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Development Squad

Schoolboys pass the test

Damien Johnson's praise for much-changed side, including U16s Connolly and Whitehall

27 February 2018

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Damien Johnson was full of praise for his young outfit, who held a strong Southampton side to a goalless draw at the LFA County Ground on Monday night.

The result ensured that Rovers would conclude their Premier League Cup Group B campaign on top spot, with both teams having already qualified for the knockout phase.

With the first team in action at Wimbledon on Tuesday and the Under-18s taking on Blackpool in the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup at Ewood on Wednesday, Johnson was without several of his regular starters for the Under-23s this season.

As a result, he handed an opportunity to trialists Alex Wood from Preston and Harvey Whyte from Liverpool, as well as Under-16s trio James Connolly, Isaac Whitehall and Sam Burns.

Johnson was forced to make further changes throughout the game, with both Joe Grayson and Lewis Mansell going off injured, but he was delighted with the way his new-look side came through the encounter.

"I think we knew it was going to be a much-changed line-up and squad given that the first team play on Tuesday night and with the FA Youth Cup match on Wednesday," said Johnson after the game.

"Given our situation in the group, it was important that the first team take priority and they take who they need, but then it was important that the youth team took priority after that.

"We were then going to give opportunities to a couple of trialists and some younger lads, and I felt it was always going to be a good exercise in terms of giving those young lads experience and just letting them get a feel for this environment and this level.

"All credit to the young lads who came in and I must give a lot of credit to the regular lads who started the game, because the challenge for them was to guide them through it and support them and set the standards, and I feel they did that, which was the most pleasing thing.

"Even when we had the setback in the first minute, losing Joe Grayson, which was a big blow, because he's a big part of how we play, but again they adapted well.

"And then we lost Lewis Mansell, who is another big player for us at the other end of the pitch, early in the second half.

"I couldn't be more pleased really. The fact that we threw them together and they competed so well and we looked organised for large parts. It was very satisfying."

Johnson reserved special praise for debutant duo Connolly and Whitehall, who both got close to 90 minutes under their belts, having spent the earlier part of thd day at school!

"It was a fantastic experience for them, because they're kids who ordinarily wouldn't be in and around it, but it was an opportunity for them to get on our radar and show what they can do and they took it," he added.

"I was really pleased with the temperament that they showed. They grew into the game and they showed really good maturity.

"I think they both played for the Under-18s at the weekend and they've been at school all day, so it's terrific."

Johnson was also pleased with the performance of goalkeeper Charlie Albinson, who pulled off a string of fine saves to ensure that Rovers picked up the point required to secure top spot.

"We knew that Southampton are a dangerous team who have been on a good run of games and given the situation, the result wasn't the most important thing tonight," added the Northern Irishman.

"They are an experienced Under-23 side and Michael Obafemi has played in the Premier League this season.

"So we knew we might be under pressure and might have to rely on Charlie, who has had to be patient this season.

"Andy Fisher has done ever so well for us and it was just an opportunity to give Charlie a game and when he was called upon he was terrific."

The Under-23s are back in Premier League 2 action this Saturday when they travel to Stoke City's bet365 Stadium, kick-off 2pm.

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