Forest Green Rovers 4 Arsenal U-21s 6
Watched By Severn Sport’s Neil Martin @nmengland
A bumper crowd of over 1,700 were treated to a fantastic night of football at the New Lawn, as FGR and their talented but youthful opponents slugged it out in a goal fest. Both sides contributed hugely to the spectacle, with Rovers having an excellent last work-out before their League season starts on Saturday and the visitors ultimately showing their class and pedigree late in the game.
Rovers, as expected, started with the majority of players who had not played at the weekend against Crystal Palace and the team much more resembled last year’s squad. Arsenal fielded two players, Okpom and Zelalem, who had featured for their first team in the Emirates Cup last time out.
James Norwood had the first effort on goal, which was comfortably saved, however shortly afterwards, in the 8th minute, he opened the scoring with a firm header direct from a Marcus Kelly corner.
Arsenal’s Isaac Hayden was very influential as the visitors started to get their passing game going and it was not long before they had forced an equaliser. Okpom ran directly at Luke Oliver into the box in the 20th minute, left him prone on the floor as he squared the ball to Maitland-Niles, who smartly side-footed home.
Whilst the Arsenal youngsters were enjoying plenty of possession that was easy on the eye, Rovers possessed a real cutting edge on the break, with Danny Wright and Luke Rodgers linking well and troubling the visitors defensively. New boy Kurtis Guthrie was also catching the eye as fast raiding wide player.
Indeed it was FGR who re-took the lead on 38 minutes with a sweet move. Marcus Kelly found Danny Wright, who knocked the ball out wide to Guthrie. The young winger kept his composure as he raced forward and his cross was beautifully dummied by Rodgers into the path of Norwood, who finished clinically.
The superior physical strength of the Rovers’ veterans was proving effective against the young Arsenal side, the young players often being muscled off the ball during the first half. However a storming run and shot from Hayden which flew just wide on the break almost wiped out the FGR advantage.
However the visitors came out of the dressing room after half-time, no doubt fired up by coach Steve Gatting, with a much more up-tempo game which Rovers immediately struggled to cope with as Arsenal enjoyed lots of threatening possession in the FGR final third. Marcus Kelly was unlucky for Rovers with a turn and chip which was not far away from extending the lead.
Inevitably though, the constant Arsenal pressure led to a second equaliser on 59 minutes, after a delightful exchange between Zelalem and Toral, with the latter scoring in style after receiving a lovely return flick pass into the box.
At this stage it looked as if Arsenal were about to take control but within seconds of coming on as a substitute, Rob Sinclair drilled home a deflected shot from the edge of the box with his first touch in the 62nd minute.
Again the young Gunners stormed back and their sub Daniel Crowley, a Jack Wilshere look and play alike, went on a mazy run, before unleashing a powerful shot from 20 yards which gave keeper White no chance in the 64th minute.
Now there was no stopping Arsenal and they wrestled the game from FGR for good with some silky possession, with Crowley and Hayden prominent. The raft of Rovers’ substitutions from Ady Pennock (with an eye on the League game on Saturday) didn’t help their defensive organisation and it wasn’t long before Hayden scored twice neatly in quick succession to put the game out of reach.
Rather cruelly, Arsenal added a sixth goal in the 90th minute as Ajayi latched on powerfully to a corner from the right and finished emphatically.
Fittingly though, the last word went to FGR, with Sinclair slamming in a cross from sub Frear in added time from the edge of the box.
It was a game to remember, with a feast of attacking football and Rovers should take a lot of credit, particularly for their first half showing against such talented opposition. A number of last season’s squad put their hands up for League selection, as if to prove to FGR’s many new signings that they should not expect to walk straight into the first team on Saturday. On the basis of the entertainment provided it is to be hoped that as many ‘occasional’ fans as possible are lured back to the New Lawn for the league season ahead.
FGR – Russell, Baldwin, Stokes, Bangura, Oliver, Norwood, Wright, Kelly, Oshodi, Guthrie, Rodgers
Arsenal – Masey, Kamara, Ormonde-Ottewill, Olsson, Ajayi, O’Connor, Toral, Hayden, Okpom, Zelalem, Maitland-Niles
Att – 1.748 (407 away)
Severn Sport FGR Man of the Match – Kurtis Guthrie