BEN Couki’s bullet header in the 33rd minute propelled Stratford Town Youth to their second MFYL League Cup success in three seasons as they put in a performance bursting with character and commitment to out-battle Stourbridge in a nerve-shredding final at Evesham United’s Spiers and Hartwell Stadium on Monday night, writes Bryan Hale.
The Glassboys were seeking a treble having after adding the Worcestershire County Youth Cup to the Premier Division South Championship following a run of only one defeat in their last 13 matches.
Significantly though, that solitary reverse came at the MoodChimp 12 days before when Town won the league match 1-0, and it was the same scoreline here as coach Nick Ballinger once more got his tactics absolutely spot on with Stourbridge again finding that breaking down Town’s rock-solid defence was to be beyond them.
But the Glassboys started off as if they meant business with Archie Donaldson making a smart save from Curtis Holmes flowed by Jake Evans seeing his shot deflected behind and Alex Cameron having an on-target effort blocked all within the opening five minutes.
Soon after Couki was in the right place to clear a Jake Brigdale header off the line from a corner, and with no let up in the pressure Donaldson pulled off a stupendous save in the 15th minute diving full length to his right to push Brigdale’s well struck right footer round the post.
But Town gradually began to get into the game with Tom Rowe surging down the right to float over a cross-cum-shot which completely deceived the Stourbridge keeper Peter Hawk who was relieved to see the ball clip the top of the bar on its way behind.
Town were dealt a blow on 27 minutes when striker George Dawson came off worst in a challenge with Matt Hancox and had to be helped off with George Kirby coming on up front instead, but having survived that early Stourbridge onslaught Town were now creating chances of their own.
Dan Atkins was inches away with a header from a Josh Aspinall-Smyth free kick on the half hour mark and barely a minute later Harry Hartin drove another free kick from a promising position straight into the Stoubridge wall.
And on 33 minutes Town scored what turned out to be the decider. Tyrike Richards-Burke cut in from the left to let fly with a shot which looked destined for the top corner until it was spectacularly tipped over by Hawk.
Hartin delivered the resulting corner into the six yard box where Couki and Evans went for it together and the ball rocketed off both of them into the back of the net with the goal eventually being credited to the Town skipper.
The Glassboys were visibly shaken at going behind and Hawk did well to save another decent Richards-Burke effort and then come out on top in a one-on-one with Kirby as half time was reached with Town growing in confidence after that difficult start.
And they had a great chance to double their advantage only two minutes into the second half when Kirby latched on to a through ball down the middle.
To Stourbridge’s disbelief the offside flag stayed down but Kirby shot too close to Hawk and as the ball looped off the keeper James Timmins got back to clear it away to safety.
Almost immediately after only the woodwork kept Town’s lead intact when a thunderous strike from Evans crashed against the angle of post and bar, but as the Glassboys pressed forward in search of an equaliser Town began to have opportunities on the break.
Richards-Burke in particular was now Town’s main dangerman with his pace out wide firstly firing across goal with a shot from the left and then racing down the right to pick out Kirby with a cross to the far post only for Kirby’s header to fizz tantalisingly over.
Hayden Reeves went close for Stourbridge with a header from a corner and Donaldson showed his quality by holding a teasing Cad Carter cross under pressure from Brigdale, but as the minutes ticked away Stourbridge became increasingly frustrated and their attacks became even more desperate as Town’s defending became even more heroic.
With five minutes to go Evans blazed a free-kick wastefully over and then had a shot deflected behind off Aspinall-Smyth, and with the tension mounting and Town supporters’ nails being increasingly chewed the Glassboys forced a succession of corners as the game headed into four minutes of added time.
Even Hawk came up for the last of these but Donaldson and his defenders somehow held out until the relief of the final whistle meant that the celebrations could begin.
And it was a double celebration for Tom Rowe who as named man-of-the-match in recognition of his tireless running, passing, covering and tackling up and down Town’s right flank from the first minute to the last which typified Town’s overall display throughout.
Merit Awards were also presented to the two keepers Archie Donaldson and Peter Hawk, while it was also a double celebration for Jamie Ford who collected his second League Cup winners medal to go with the one he picked up as part of Clive Seeley’s 2016 winning team.
“A fabulous effort from everyone.” beamed a justifiably proud Nick Ballinger afterwards.
“They have all worked so hard all season and had to do so again against a very good Stourbridge side.
“We had a game plan to keep it tight at the back and try to hit them on the break, and it worked to perfection.
“And it’s still a young side as only Ben Couki and Jamie Ford will be ineligible for next season, so the future is incredibly exciting, so long as they keep putting the effort in like they did here.
“But for now let’s enjoy this tremendous success which I believe was thoroughly deserved.”
Stratford Town Youth: Archie Donaldson, Sacha Everard, Lewis Timms, Josh Aspinall-Smyth, Jamie Ford, Ben Couki (c), Tom Rowe, Dan Atkins, George Dawson, Harry Hartin, Tyrike Richards-Burke. Subs (all used under the rolling subs system) James Pomeroy, Caine Elliott, George Kirby, Alfie Boylin.