It was truly a weekend of firsts at Al Lang Stadium – Saturday night saw Aaron Guillen score his first professional goal and the Rowdies put their first three game losing streak under Neill Collins in their rearview window, then on a scorching Sunday afternoon, the newly formed Rowdies Academy side rallied to win their first ever match, getting a thrilling 3-2 result over Weston FC.
Saturday night saw Guillen fire the Rowdies into the lead in the 7th minute, but the situation was reversed on Sunday as Weston FC scored in the 7th to go up 1-0 on the home side. The academy side, coached by former Rowdies Centurion Keith Savage and assisted by current Rowdies Lucky Mkosana and Yann Ekra regrouped, remained patient and following some encouragement from GK Colin Gallagher to “get one before the half,” they did just that, as Asher Jones set up Jeffrey White for the equalizer late in the first half.
The game really started to cook (pun totally intended) after halftime. White struck again, this time from distance, as the Rowdies Academy took an ultimately short-lived lead in the 70th minute.
Weston would equalize a minute later, and both sides continued to push for a winner with each side coming close on several occasions, but it was Tampa Bay finally finding it in the dwindling seconds of second half stoppage. Dominick Phanco sent in a shot that went off the far post and trickled over the line as Weston’s GK was unable to react in time to stop it.
Winning was nice, but Savage is laser-focused on development.
That said, he was happy with the win but also saw room for improvement.
“I think we could have been more organized, we gave up 2 set piece goals, and that’s something where we don’t train together all the time. We can tweak that and fix that but individually we can help them to reach their potential. We’re glad they won, we’re glad they showed a lot of the attributes that the first team shows – playing to the final whistle, a great attitude and great fitness out there in that heat, but the talent that’s here, we got to see it on the big field and I think if we played a little bit better, if we were a little bit better positionally, especially the creative attacking players to get them on the ball more, I think we would have won that game a lot easier. We made it pretty hard on ourselves.“
Just because this was an Academy game didn’t mean that the first team wasn’t involved – in addition to Mkosana and Ekra assisting Savage, Rowdies Head Coach Neill Collins and assistants Chad Burt and Stuart Dobson were also present and addressed the team in the locker room at the end of the match, something that Savage definitely appreciated.
“I know just being in there, listening to the first team coaches talk to them, it’s really cool to be here to facilitate so they can play in this stadium and ultimately get in front of Neill and Chad and Dobbo. I think they’re enjoying it and I know I’m enjoying it, it’s fun to be back. They’re here because they want to be here and because (Neill) sees something in them and I think if any of them can perform at a higher-than-this level, a high enough level, I think he’ll bring them to training or whatever opportunity is there, be it a preseason game or an Open Cup game, you know he’s shown he’s not scared to play young guys.“
Starting a free-to-play youth academy program in the summer in Florida presents some unique challenges, but Savage and his staff have expected them and adapted to them.
“It’s not easy in the beginning stages, and we have part time players coming in so we’re only training twice a week so it’s a big ask to get a real identity and a really good organization, some of the starters weren’t even in training this week. It’s been difficult but the boys who have been there are starting to see what we’re trying to implement and they’re watching videos of the first team and they’re coming to the games – a lot of them were there last night to watch the win – and they’re watching their positions on the field so for them to come out and show some kind of semblance of what the first team plays is really good for the first time. I think we’ll be a little bit better in the next 3 or 4 games and then they’ll be back with their clubs training and developing, and there are fantastic clubs in our area, so we’re thankful for those clubs to allow them to come play here and be a part of what we’re doing. Hopefully it’s a positive for them to be representing the Rowdies.“
Savage knows his way around Al Lang, having made more than 100 appearances for the Rowdies, but he admitted that it was a little surreal to be back in this new role.
“It was more surreal the first day I was here about a month ago, being back in and around the first team, that was really exciting and now it’s just fun. I’m enjoying being here. I’ve never coached players with this kind of talent. It’s really cool, it’s fun, and it’s not a difficult job or a high pressure job, it’s really just facilitating these boys: come in, show what it’s like to be a pro and it’s up to them to perform.”