Academy coach Rob Edwards says he’s tremendously proud of his players for their efforts throughout the 2015 Dale Farm Milk Cup.
Saints finished as runners up in the junior section of the prestigious youth tournament, with their week-long campaign ending in the final with a 7-0 defeat against Right To Dream, a Ghana-based academy.
It was a tough night for Edwards’ side at Ballymena Showgrounds as they conceded the first goal of the game after just three minutes, as Isaac Atanga's right-foot shot deflected in off Saints skipper Joe Tomlinson.
This set the tone for the evening as Saints were put under immense pressure from the opposition, leading to the second goal on 17 minutes when Ibrahim Sadiq latched onto a weak back-pass before doubling his side’s lead.
Saints held their own for the rest of the half before they were undone by a stunning free-kick from the opposition captain, Ernest Boahene, moments before half time.
Saints conceded the fourth goal just ten minutes after the restart, after a neat finish from Emmanuel Doku but, after this goal, they proved to be a lot more resolute – especially after Edwards brought on Liam Doyle, Dan Bartlett and Maj Roric off the bench.
But, as the half wore on, Atanga and Mohammed Diamonde scored the fifth and sixth goals respectively before the former rounded off his hat-trick to cap off an impressive team performance.
Under-16s coach Edwards says his group of players handled the competition fantastically and that reaching the final was a success in itself.
Edwards told saintsfc.co.uk: “The players have been excellent and we had quite a young group, so getting to the final was a big achievement.
“We had a couple of set backs with injuries, which made it a tough time, but the players have really adapted well to reach the final – it was a huge achievement but I think it was one game too many, I’m afraid.”
Edwards also believes the fact that they played five games – the first four of which ended in victory – in as many days took its toll on his players.
“The team have been excellent,” he affirmed.
“Also the club gave us everything they can – we have travelled away with a lot staff to look after them, with sports scientists and physios.
“They have worked incredibly hard to keep everyone on the pitch, which has been a real effort. We have rotated the group but to lose a couple of players to injury has made it doubly difficult as you have less players to rotate.
“Their attitudes have been first-class but they are absolutely shattered now – they were before the game and I could see that it was going to be a tough night.”
Despite it being a gruelling match for these young players, Edwards is adamant that it will be great learning curve for them.
He added: “The players will undoubtedly learn from this – the quality of the players they were playing against and their pace and power was remarkable for players of that age.
“With our players still developing it was never going to be easy, but their boys were powerful and knew the game very well.
“It was a great lesson for them. They were ever so disappointed after the final whistle but I explained to them it was a fantastic learning experience that they have to embrace.”