I’m writing this a day before the final as Little Oakley’s Memorial Ground prepares to come alive with the sound of football for a huge game. Both Stanway Rovers Reserves and Dunmow Town will hope to lift the inaugural COVID-Cup after a frustrating season, but only one can prevail.
The 2020/21 season, or what had been played of it, had not been the best for Stanway Rovers Reserves. The Division One side found themselves 13th in the Essex & Suffolk Border League, but only having played 7-games of the 32 that would make up a season. So when the cup was introduced, it gave the young side a chance to win some silverware.
“There were no expectations going into this cup competition,” said manager Liam Joyce. “We are a young, inexperienced but eager side, so I think the lads just wanted to play football. As a team, we step up for any challenge and the boys have been taught from a young age to play the right way. Going into this competition, has just been about fulfilling our urge to get back to the pitch.”
Although they had no expectations going into the competition, Joyce and his players were certainly enjoying the moment. “It’s been really good. My team have really surprised me and over the course of the cup, we have put in some really good performances. It’s been exciting to watch my own side play.”
The Reserves faced a tough run, but found themselves in the final after winning 3-games. Their run had began against Premier Division side Alresford Colne Rangers and although, they found themselves a level below, they eased into the Quarter-final. Jack Johnson had scored for the hosts, but it wasn’t enough as Stanway Rovers stuck 6 past their opponents, as Harry Thomas and Bleu Molloy scored a brace each, while Miguel Nydam and Daniel Whittle also scored.
“It was a great result [against Alresford]. Some of the youngsters came back hungry and I think a few of them wanted to prove a point as they want to play in the first team, which I think some will. Playing against an experienced Prem side, we outplayed them and showed the quality we possess throughout the team.”
Their reward for a good win saw them face a fellow Division One side in Gosfield United, but this proved to be a far tough game for the Reserves. They had found themselves playing with 10-men following a dismissal and faced more than 90-minutes, as the game proceeded to extra-time, following a 0-0 draw. “It was a tough game as we were a man-down with 10-minutes played. Our keeper was sent off, so we had to stick our most experienced midfielder in goal, which turned out to be best choice. He’s a non-stop talker and because the keeper can see the whole pitch, it was great as he spoke to all the players and kept the tempo up by just being vocal. It was a difficult game, but I must admit, you wouldn’t have known we had 10-men because we still pressure high up the pitch and kept the ball well. We scored two-goals and won the game, so I was very happy. The game showed me the fight these players had and togetherness within the squad.”
An own goal and a Tom Lewis header confirmed a 2-0 victory over Gosfield, sending the Reserves through to the semi-finals to face Cressing United. It was another convincing victory over another Division One side as they won 4-0. Harry Thomas had given the young Rovers the lead before a Max Sherlock brace saw them lead 3-0 at half-time. Sherlock added a fourth in the second half to see his side through to the final. Liam thought it was a good win over a tough side. “If you see some of our goals, I think we won it comfortably. No disrespect to Cressing, who are a strong side and fought to the very end, but I think our performance was quite dominate.”
Although Stanway Rovers Reserves had won comfortably in two games and fought well in another, they go into the final as underdogs as they face an even stronger Dunmow Town side. The Royals also began their run in the second round as they beat Silver End United 4-0 on the road, before facing Belle Vue in the quarter-final, winning 2-nil at home. After two solid wins, Dunmow eased into the final with a huge win over Premier Division side Great Bentley, winning 9-1 at home. Joyce was well aware of what he would be facing in the final.
“It’s going to be a test,” he explained. “I’m hearing a lot of things like they have National League players in their squad because of Braintree Town not having any games and the players being duel-signed, but I look at the game differently. For me, its another experience for the young lads who have been brought into the men’s game. It’ll probably be one of the toughest games, but if we concentrate on playing football, knowing the odds are against us, I believe in the way we play. I just want them to enjoy themselves and we’ll definitely give it a go.”
It would have been the first time the odds had been against the young Rovers, having beaten a side after playing 110-minutes with 10-men, but this would be a different test altogether. The prospect of lifting a trophy after such a difficult season was certainly something he and his players would remember for a long time. “I think it would be a fantastic achievement for us as coaches, but I think for the players to finish on a high and go into pre-season with that momentum, will be great for them and the club. We all work hard, so it will be fantastic [to lift the trophy].”
“We’ll probably have to wait until the weekend to celebrate as it’s a work and school night,” he joked, “but winning any cup is a great achievement.”