FA Youth CupAston Villa 4
ARGYLE Under-18s’ winning run in the FA Youth Cup came to an end at Villa Park but only after they had given their lofty opponents a huge fright.
Three times Villa took the lead and three times Argyle pegged them back, before Khalid Abdo’s 75th-minute goal finally settled the tie in the home side’s favour.
Kevin Hodges was able to call on the services of Aaron Bentley and River Allen, both of whom had been nursing injuries in the two weeks since the thrilling second-round win at Colchester United, but was still without long-term casualty Ryan Lane.
A look at the Villa team sheet, though, was enough to underline the scale of the task, as their squad contained players from as far afield as Australia, Sweden and Croatia. Anyone who can cast their net that wide is bound to land some big fish. The fact that there are more than 30 current players (including seven full internationals) in the professional game who came through the Villa youth ranks justifies the use of the cliché ‘production line’.
The first to show signs that he could be the next luxury model was Henry Cowans, whose slaloming run and deft through-ball put Tom Strain in the clear, only to be thwarted by a magnificent covering tackle by Nathan Summers.
The respite was short-lived, however. From a free-kick conceded by Summers near the left corner of the box, Cowans swung in a wicked ball that was turned in from close range by Kodi Lyons-Foster.
Argyle came perilously close to an immediate equaliser, when Louis Rooney beat home ’keeper Dylan Forth to a high ball, only for his header to be cleared from almost underneath the crossbar by a covering defender.
Despite the early setback, the young Greens were looking comfortable in possession and playing controlled football, with Solomon Wheatley looking a threatening outlet on the right flank and Allen and Jake Miller playing with great assurance in the centre of the park.
It was therefore not a huge surprise when Argyle levelled on 18 minutes, Bentley reacting quickest to a loose ball following a free-kick and smashing an unstoppable left-footed half volley into the top corner.
Villa were quickly back in their stride, playing with a fluidity that obliged Argyle’s midfield and defence to be right on their mettle. Jerell Sellars was a particular thorn in the side, and it took a full-length fingertip save from Andrew Hannah to prevent him restoring Villa’s lead just before the half-hour.
It was to prove only a temporary reprieve, as Sellars embarked on a jinking run inside the Argyle box which ended with him finding the bottom corner of the net with a low left-footed drive.
Again Argyle responded positively, Louis Rooney winning a free-kick right on the left edge of the penalty area. Allen lined it up, à la Luke Young, and curled it superbly into the same square foot of the net found by Bentley earlier in the half.
The action was unrelenting as half-time approached, with Villa earning another free-kick in Cowans territory. This time he went for goal himself, but without the accuracy that Allen had just managed at the other end.
There was still time before the interval for Villa to fashion another clear chance, as a perfect cross from left-back Courtney Wildin was met by a bullet header just six yards out by centre-forward Tom Strain.
It had to be a goal.
No-one had told Hannah, though. Somehow – perhaps even he does not know how – Argyle’s stopper kept it out and ensured that a thoroughly absorbing first half ended all square.
Argyle were forced into a change for the second half, with Tom Moxham replacing Summers, who had taken a hefty blow to the head in the first period.
Hannah rescued his team again in the 53rd minute, when he thwarted Sellars in a one-on-one, but he was left helpless two minutes later when Ryan Strain’s drive hit a defender and took one of those loopy deflections that haunt all goalkeepers’ dreams.
Villa now had their tails up and would have increased their lead had Kieran Asumadu-Sakyi not materialised from nowhere to pick Riccardo Calder’s pocket as he was about to slot the ball home.
Amazingly, for the third time on the night, Argyle equalised within minutes, captain Ben Purrington arriving late at the far post to power home a header from Allen’s corner.
Argyle were indebted to their ’keeper again just after the hour mark, as Tom Strain was freed by Abdo, who was becoming increasingly influential. Once again, Hannah was equal to the task and thrust up a strong right hand to keep the ball out.
Despite Villa’s quality in possession, their vulnerability at the back ensured that Argyle remained right in the game as the tie entered its final quarter.
However, Abdo was given too much space in the 75th minute and his measured 20-yard shot found the bottom corner.
This time, there was to be no immediate equaliser, but there was to be one last opportunity for Argyle. As the match entered stoppage time, substitute Ethan Stark broke clear but delayed his shot a fraction too long, allowing the defence to clear the danger.
So near, and yet so far.
Aston Villa (4-4-2); 1 Dylan Forth; 2 Tomas Zazrivec (12 Daniel O’Brien 77), 5 Jordan Lyden, 6 Kodi Lyons-Foster, 3 Courtney Wildin (capt); 7 Ryan Strain, 4 Henry Cowans, 10 Khalid Abdo, 11 Riccardo Calder; 8 Jerell Sellars (15 Andre Green 83), 9 Tom Strain (14 Harry McKirdy 80). Substitutes (not used): 13 Charlie Bannister (gk), 16 Corey Taylor.
Booking: Cowans 42.
Argyle (4-4-2): 1 Andrew Hannah; 2 Mason Hughes, 5 Nathan Summers (15 Tom Moxham), 6 Aaron Bentley, 3 Ben Purrington (capt); 7 Solomon Wheatley, 8 Kieran Asumadu-Sakyi (16 Will Sargent 76), 4 River Allen, 10 Jake Miller, 11 Callum Hall; 9 Louis Rooney (14 Ethan Stark 78). Substitutes (not used): 12 Josh Hutchinson, 13 Cory Harvey (gk).
Bookings: Hughes 59. Asumadu-Sakyi 67.
Referee: Chris Husband.