The start of this year looked very worrying due to lack of numbers, and after a meeting with the club committee, it was decided that we would look to compete in the new 7 a-side format for junior football. It was suggested and agreed that I would have two of my previous players, and current positional coaches Josh Proud and Alex O’Halloran lead this with my assistance when needed.
Both coaches then made contact with other squads in the south east with a goal to establish a league with BAFA. With this, BAFA U19 Division 2 was created.
With a minimal amount of training, a young Junior squad faced its first test in their home tournament, with games against the Ipswich Cardinals and Wembley Stallions, both new teams to junior football. The Juniors first faced up against Ipswich, not knowing what to expect. A slow start followed, with first game nerves clearly evident. Despite going down 8-0 early on, the Juniors began to pull away from the Cardinals, finding rhythm on offence and defence, buoyed by a very strong and talented backfield. The Juniors proved too strong for Ipswich and comfortably won their first game to go 1-0. With a win in the bag, the Juniors proceeded to dominate Wembley, putting up over 50 points, flashing the offensive power which would define their season.
Sadly, as with most years in junior football, the season was thrown into confusion as both the East Kent Mavericks and Cambridge Cats decided to pull out of competition. After some lengthy negotiation it was decided that the Exiles would play Essex away and also travel to Ipswich and Wembley for rematches, to round off the regular season.
First up was Essex, who have been an established junior team for a couple of years. Although they have not entered the league in recent years, they have continue to play competitive scrimmages.
The Exiles knew this game would be a hard fought battle, with Essex having a large squad in terms of numbers and size! A tough, hard-nosed game of football ensued in very hot conditions. With this the Juniors really showed their character, never giving up and giving everything they had. The Exiles left Essex 3-0 and victors by one point in a thrilling 31-30 game, and announced their intent to not only win the conference but the national title itself.
Defending their number one ranking, the Juniors travelled away for a rematch with Ipswich on another scorching day. The Exiles did not take the Cardinals lightly, knowing that they would have improved with a month’s worth of training. However despite Ipswich’s improvement the Exiles started fast and never let up, scoring close to 50 points and giving rookies the chance to gain valuable experience. We then travelled to Wembley looking to close up the third undefeated regular season in four years. The Exiles started slowly against an improved Stallions team which boasted a strong passing attack. With some encouragement at half time, the Juniors came about and began to play the championship football we have come to expect of them. The offence continued to shine, putting up another 50 points helped by the defence which scored more points than it conceded! With this the Exiles secured the number one seed for the finals, giving them a first round bye and huge confidence going into August.
The Exiles travelled to Black Country for a youth-style Britbowl, where 6 teams would play for the chance at a national title, with regular season results playing into seeding and bye games. The team arrived in time to watch the Essex Spartans play the Leeds Assassins, the winner going onto a semi- final against Kent. Essex managed to get the first round win, meaning the Juniors would face a familiar foe for a chance to compete in the final. The game started off tentatively with both teams playing good defence, and struggling to move the ball on offence. Despite this, the Juniors remained mentally tough and wore down the Essex defence with some long plays and unrelenting defence.
This left one game between the Exiles and the national title.
The final would be played against the hosts, and number 2 seed, the Black Country Vipers. This would prove the Junior’s biggest test of the season, with Black Country being a well-run team with an especially talented defence. Both offences traded blows to start the game, with Black Country playing the run well against the Exiles’ talented backfield, while running the ball well themselves. In a season where the Juniors had been rightly praised for an explosive offence, it was the defence who helped grind out this win. The Exiles’ smothering defence began to shut down the Vipers’ potent running game, adding two safeties to the scoreboard, and allowing the offence to find its rhythm. With some excellent blocking up front, clutch toe-dragging catches and accomplished quarterback play the Exiles’ pulled away from Black Country and didn’t looked back.
After a long season we came away as the new Division 2 champions!
This was a tremendous achievement by the players and the two lead coaches; 8 months ago it was looking likely that the Juniors would have enough players for team at all.
They all did themselves proud! Along-side all the other junior positional coaches, who deserve tremendous credit, they worked week in and week out building these young men and women into champions. I would like to thank each and every one of them for their continued hard work and dedication. They are all an amazing group of players and coaches.
Preparations have already started for the 2019 team which will compete at 9 a-side once more. With all but a few players retuning and a very large exciting crop of youth players graduating, we are all looking to challenge for the division 1 title again……..