“Anyone here could see they were full of effort and full of determination. Sadly tonight it wasn’t to be but it won’t sour the taste of what has been a terrific season in terms of development for these players.” That was Dave Hughes’ assessment after his Watford Under-18s side were knocked out of the FA Youth Cup by Liverpool tonight.
The Reds controlled proceedings throughout the match as the Hornets struggled to gain a foothold in the fifth round tie at Vicarage Road.
The visitors made their first-half dominance count just before the break when Daniel Trickett-Smith opened the scoring with a low shot from eight yards which nestled in the bottom corner.
And despite the Hornets enjoying more possession in the second period, Liverpool’s progression to a quarter-final tie with Reading was secured with just over ten minutes remaining when Harry Wilson finished confidently.
But Hughes remained upbeat after his side’s exit from the prestigious competition, saying: “The lads are hugely disappointed and we accept that and the pressure and expectation that comes with the FA Youth Cup means there are some hugely disappointed lads in the dressing room.
“But from my point of view, I’ve told them ‘let’s not let this evening sour what has been a hugely positive season for us’. We knocked out last season’s champions [Norwich City] in the last round, which was a fantastic achievement.
“I am hugely proud of the players and they should be proud of themselves. And more importantly, when I look at the journey they have gone on and the development they have made as individuals and as a group, I am nothing but proud of them.
“I said afterwards ‘be disappointed and upset but also remember that the staff at the club are proud of the way you have conducted yourselves and because you have tried to play’.
“But tonight we were playing against international footballers – and not just youth internationals [Harry Wilson made his full Wales debut in October at the age of 16]. They are players that have been recruited by what is a huge club. But I am hugely proud of my players.
“We couldn’t get a foothold in the game and we were a little bit on the back-foot. We try to play on the front-foot but we couldn’t do that this evening.
“Give Liverpool credit; they played very well and the biggest disappointment for me was that we couldn’t get on the ball as much as we usually do. But that is the Youth Cup.
“The players are a credit to themselves and they have been a credit to the club at all times. As their coach, I am hugely proud of them and I wish Liverpool every success in the next round.”
Watford Under-18s started playing in a 3-5-2 formation in the summer after a decision which was made by the youth coaching staff, although Hughes did add that it does “make sense” to mirror the system used by the first team.
Liverpool always enjoyed more of the ball during tonight’s match and the Hornets were wasteful when they did have the chance to counter in the first half.
They improved considerably on the break during the second period and Hughes said he was confident his team could get back into the game if it was still 1-0 heading into the final quarter of an hour, like it was, but then the Reds scored the second “to kill us off”.
Alex Jakubiak had Watford’s best chance early into the match as he forced Ryan Fulton to save well from a tight angle.
But Liverpool created the clearer chances and had a few excellent openings to make it 3-0 late on, with Hornets goalkeeper Dan WIlks in fine form.
Hughes added: “We said after that it’s not about how low you fall but how high you bounce back.
“Resilience is a crucial characteristic if you want to be a professional footballer and that is the message we gave the players: be disappointed, understand it, think about why it happened, reflect on that, learn from it and make sure that as individuals and as a group we finish the season in real style and by showing real character.”
Hornets midfielder George Byers left Vicarage Road on a stretcher after a tackle when Hughes believes the Liverpool player “did well to get away with a yellow card”. Byers will have a scan on the injury tonight.
Read a match report from the match here.