Mansfield Town’s under-18s suffered a 3-1 heartbreak against Fulham in the FA Youth Cup third round at Motspur Park, but academy manager John Dempster was all praises for his players’ hearty efforts.
The young Stags took the lead on 35 minutes through Nyle Blake, when Jason Law spread a pass to the left for Zayn Hakeem and his whipped cross was turned home by the pacy Blake.
But Dempster’s side conceded three second-half goals – a Michael Elstone double followed by Moritz Jenz’s strike, resulting in the gut-wrenching defeat.
Playing against an U18 Premier League side, the Stags’ youngsters showed glimpses of their outstanding abilities, which propelled them to the top of the EFL Youth Alliance table going into the year-end, and saw them breeze through the first two rounds of the FA Youth Cup.
The likes of Kieran Harrison, Henri Wilder and Kane Baldwin keenly fought individual battles in the Stags’ rearguard, while 16-year-old custodian Xavier Sundby stole the show with several fantastic stops.
But it was the Cottagers’ clinical display and superior tactical nous that ultimately steered them to the next round.
Dempster said: “First and foremost, I am very proud of the boys. It was an incredible effort and commitment to the cause. We had a game plan, and the boys stuck to it; and we made it difficult for Fulham at times.
“We worked hard on team shape, winning the ball back and attacking quickly. And it was pleasing to see that the lads can take information on board, take a game plan on board and put it into practice. They certainly did that at times.
“An immaculate first half, some outstanding performances; and it’s not rocket science – coaches change games, and we didn’t defend well from two set-plays, and it cost us.
“You can look at all the players Fulham had, and they had some very good players. But essentially it was a counter from our corner and two set-plays that cost us.”
Highlighting some standout individual performances from his players, the 33-year-old added: “There were some outstanding individual performances – from Zayn Hakeem, who was a man mountain in the first half up there against two giants. For me, he was the best player on the pitch in the first half, including Fulham players.
“You look at Xavier Sundby – a first year goalkeeper, to step up in the FA Youth Cup and take Sam Wilson’s place, who had been outstanding before him. He was top-drawer. He put up some fantastic saves, he was communicating, he was encouraging, giving good information, and for a 16-year-old boy, I thought it was an immaculate performance.”
Mansfield’s U18s now go into a three-week break from fixtures, and Dempster said the players must learn to shake off the disappointment and look forward to the coming days: “Their heads are down. I spoke to them afterwards, and told them how proud I was of them.
“But it is all part of the learning curve. They have got to learn to deal with defeats; it’s about how they react to that, and how they come back after Christmas.
“And if they come back showing the same energy levels, the same desire and more importantly the same quality, we will be in and around the teams challenging for another championship, which is a credit to the group.
“Although the boys will be disappointed, but if they learn from this experience, learn from this occasion, and if it makes them better players, then I’ll be happy.”