Mansfield Town’s under 18s were crowned champions of the Football League Youth Alliance following a 2-0 victory over Grimsby Town on Saturday.
Defender Kieran Harrison and attacker Zayn Hakeem got on the scoresheet on a fine day for Stags’ youngsters as their win ensured that the league title would be heading to Nottinghamshire.
John Dempster’s men began purposefully and midfielder Ali Smith was excelling in the ‘number 10 role’ and was unlucky when his measured ball through to striker Tyler Blake came to nothing as the assistant referee's flag went up late.
But as Grimsby conceded possession quite quickly from the resulting free-kick, Ali Smith struck again and released winger Tyler Johal through into the penalty area, but with only Briggs to beat, the ball sat up awkwardly and Johal shot over the bar from ten yards out.
Though this game was being billed as the day the Stags clinched the title, the home side were ignoring that script and the visitors were relieved to see Callum Jennings shoot over the bar from 12 yards after Max Wright had picked him out with a great pass.
Soon after, right-back Teddy Bloor's cross was fumbled by Corey Briggs and it fell to Johal whose goalbound strike was blocked by Joe Crowther and ricocheted into the path of midfielder Cain Smith, but his crashing shot through the crowded goalmouth was deflected wide of the right-hand post.
However, their attacking endeavours were soon rewarded when the Stags took the lead. Left-back Louis Danquah's corner kick was met by Kieran Harrison who headed the ball firmly into the back of the Mariners’ net.
Searching for a second and with half-time approaching, Tyler Blake slipped the ball through the Grimsby back four, who were defending high up the pitch, but Mansfield were frustrated again by another late flag after forward Hakeem had seemed to time his run to perfection.
HT: Mariners 0-1 Stags
At the beginning of the second period, Tyler Blake drew a defender out of position as he slowed down his run towards the edge of Briggs' penalty area and rolled the ball into the space he had created for Hakeem to run onto - the first team fringe player was too eager to get his shot away and he sliced the ball wide of the target.
Continuing their efforts, Bloor floated the ball beyond the back post, midfielder Cameron Healey nodded it back across the face of Grimsby's goal and defender Morgan Ratcliffe glanced a header against the upright.
The young Stags were looking to extend their lead but they had captain Ratcliffe to thank as he stayed focused to halt a Grimsby attack that had broken forward on the counter attack and was on hand to clear Bilal Sessay's goalbound strike off the line.
It was apparent that with just the one goal cushion, the Stags would need to score again while they were pushing forward and vulnerable to a counter attack, but they must have wondered if it was to be their day when Bloor hooked a cross in and Tyler Blake’s header cannoned back off the post.
But in the 72nd minute, the Stags scored their vital second goal when Ali Smith and Tyler Blake combined to get a shot away on goal but the Mariners’ keeper could only push the ball away to his left where Hakeem was arriving at just the right moment to roll the ball over the goal line and all but claim the victory and the league championship for the Mansfield.
Hakeem had two more chances to increase the lead, but Briggs turned one around the upright and the Mansfield frontman then headed the other over the bar. He then hobbled off with cramp to be replaced by striker Nyle Blake, a product of the Stags’ under 16 side, who looks to be comfortably taking the step up to under 18 level.
Seeking to add gloss to their professional display, Briggs had to turn a header from Nyle Blake onto the bar when Johal had found him with a whipped cross. Stags’ substitute came close again when he shot from 12 yards despite being held back, but Briggs saved well.
The last action of the second half saw midfielder Cain Smith drill the ball narrowly wide from outside the area, but it mattered not, the final whistle sounded and the celebrations began as John Dempster’s men secured the league title in their debut season.
Mariners’ XI: Corey Briggs, Adam Lanis, Mikey Davis, Myles Lawman, Joe Crowther, Cameron Hough, Max Wright, Tom Sawyer, Bilal Sessay, Callum Jennings (C), Jamie Gooddard
Subs: Joey Finnigan, Jack Pearson, Ben Sibbick, Ryan Evans, Charlie Lofts
Stags’ XI: Adam Bishop, Teddy Bloor, Louis Danquah, Cain Smith, Morgan Ratcliffe (C), Kieran Harrison, Tyler Johal, Cameron Healey, Tyler Blake (Tom Marriott 87), Alistair Smith (Devante Reittie 84), Zayn Hakeem (Nyle Blake 79)
Subs: Sam Wilson, Kane Baldwin