Schoolboys in National Final

This article originally appeared in the Prescot Cables v Skelmersdale United Programme, 22nd April 2019. I'm republishing it now (July 2020) as the English Schools' FA has effectively barred seven schools from nominating players to a local District Schools' FA. This piece was a follow-up to the earlier article, A Schoolboy Error.

In one of those delicious ironies that football has a habit of creating, the Knowsley & St Helens Under-13 Representative Team has reached a National Cup Final, despite being removed from the English Schools’ FA’s Inter-Association Trophy on an administrative technicality.

Regular readers might recall that the squad reached the last 16 of the ESFA Trophy before the governing body decided that the merger of the Knowsley District with the dormant St. Helens Schools’ FA had not been carried out in accordance with their procedures. The ‘new’ district – which had the backing of the Merseyside County Schools’ FA – was eventually allowed to continue playing in regional competitions, but not the national tournament.

However, it has emerged that the Welsh Schools’ FA were more than happy for our local youngsters to take part in the SB Williams Shield; their national competition for U13 representative teams. This attracted 10 entries, but eight of them were in South Wales and only two in the North. Knowsley & St Helens joined Denbighshire and Gwynedd in a group stage in which they should have played home and away matches, although having lost their first two matches, Gwynedd didn’t play the ‘return’ fixtures. This meant that the two matches against Denbighshire would turn out to be crucial in determine who would win the group and take the only available place in the semi-finals. Although they were beaten away from home, a 4-1 home win saw Knowsley reach the last four.

This meant the squad had to travel to the Cardiff International Sports Campus last Saturday to take on Rhondda Cynon Taff, who had finished second in the South League. The South League comprised eight teams, who played each other once to compete for three places in the semi-finals. Knowsley’s game was one of various semi-finals staged in a single day.

The boys from the Valleys pushed Knowsley all the way but the English team eventually prevailed by a 3-1 margin. Therefore, in true Roy of the Rovers style, our local schoolboys have reached the Welsh Schools’ FA Cup Final, after being kicked out of the English equivalent!

They will take on Cardiff & The Vale in the Final, which will be played at The New Saints FC on Saturday 4th May. Perhaps, in one sense, that makes Knowsley & St Helens the ‘home’ team given that TNS are based in Oswestry, on the English side of Offa’s Dyke.

If they emerge victorious against Cardiff, Knowsley & St Helens will clinch a memorable league and cup double. Having been given permission to continue their season in late January, the team won the North-West League. Their final home game was played at the Liverpool FC Academy in Kirkby on Friday 27th March against Liverpool Schools’ FA. It was a ‘winner takes all’ fixture, with both teams on 21 points going into the match. On a memorable Friday night described by the League Secretary, Will Rowlands, as “probably the best game of football at District level I have seen for a long time” Knowsley & St Helens won 4-0 to claim the trophy.

There is something of a tradition of cross-border incursions in schools’ football. Both Cardiff & The Vale and Swansea have played in the English cups. Yet, there is something particularly curious about our local District team reaching the Welsh Cup Final when they were removed from their ‘home’ competition. The English body seems to have taken a ‘rules is rules’ approach while their counterparts across the Severn Bridge seem to be more concerned with providing students with opportunities to play.

It is to ESFA’s credit that they found a way in which Knowsley & St Helens could finish this season; if the campaign ends with the squad winning the Welsh National Cup, there will be several wry smiles shared in this part of Merseyside.

© 2020 Gareth Coates