores being level. However this proved our downfall, with a free-kick in advanced areas in the last few moments, West Ham broke 4v2 to score the clinical goal and break TNS hearts, thus suffering our first defeat and one that would eliminate us from the tournament. TNS still had chances and pushed West Ham all the way but couldn’t find that elusive second goal.
We supported the final which saw the Hammers face-off against Kent Schoolboys, in an all-English final, in front of a great crowd. Prior to the game we had the closing ceremony where a band led all the teams on the pitch with team flags in a fantastic finale.
Following the final, we made our way to the trophy presentation. It was a superb event with each team receiving a trophy for their final placement and a round of applause from all teams and supporters. Our Saints received one of the warmest receptions and that showed the impression the boys had made. Regarding the individual awards, our striker Callum won top goal scorer, looking surprised but delighted when he received his trophy.
Overall, looking at the weekend, we are extremely proud of all the players. The way they conducted themselves on and off the field was a massive credit to the club. Not only did they stick true to our principles of play in a European football competition, they showed fantastic character throughout.
They behaved brilliantly over the course of the weekend and on the back of this we have already been invited back to participate again next year. It’s great to not only get invited to amazing opportunities like this but to compete against top opposition shows the strength of the Academy.
To find out more about TNS’ Academy, contact: email@example.com