COACH John Perkins praised the character of Stoke City Under-18s after a late Ed Sanders goal earned a 1-0 victory over Sunderland in their final Group Two match at Clayton Wood Training Ground.
Central defender Sanders pounced in the 86th minute after Nathan Ricketts-Hopkinson’s header had crashed against the bar, settling a game of few chances in the Potters’ favour.
The result means they still have a fighting chance of qualifying for the Elite Group in the new Barclays Premier League Under-18s format, but their fate ultimately lies with the fortunes of others.
Whatever happens, the nature of the win, especially considering it came off the back of five straight defeats, means City will be buoyed for their upcoming FA Youth Cup tie at Brighton & Hove Albion.
“It wasn’t pretty to watch, but I thought the attitude, belief and desire of the players was evident to see. The character stood out and I was delighted with them,” said Perkins after the final whistle.
Stoke made two changes from last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at league leaders Southampton, with Eddy Lecygne and Derice Richards starting in place of Jack Nardiello and Ricketts-Hopkinson.
The hosts started the better, but Sunderland had the first chance when their forward cut in from the left and drove a shot that looked destined for the top corner until Eve tipped over.
The opening half produced very little goalmouth action, though it was the Black Cats who looked more likely in the final third and who were keeping possession more effectively.
Stoke struggled to make anything count in attacking areas until the 42nd minute, when Richards met Joe Hulme’s through ball but crashed his effort against the outside of the post.
Just before the half-time whistle, up the other end Sunderland went close to breaking the deadlock when their striker met a corner at the near-post but glanced his header wide of the post.
Stoke had a shout for a penalty early in the second period – Richards’ deflected shot was saved by the visiting ‘keeper, and Callum Pilkington was tripped as he went for the rebound but the referee turned away City’s protests.
Moments later, Sunderland’s winger beat the offside trap and move towards goal on the right-hand side, but dragged his shot across Dale Eve and wide of the left post.
The game became more stretched as both teams pushed for the important opening goal, and Eve produced two decent saves; firstly from a drilled shot from the edge of the area, and then a fine reaction save from a powerful header.
City’s substitutions appeared to make a difference, and seconds after Kieran Monlouis had fired an effort over from 25 yards, they took the lead from an unlikely source.
Ricketts-Hopkinson leapt to meet a corner, and after his firm header rebounded off the crossbar, Sanders was quickest to react and stabbed home, much to the delight of his teammates.
Kris Scott could have put the game beyond doubt in the dying seconds, but it wasn’t to matter as the final whistle blew on a narrow victory.
Attention now turns to the FA Youth Cup tie on the south coast on December 11th, a game Perkins believes brings out the best of players.
“It’s a real test of character. It’s on the main stage with people watching at their stadium. It’s a great experience for them,” he added.
“It’s a game that’s about winning – it’s not about development, that one. It’s a cup-tie so you want to do everything you can to win. Hopefully, we can get some injured players back.”
Stoke City: Eve; Cook, Sanders, Hulme, Taylor; Lecygne; Makrillos (Douglas 77), Monlouis; Scott; Richards (Pickerill 87), Pilkington (Ricketts-Hopkinson 71).