Blackburn Rovers' Premier League Kicks squad proved that they could mix it with the best after a great showing at a national tournament in Nottingham.
A team made up of representatives from year ten at Pleckgate High School were one of 79 sides taking part in the Premier League Kicks Cup; 52 of which were competing with us in the mixed U16 competition, held at Nottingham Forest's new community facility, The Forest Recreation Ground.
Placed in Group 4 against a diverse spectrum of opponents, the Rovers team scored three victories from their six outings to finish 3rd in the table, with the highlights being a dominant 3-0 success against Derby County and 1-0 win against Leicester City - the only side to beat the current Premier League leaders in the group stage.
Kicks is a project operated by Premier League and Football League clubs to provide opportunities for youngsters to play football in their community for free, often in areas where such chances are usually limited. The ambition is to help 'hard to reach' youngsters develop a range of skills, on and off the pitch, that enables them to enjoy better routes into education, training and employment.
Past participants in the tournament have included two of the Premier League's brightest talents - Marcus Rashford of Manchester United and Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha - and players in this year's tournament were treated to guest appearances from former Nottingham Forest stars Jermaine Jenas and John McGovern.
Chris Brankin, who leads Blackburn Rovers Community Trust's Kicks sessions, was pleased with his side's efforts, explaining:
"The Premier League Kicks Cup is the biggest highlight in the calender for the PL Kicks programme.
"Since September 2015, we have engaged with 600 participants through Kicks, so narrowing that down to a team of just eight is tough, and also a massive privilege for those participants who are selected to represent the Club at a national event.
"Due to the timing of this year's event, we had to take a group of lads who would most likely be playing against lads a year older than themselves. Despite this the team weren't phased and actually put in some great performances, the highlight being a 1-0 win over Leicester City, who would be the eventual runners-up of the entire tournament.
"It's great to see lads who are used to just playing against their friends in their local community get the opportunity to compete against young people from all over the country. The opportunities that the PL Kicks programme offers are fantastic and something that I would have loved when I was growing up!"
The Trust's Premier League Kicks programme is largely delivered in conjunction with local schools across Blackburn with Darwen and South Ribble. Open access drop-in sessions, pitched primarily at a teenage audience, take place every Thursday night at Blackburn Youth Zone from 6.30pm to 8pm and on Friday at Clayton Green Leisure Centre between 7pm and 9pm.