Men's under-21s reach last four in Hong Kong tournament

Albion one of 26 teams who competed in seven-a-side event including five Premier League clubs.

By Luke Nicoli • 30 May 2023

By Hong Kong Soccer Sevens
Luca Barrington battles for possession against Tau Po.

Albion men's under-21s head coach Shannon Ruth was delighted with his players’ application as they reached the final four of the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens tournament in Hong Kong at the weekend.

With 26 teams taking part, including Premier League contemporaries Leicester City, Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Fulham, the Seagulls reached the last four only to bow out on penalties to local side Tai Po FC.

The format for each game was two seven-minute halves of football with seven players on each team, on a smaller-sized 4G pitch and no offsides, with matches played on rotation at the Hong Kong Football Club stadium.

The knockout stages saw games increased to ten minutes each way, and in hot and humid conditions, a young Seagulls team impressed overall.

“It was a really positive experience,” said Ruth. “While we felt we should have gone on to win the tournament, the players have learnt so much: playing against different clubs, different formats, in a new environment a long way from home, and in very hot and humid conditions.

By Hong Kong Soccer Sevens
Ben Jackson takes on a Fulham opponent.

“With players away on international duty and others now having left the club, we also had five under-18 players in our ten-man squad, so it was still a good achievement to reach the semi-finals.”

Albion kicked off against Singapore Cricket Club in their opening game, taking the lead after just 22 seconds when Mark O’Mahony played a neat one-two with Benicio Baker-Boaitey before tucking home.

In a dominant display, the Seagulls netted a second before half-time when Luca Barrington crossed at the second attempt to Baker-Boaitey who netted from close range. Barrington then made it three with the last kick of the game.

“When you’re out there for the first time, you have to learn fast,” Ruth added. “As we’re a possession-based team that likes to have the ball and be in control of the game, in this format – where you’re pretty much man-for-man all over the pitch – one poor pass can cost you dear.

“You have to pick the right moments to attack and to build the attack, and as you don’t have time to work much tactically, the players have to problem-solve for themselves, which is another good learning experience.”

Albion faced a stiffer test in their second game, against QPR, coached by ex-Seagull Chris Ramsey, and took the lead when Jamie Mullins side-stepped his marker before selling the keeper the wrong way with a low shot.

By Hong Kong Soccer Sevens
Ben Jackson signs for the fans in Hong Kong.

Rangers then got back on level terms when Mullins brought down Harun Hamid inside the box and the pacy midfielder dusted himself down to drill home the spot kick.

Albion faced the Hong Kong China U22 representative team in their final group game, and it needed a fine double save from Killian Cahill early on to stop the hosts taking a shock lead.

It spurred the Seagulls into action and a superb driving run from Barrington ended with the forward firing an effort against the bar. Unfortunately for Hong Kong defender Lau, the ball cannoned off his chest as he rushed back towards goal and into the net.

With two wins and a draw, Albion progressed from Group D, where they faced Fulham at the quarter-final stage on Sunday morning.

By Hong Kong Soccer Sevens
Ruari McConville battles for possession against Fulham.

“Roberto [De Zerbi] has often spoken mentality and we do the same with the 21s,” added Ruth. “We approached this tournament as seriously as any other, so by the time we reached the knockout stage, the focus was on trying to win it. Fulham provided a tough challenge, as you would expect, but I was proud of the way we played.”

A closely contested game was separated by a single goal and it arrived with almost the last kick when Bailey Smith broke down the left and squared to Barrington, who tucked home from close range.

Albion then faced Hong Kong Premier League side Tai Po in the last four, and, in front of a vocal home crowd, it needed another superb save from Cahill early on to keep out a Luizinho drive.

The Seagulls silenced the home support shortly before half-time when O’Mahony fired his effort into the top corner of the net, but in sticky conditions, peaking at over 30c, the hosts got back on levels terms when fine trickery down the left from Fung resulted in a low cross to Cheung, who swept home.

The final whistle blew, so the game went to sudden-death 4 v 4, played over four minutes. It was a new experience, with both sides not knowing whether to stick or twist, and the game then went to penalties. It was the hosts who emerged 4-2 winners and despite the disappointment clearly etched on the players’ faces, they were magnanimous in defeat.

“I was proud of how we conducted ourselves, both on and off the pitch, which is always very, very important,” Ruth reflected. “The players represented the club in the best possible way and I think they also liked the attention.

By Paul Hazlewood
Men's under-21s head coach Shannon Ruth said the Hong Kong 7s were a great experience for his players.

“That’s the one thing I noticed this time compared to when we played in this tournament pre-covid; there were fans at the hotel when we arrived in Brighton shirts and wanting the players’ autographs, which is a reminder of how fast the club is growing and its appeal worldwide.”

For the record, Aston Villa won the tournament, and with that the Albion players and staff prepared to head home, with Ruth already looking at a return next year.

“It was an excellently run tournament from start to finish. The organisers left no stone unturned, and we were so well looked after, both on and off the pitch.

“Hopefully we can come back and go one step further next year, but in the meantime, we have another exciting season to look forward to. While this season has only just come to an end, I can’t wait to get going again in July!”