Fulham U18s Manager Steve Wigley gave glowing praise to the young Whites’ free-flowing passing in an exceptional 75 minutes of football against Sunderland and vowed to learn lessons from a nail-biting last quarter of an hour.
For the vast majority of the Barclays U18 Premier League semi-final, it appeared there would be only one winner and the visiting Black Cats were staring down the barrel when Stephen Arthurworrey slammed Fulham four goals ahead on 67 minutes.
Moussa Dembele and Cauley Woodrow’s strikes put Wigley’s Team firmly in the driving seat at half-time and when Patrick Roberts delicately lifted in the third, it began to look like a demolition job at Motspur Park.
The home side smelt blood and their attacking rhythm was relentless. Wigley made substitutions to rest tired legs, then George Honeyman fired a consolation goal out of the blue.
Substitute Victor Zapata-Caciedo gave Sunderland even more hope, making it 4-2 on 84 minutes, then Carl Lawson set up the tensest of finishes at 4-3 on the stroke of 90 minutes.
During the three added minutes of stoppage time, Wigley admitted he felt like he aged considerably and the final whistle was greeted with a mix of relief and delight.
“We’ve played some brilliant football like that all season,” Wigley told fulhamfc.com
“There were a lot of good things, some of the play and the goals we scored, and we could have had a few more.
“We played great to get in the position we were, then I think maybe I got it wrong with the substitutions in the last 15 minutes.
“It wasn’t the lads. For 75 minutes we played some great football, then maybe I interfered a little. I took the game for granted because at 4-0, you start to look towards the Final before you've won the game.
“But whenever a team scores against you, no matter the score, they seem to grow a few more arms and legs, and start to get into good areas.
“Sunderland showed some courage and real strength of character to give us more than a scare if I’m honest.”
The Whites clinched the title of Elite Group Champions on May 4th with a 2-0 triumph over Everton but, as a consequence, have not seen competitive action since.
Wigley believes this may have been to the Team’s detriment but he adds that the rollercoaster semi-final will hold the players in good stead as they aim to retain the Academy Premier League championship they won 12 months ago.
“We’ll be better in the final for the game tonight,” Wigley added.
“We haven’t played for ten days and I don’t think it suits us. I felt all along that, after winning the group, and waiting ten days to play, some people would say it’s great to have a rest but I think it’s gone the other way and we looked leggy at the end of the game.
“When you are in those situations, you need to keep the ball and settle down. Probably the two players I brought off were our two players who could keep the ball forever and a day. We didn’t quite get it right after that. It became chaotic at the end.
“I’ve got to be pleased. The team were fantastic and some of the individual performances were exceptional but the finish has certainly aged me a few years.”