Rovers Under-18s were knocked out of the FA Youth Cup at the fourth round stage, after going down 4-1 to Arsenal at Ewood Park on Saturday afternoon.
The young Gunners found themselves ahead nine minutes into the match, with Khayon Edwards taking full advantage of a mix-up at the back, before the visitors put themselves in a commanding position going into the break after further goals from Kido Taylor-Hart and Miguel Azeez.
Rovers gave themselves hope within a minute of the restart after Zak Gilsenan fired home, but Arsenal stood firm and put the game beyond doubt after Brooke Norton-Cuffy bagged a fourth in injury time.
Rovers headed into the tie on the back of four consecutive victories in the league and began the clash strongly before they were dealt a blow on nine minutes when Edwards got in behind the backline from Norton-Cuffy’s through ball. Goalkeeper Aidan Dowling looked set to come and claim the hopeful pass but failed to deal with the danger and left Edwards to tap into an empty net. Despite Rovers’ claims of handball in the build-up, the goal was given.
That gift appeared to galvanise the Gunners and they stepped up a gear to cause problems for the hosts. Jake Garrett went into the book for preventing an Arsenal counter-attack on halfway shortly before Azeez got in some target practice; firing over from the edge with 25 minutes played.
After Rovers failed to capitalise when George Pratt came in unmarked at the back post from a Jared Harlock free-kick, they were punished a minute later when Taylor-Hart doubled Arsenal’s advantage; cutting inside from the left on the counter-attack and finding the top corner on 33 minutes.
Looking to halve the deficit before the break, Alex Baker moved in from the left flank, knocked it past the defender before firing narrowly wide from a tight angle inside the area.
What was a difficult task was made even harder for Mike Sheron’s side when Azeez picked the ball up 30-yards out and fired into the top-right corner in stunning fashion two minutes before the interval.
Whatever was said at half time in the home dressing room it appeared to have the desired effect when Gilsenan put Rovers firmly back into the tie. Georgie Gent got to the byline before pulling the ball back for Gilsenan who found the net from close range. Game on!
Rovers immediately went in search of a second; Baker forcing Arsenal goalkeeper Ovie Ejeheri into a smart stop down to his left from his strike 18-yards out before a rattled Cătălin Cîrjan saw yellow for bringing down an advancing Harlock midway inside the Gunners’ half.
Back came Rovers and Garrett rose highest from Gent’s floated free-kick out on the right but his header lacked the power to trouble Ejeheri on the hour mark.
With Rovers now committing bodies forward looking to set up a grandstand finish, they had Dowling to thank in keeping them in the tie after he reached high to his left to tip over Edwards' header.
A couple of Arsenal substitutions with ten minutes to go managed to bring the game back under their control and they saw out the closing stages well before rubbing salt into the wounds with a fourth in added time. With all but Dowling up for the corner, the ball was cleared and the visitors broke in numbers. Dowling did well to deny Mazeed Ogungbo but Norton-Cuffy was there to tuck in the rebound.
Despite a strong second-half showing, the damage had been done in the first half and it was the Gunners who booked their place in the next round. Next up for Mike Sheron’s side is a league trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday 27th March, 12pm kick-off.
Rovers Under-18s: Dowling, Haddow (Weston, 46), Cirino, Garrett, Famuyiwa (Duru,75) Pratt, Wood (Ferguson, 46), Harlock, Baker, Gilsenan.
Unused substitutes: Blease, Gamble, Wharton, Fyles.
Arsenal Under-18s: Ejeheri, Norton-Cuffy, Kirk, Monlouis, Ogungno, Azeez, Bandeira, Cîrjan (Henry-Francis, 75), Taylor-Hart, Edwards, Hutchinson (Ideho, 80).
Unused substitutes: Graczyk, Foran, Awe, Jeffcott, Sagoe Junior