Rotherham United and AFC Wimbledon Under-18s are preparing to contest this year’s Youth Alliance U18 Cup Final on Tuesday 17 November, with both camps in no doubt about the magnitude of the game.
Having already won their respective Area Finals and following incredible respective runs to get to this point, the upcoming clash will determine the overall winner of the competition, and will be played at Rotherham United’s New York Stadium.
Ahead of the Final, Rotherham U18s coach Rob Poulter and AFC Wimbledon U18s Manager Rob Tuvey looked back on the games which saw them reach this stage, and ahead to the big Final itself.
“It’s potentially the biggest game in Rotherham United Academy history,” Poulter said, speaking to the EFL.
“It is a brilliant achievement for the club to have reached this point. Reaching the Northern Final against Fleetwood was an absolute first in the history of Rotherham United Academy, and the players now have an opportunity to go one better. It is credit to the players and all the staff that are involved with the U18s.
“This has been, without a doubt, one of the strange cup runs ever! We beat Preston North End 3-1 in the Northern Semi-Final on 2 February. The Area Final was originally arranged for 29 February at Fleetwood; but was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.
“The re-arranged date, 14 March 2020, was the day after football across the country came to a halt. At that point, the players and staff were convinced that fate was preventing us from ever playing the Area Final. It was brilliant for the players to finally get a chance to play that final, some six months later.
“Now, after the win against Fleetwood, the players have the chance to play against their Southern counterparts.
“For the players, the competition is huge. From my point of view, it is a fantastic one to be involved in, and one that we will all remember as a football club. What an opportunity for 16 and 17-year-olds to walk out at their home ground and play their biggest game to date!”
It’s a view echoed in the AFC Wimbledon camp, too.
“It's a feeling of immense pride to be taking this team to the Final,” Tuvey said.
“This has been a long time coming and something we have been hoping would take place since we went into lockdown in March. This has certainly been a team effort between all the staff and players to get here, including many U16s playing throughout the run, and that is something that is especially pleasing.
“It's not until I look back now that I realise the tough run we had to get to the Final – for example, we only had one home game. Our programme is built around self-managing athletes and players taking ownership for their own development and I think this run typified that.
“Against Northampton, we were trailing with 30 seconds to go and our goalkeeper took it upon himself to get into the box and popped up with the winner before saving two penalties in the shootout! I think we will all never forget that.
“In the Southern Final against Cambridge, we had five U16s playing; the boys came in and performed so well against an older side in a big-game environment.
“When you work for a special club like Wimbledon and you get the story of the club drummed into you, we enter every competition to win and compete playing the Wimbledon way.”
Good luck to both teams in the Final!