CALUM Wands and his Gloucestershire FA Under-18 management team insist they are doubly determined to secure the South & West Counties Championship crown after their disappointing FA County Youth Cup exit, writes Simon Parkinson.

The county’s talented representative side, full of hope that they could at least go one better than last season’s semi-final feat and reach the final of this year’s prestigious national tournament, were beaten 4-2 on penalties by their Oaklands Park guests Cheshire FA to take an agonising tumble at the last-eight hurdle after the sides had been locked at 2-2 following a draining extra-time period.

Cheshire had capitalised on heavy early normal-time pressure by taking the lead, albeit via an unfortunate own goal by Glos right-back Steve Kaca as he tried to clear his lines after his keeper Joe Wright had made a fine save from a long-range attempt.

Unfazed, the hosts came roaring back with a magnificent piece of skill by Jay Murray, who, with his back to goal, plucked a Cheshire clearance from the air with nimble footwork before turning sharply and letting fly with a searing 25-yard strike into the top corner of the net.

Buoyed by that equalising artistry, Gloucestershire entered the interval 2-1 ahead as debutant Owen Windsor, the Hartpury and Cirencester Town starlet, fastened on to a raking diagonal left-sided pass from Andre Freckleton and get in front of his man before slotting away his opportunity confidently from a one-on-one position with the stranded Cheshire keeper.

In a nip-and-tuck second half, in which both sides defended well and carved decent chances, it was the away side who netted the only goal midway through the period, albeit in contentious circumstances from the penalty spot as Glos centre-half Sam Larkins was adjudged to have bundled over the livewire Cheshire striker inside the box.

Extra-time it was, then, and after another tight 30 minutes had passed relatively uneventfully, it was the jubilant visitors who prevailed 4-2 from the spot, despite Wright making another splendid stop to keep his side in the shoot-out.

Glos boss Wands acknowledged: “Cheshire came out for the start in the way we’d intended to do. We knew they’d travelled down for an overnight in Bristol so we’d looked to exploit any weary heads in their camp. But it didn’t turn out that way at all and they came out all guns blazing.

“Thankfully Jay got us back into the game with an absolutely superb equaliser, one of the best I’ve seen as a player and manager with the rep side, and then Andre and Owen combined really well to see us into the lead at half-time.

“Me and my assistants, Bertrand (Abang) and Phil (Clarke), urged the boys to be mindful still of Cheshire’s threat, that we couldn’t afford to switch off for one moment, whilst feeling we were fitter, sharper more dangerous than Cheshire going forward.

“To be fair to Cheshire they were really well drilled with good players too and we just couldn’t finish off our chances in that second half, whilst they hit our post a couple of times in an even affair.

“Our front three of Andre, Jay and Owen were threatening and we then brought on Andre’s brother (for Cameron Rees), who is only 15, to play upfront to promising effect too which was encouraging to see.”

Of that crucial penalty award, Wands maintained: “We felt a bit hard done by there. They had a small, agile striker who was running away from goal towards the corner flag and he cut across our centre-half Sam, who had his hands up and simply couldn’t get out of the way.

“There was minimal contact but the ref gave a penalty and maybe from the angle he was at I can understand why he did so. But it gave Cheshire their second wind.

“It was gutting at the time and it ultimately led to a first penalty shoot-out I’ve been involved in with GFA rep teams.

“We hadn’t practiced our penalties or planned for them as we always felt we could get the job done inside 90 minutes and we knew we had players confident and good enough to put theirs away if it came to it.”

Gloucestershire return to South & West Counties action on Sunday, February 24 in Slough for a date with current joint leaders Berks & Bucks FA and 22-year-old Wands warned: “It will be one of our toughest games.

“I’ve heard they are strong, physical and big, as they’ve always tended to be. But I see it as a must-win game for us.

“The Youth Cup had been our main focus and now the boys want to prove a point and try and win that league. I know they’re already well up for it.

“The squad we have is one of the best I’ve been involved with as a former player with them and manager. They’ve bonded so quickly and they want it every bit as much as I do.

“The fact they expressed so much emotion after losing to Cheshire shows how much it means to them and that can only bode well over the rest of the season.”