PENARTH Hockey Club’s youth section has returned to the pinnacle of the sport in south Wales just two years after the rebirth of the development programme.
The club’s much-vaunted junior set-up once dominated regional and national competitions and added a plethora of youth internationals to its Hall of Fame, but had faded from prominence over the past decade before being revived by a dedicated cohort of coaches.
As such, it was something of a success for Penarth simply to have fielded competitive teams at both U11 and U13 level this season, with qualification for the South Wales Finals a further fantastic achievement.
Both junior teams travelled to Swansea at the weekend knowing that, at the very least, they were going to be a competitive force, even if they remained outsiders in the eyes of many not party to the hard work that has been put in over the winter.
The U11s kicked off their campaign against an excellent Swansea team, who proved superbly organised and incredibly difficult to break down.
Shortly before half time, however, some brilliant build-up play eventually provided the breakthrough opportunity for the Bear Cubs, forcing Swansea to redouble their efforts in a bid to keep their cup bid alive.
As the second half progressed, their pressure paid off and, as nerves crept in, Penarth got pushed deeper and deeper into their own ‘D’ before Swansea’s structure and tenacity produced a last-minute goal to make the final result a fitting 1-1 draw.
The second game of the day was against Gwent, a team that progressed through their qualifying tournament by winning every game they played.
However, having been stung into action by Swansea’s last-minute goal, the Penarth boys displayed a greater level of intensity, leaving the Gwent youngsters with little time on the ball. Dominating possession, two well-taken goals enabled the Cubs to set up a ‘winner takes all’ encounter against local rivals Whitchurch for the right to call themselves South Wales champions.
Throughout the season, the U11s had struggled to forge positive results against an excellent Whitchurch team but, fuelled by a determination to right this - and with gathering momentum from their earlier games - Penarth stunned their opposition by quickly racking up three unanswered goals.
Although Whitchurch scored a late consolation goal in what proved to be a thrilling and fitting finale to an excellent tournament, the Cubs ran out 3-1 winners and claimed not only the South Wales title but also a place in the Welsh Finals on Saturday 6 May.
Having qualified in fourth place for their South Wales finals, Penarth’s U13 side faced the overall winners from the group stages in their first match of Sunday’s tournament, but started in lacklustre fashion, allowing their Swansea rivals to get the upper hand early on.
Although the hosts took the lead with a controversial goal, this was quickly rendered moot as they added two more before the break to take an unassailable lead.
A few half-time changes allowed Penarth to stem the flow of goals, with some notably strong defending from Aaron Noor-Mohamed, Gabriel Pryde and Owen Kestle, but the the final score remained 3-0 to put the Bears on the back foot.
Perhaps spurred on by the setback, the second match, against Whitchurch, saw the Penarth boys play their best hockey, complete with more energy and determination.
Lewis Ingram, Ross John and Zayn Zaman controlled the midfield, and interlinked superbly to score the first goal of the game, coolly slotted home by John.
Iwan Meddins then added a long-range shot from a penalty corner to make it 2-0, but Whitchurch came back strongly, forcing Penarth to hang on in the second half. Although Whitchurch managed to pull a goal back, some great goalkeeping from Kavan Kalsi-Lucas and some desperate defending from Aron McJennett-House saw Penarth home to claim a very important victory.
The final game pitted the Bears against Gwent and, as they had in the Whitchurch game, Penarth started very brightly. Goals from Zaman and John soon established a 2-0 lead but, again, the second half belonged to the opposition, with Gwent beginning to take control of the game, scoring early on and then bringing the tie level to set up a tense finale.
Ingram worked tirelessly with Noor-Mohamed and McJennett-House in the Penarth defence to keep the scoreline at 2-2 and, while Max Poddar came close to scoring, there was to be no breakthrough for either side as the Bears clung on to an all-important draw which ensured that they not only finished as runners-up on the day, but also earned a place in the Welsh finals on May 6
"It has only been two years since these youth teams started competing in the South Wales competitions, so to have achieved what they have in such a short space of time is a hugely to their credit and to the hard work and dedication of their coaches, Michelle Meddins and Graeme Jones." elated club chairman Nick Pratt commented.
"The club is hugely grateful to both Michelle and Graeme and enormously proud of the boys.
"The club's future with them on board is not only secure but extremely bright.”
While both youth sides now take the next couple of weeks to prepare for their appearance on the national stage, Penarth’s 1st XI move back into the spotlight as they attempt to retain their hold on the Welsh trophy.
Returning to the final for a second consecutive season, the Bears face Cardiff University at the Welsh Institute of Sport (Sophia Gardens) on Sunday, April 30 (10am start).
Penarth Hockey Club always welcomes new, old and returning players, umpires, supporters, friends and helpers regardless of age and ability.
When the regular season resumes, training will take place on Wednesdays at Stanwell School, with the juniors on the pitch between 6.15pm and 7.15pm and the seniors between 7pm and 8.15pm.
Anyone interested in joining the club at senior or youth level can contact club secretary Dave Stevens (email@example.com) for further information.