After seeing his players stand up to the physical challenge of League One opponents and then impose their style of play on the visitors at Stamford Bridge, scoring twice either side of half-time, Joe Edwards praised the mettle and mentality of our development squad as they booked a place in the Checkatrade Trophy last-16.
After Plymouth Argyle and Swindon Town were dispatched in the group stage, AFC Wimbledon were next to take on Edwards’s young side, who reached the semi-finals in the competition last term.
The Dons made the short trip across south-west London with a new manager in tow but that was not enough to inspire an upturn in fortunes for them as goals from the strike duo Charlie Brown and Daishawn Redan handed victory to the Blues.
‘It was a tough game,’ reflected Edwards afterwards. ‘You never get easy games in the Checkatrade Trophy and that’s exactly why we love enterting the competition. It presents a different side of the game to our players that they don’t always get in Under-16, Under-18 or even Premier League 2 football.
‘It’s an invaluable experience for our boys to face that barrage of balls into the box and the big, experienced target men pinning you. It’s difficult but I thought we stood up and coped well with it. The only way we were going to win the game and progress was to impose our style of play, get the ball down and show the sort of technical side to the game that we like to use, which I felt we did well overall.’
A third clean sheet on this cup run evaded Jamie Cumming but the goalkeeper played his part in the win with some impressive saves and a mature command of his 18-yard box.
‘Jamie won’t have played many games in his career where the ball keeps coming into areas where there are big, strong centre-forwards,’ explained Edwards. ‘It’s about mentality and being brave, which he did, and then showing the other side with a couple of moments when he stayed composed and played good passes into midfield.
‘That was our plan because we knew if we played too direct then the ball would just keep coming back at us. We needed to get it down quickly and that always starts from the goalkeeper and the defenders at the back. It was a credit to them that they kept persevering and were constantly willing to play through AFC Wimbledon.’
The Blues looked in control after Redan’s header two minutes after the restart added to the tally following Brown’s first-half penalty, though Edwards highlighted room for improvement in the way his side contributed in allowing Wimbledon back into the tie.
‘We created lots of moments when it looked like it was going to open up for us but the final decision or final execution wasn’t quite there,’ he added. ‘At 2-0 up, we had a spell when we looked really comfortable and like we could manage the game out but then we started over-complicating things a bit.
‘That can happen with young players – you want them to express themselves but we started taking that extra touch or trying to play the difficult pass, and if you do that against experienced teams then they will punish you.
‘The positive is we stood up and defended our penalty area. We rolled our sleeves up, rode the storm out and then finished the game by moving the ball around the pitch in the way we like to.’
— Joe Edwards
Development remains the priority for the Under-21 teams in this competition so leaving the field with lessons learned and areas to master is all part of the education process. However, winning is also a big part of development at the oldest academy age groups and the Blues have made it clear they are eager to go far in this senior competition.
They will discover their last-16 opponents on Saturday lunchtime when the draw, which remains regionalised until the quarter-finals. for the next round is made. Possible opponents include Portsmouth, Cheltenham, Northampton, Peterborough, Luton/Southend, Swansea U21s/Bristol Rovers and Oxford United/Tottenham U21s.