Academy manager John Dempster said he was proud of his players’ effort in tonight's hard-fought FA Youth Cup tie against Fulham, despite bowing out of the competition following a 3-1 defeat.
Stags more than matched their U18 Premier League opponents throughout the match at Motspur Park, but ultimately came up short after a clinical second-half performance from the Cottagers.
Dempster's side went in to the break with a well-earned 1-0 lead thanks to a strike from winger Nyle Blake, but a Michael Epstone double and a header from Moritz Jenz sent Fulham in to the fourth round.
However the under 18s' boss was proud of his players' effort against a strong Fulham side after they stuck to a disciplined game plan.
“First and foremost, I am very proud of the boys. It was an incredible effort and commitment to the cause. We had a game plan, and the boys stuck to it - and we made it difficult for Fulham at times," Dempster said.
“We worked hard on team shape, winning the ball back and attacking quickly. It was pleasing to see that the lads can take information on board, take a game plan on board and put it into practice. They certainly did that at times tonight.
“[It was an] immaculate first half and there were some outstanding performances; and it’s not rocket science – goals change games, and we didn’t defend well from two set-plays, and it cost us. You can look at all the play Fulham had, they had some very good play and they had some very good players. But, essentially, it was a counter from our corner and two set plays that cost us.”
A number of Stags' players performed admirably against the Cottagers and Dempster singled out striker Zayn Hakeem and goalkeeper Xavier Sundby for particular praise.
“There were some outstanding individual performances – from Zayn Hakeem, who was a man mountain in the first half up against two giants. For me, he was the best player on the pitch in the first half, including Fulham players.
“You look at Xavier Sundby, a first-year goalkeeper, to step up in the FA Youth Cup and take Sam Wilson’s place, who had been outstanding before him. He was top-drawer, putting up some fantastic saves, he was communicating, he was encouraging, giving good information, and for a 16-year-old boy, I thought it was an immaculate performance.”
Despite eventually falling to defeat, Dempster believes this run of three games in the FA Youth Cup will certainly add to the players' footballing education.
“Their heads are down. I spoke to them after the game, and told them how proud I was of them.
“But it is all part of the learning curve, they have to learn to deal with defeats. It’s about how they react to that, and how they come back after Christmas. And if they come back showing the same energy levels, the same desire and more importantly the same quality, we will be in and around the teams challenging for another championship, it is a credit to the group.
“The boys will be disappointed, but if they learn from this experience, learn from this occasion, and if it makes them better players, then I’ll be happy.”
Supporters will be able to watch John Dempster's post-match interview on Stags PlayerHD tomorrow.