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Both young Colchester United squads emerged victorious with a pair of impressive winners' trophies from the prestigious San Marino Cup tournament on the Italian Adriatic coast.
With scorching temperatures often topping 40 degrees for the entire week, it was not only tough opposition from three continents but the conditions that provided the challenge for the U's youngsters. It was the Essex club which were the strongest however as its two teams competing in the 1993 and 1996 birth year age categories both won their respective finals 2-1 at the Stadio di Serravalle in San Marino.
The group stages had been hard fought contests for both teams. In the 1993 category, Colchester began the week with a comfortable 4-0 win against Scotland's Jeanfield Swifts with Emily Heaslip (2), Amelia Southgate and Amy Nash on the scoresheet but their second fixture of the day in the energy sapping heat slowed the U's progress as they could only manage a 1-1 draw with eventual final opposition Italy's Real La Spezia, Heaslip again on target.
After a much needed night's rest Colchester were again in dominant form, sweeping aside Lepavaraan Palo of Finland 4-1 with Nash, Heaslip, Maegen Doyle and Kayleigh Peters the scorers. Perhaps the key game of the campaign came the following day when the U's, despite having the majority of the possession, were struggling to break down physically strong Americans Western New York Select from Buffalo. It needed a moment of real quality five minutes from time when Nash drove towards the American box and unleashed a fierce 25-yard drive which beat the goalkeeper's despairing dive to find the top corner of the net.
With a valuable three points won, Colchester had all but secured qualification to the final and had the luxury of giving a couple of their players some well earned rest in their final group game but strong performances from some of the squads less experienced members still secured a 4-1 win over Italians Real Meda Calcio thanks to braces from Nash and Heaslip, the only setback being an ankle injury to midfield dynamo Heaslip which would keep her out of the following day's final.
Meanwhile Colchester's 'kids' in the 1996 birth year bracket were also having their work cut out to qualify from a multi-national four team group but tight 1-0 wins against the Youchang club from Taiwan and Italy's FC Como put them in a strong position, the winning goals coming from Lucy Loomes and Evie Carke respectively. A goalless draw against the USA's SOCA Girls from Colorado saw the U's safely top their group and qualify for the semi finals. There they faced SK Grei of Norway and an even first half ended 1-1, Loomes again on the scoresheet. The Colchester youngsters then took control of the fixture early in the second half, Henrietta Okonta emphatically dispatching a spot kick before Loomes quickly added a third to secure a second final berth for the U's.
Onto finals day then at the impressive Olympico Stadio di Serravalle in the scenic principality of San Marino and first up were Colchester's younger squad who faced a rematch with the well drilled Taiwanese. Indeed it was Youchang that took the lead with a powerfully struck free kick that goalkeeper Imogen Riches, who had been in superb form all tournament, managed to get fingertips to but could not keep out of the top corner.
Undeterred by the setback, Colchester responded strongly with the ever dangerous Loomes superbly finishing after racing clear onto Clarke's through ball and then Beth Blacklock provided another great finish, Loomes the provider this time. The drama grew in the second half when defender Maddie Scheffer was shown a second yellow card, the large pitch and 40 plus degree heat being hardly conducive to defending a one goal lead with ten players. Colchester dug deep though and the central defensive pairing of Okonta and Emily Baker were particularly impressive, ably supported by a hard working midfield unit. There was no doubt the final whistle was a relief however as Colchester celebrated their first triumph of the day.
It was then the turn of Colchester's older side which comprised of graduating Under-17 Centre of Excellence players, current Academy as well as a handful of younger senior team members who took on Italians Real La Spezia cheered on by a large, partisan home crowd. The opening exchanges were cagey as both sides looked to pace themselves in the sauna-like conditions but it was Colchester who broke the deadlock with Maegen Doyle latching on to Hannah Dennis through ball and providing an exquisite finish through the legs of the Italian keeper.
Early in the second half, young goalkeeper Rhianna Farr made a vital one-on-one stop to preserve the Colchester lead and when Doyle added a second from Paige Wakefield's cross, the U's had one hand on the cup. A late La Spezia goal gave them and their supporters some hope but Colchester showed great maturity and professionalism in closing out the remaining minutes, sealing the double triumph.
At the closing ceremony both sides had the honour of receiving impressive trophies in front of a large gathered crowd of all the tournaments participants and belting out God Save the Queen with pride on a great day for Colchester United's increasingly successful youth development programme.
(1993 born category) - Rhianna Farr, Sam Carson, Megan Lawler, Emily Heaslip, Rebecca Smith, Amelia Southgate, Emily Clements, Paige Wakefield, Maegen Doyle, Amy Nash, Ria Melvin, Hannah Dennis, Katie Sorenson, Kayleigh Peters. Coaches: Kevin Anderson, Charlotte O'Malley.
(1996 born category) - Imogen Riches, Kelsey Kiely, Maddie Scheffer, Charlotte Wakefield, Henrietta Okonta, Emily Baker, Beth Blacklock, Zoe Dorrington, Evie Clarke, Lucy Loomes, Katie Pounder, Sophie Jones, Stef Paci, Molly Hall. Coaches: Kate Longhurst, Zoe Rushen.
Physio: Sheila Macaulay, Director of Hydration: Andy Nash
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