Manager Graham Hall claims that picking an Essex starting eleven for their historic FA County Youth Cup final against West Riding on Sunday at Colchester United FC (kick-off 2:00pm) will be almost impossible as he looks to end a run without claiming national silverware which has stood since 1950.
Essexâ€™s Under 18s will don a special commemorative kit at the Weston Homes Community Stadium, cheered on by a bumper crowd as they aim to bring the prestigious cup back to the County for the first time in 62 years. But Hall admits that selecting the team still fills him with dread after already pondering which 16 to select from a possible 22 available.
He revealed: â€śIf itâ€™s as tough as it was when I had to choose the squad, Iâ€™ve got a lot of thinking still to do! Weâ€™ve used probably 20 or 22 players so far who were up for consideration for a place in the squad. Players have come in and done extremely well when theyâ€™ve had the chance while others have come back from injury. Everyone is very keen to be involved which is obviously something that, with a successful side and a successful squad, really does help.â€ť
Essex have had to win their way through four stages since November to earn the opportunity to make history for their County, and now West Riding present a difficult final hurdle for Hallâ€™s team. He can recall many highlights from the run, which included an overnight stay just before Christmas, and he added: â€śGiving them the opportunity to perform and letting them know how much their efforts are appreciated can be a difficult task during a busy season.â€ť
â€śWeâ€™ve enjoyed some excellent highs already to get this far, like the 2-0 win at Newcastle against Northumberland. The enthusiasm of the group has been second to none and the away trips have only helped to bring them together. I also think the Semi-Final [home to Wiltshire] was a very strong performance. 4-0 sounds a bit of a hammering but we took our chances well in that match. That game was probably the one Iâ€™m fond of most.â€ť
â€śWe had to hang on at Middlesex, and again it was players coming off the bench who made the difference. That game sticks in the mind because we were up against it. We were certainly matched - physically and with skill - and to come back and win that 2-1 when the momentum was going away from us showed how much resolve the team has to pull together and win games. Not just the easy games when weâ€™re well up and scoring goals.â€ť
The same squad have also reached the National Schools final for their age group and theyâ€™re determined to enjoy both. Hall explained that their successes so far have been down to a tightly bonded unit both on and off the pitch: â€śThe squad have been excellent but the back up from my colleague, Andy Tickner, and all the staff involved at the Essex County FA has been an important feature of the success achieved throughout the season.â€ť
Hall has been involved with the County Schools side for over 20 years, but he only started to manage the Essex County FA Under 18s for the first time last season when the two set-ups became one. He has a history of representative football as well, having played for Hertfordshire Under 18s many years ago. He still recalls the thrill of representing a county.
â€śI think sometimes, for the players, they donâ€™t quite realise how many national finals they may play in their career and itâ€™s something theyâ€™ll be able to look back on with pride,â€ť he claimed. â€śTheyâ€™re all competing for places and hopefully theyâ€™ll be able to do themselves and the team justice. As long as we do our best, weâ€™ll be in with a chance.â€ť
The game marks the first time Essex have reached a national final since 1995. The County FA have celebrated by arranging for a mascot to lead out the team and enjoy a VIP experience as a competition prize. Nine-year-old Oliver Murray won with his entry: â€śI Love Football Because... it makes me happy, it makes me smile and, even better, it makes me friends.â€ť
Oliver plays for the Under 9s at FA Charter Standard Club Stanway Rovers YFC. Heâ€™ll be accompanied by his father, Mark, who explained: â€śHeâ€™s been playing regularly since he turned six. When I told him about this opportunity to walk out with the team, he told me he hopes to play at county standard himself and help Essex to many more finals in the future!â€ť