SAINTS U21s showed real grit and determination to beat League Two side Cambridge United 1-0 in their second Checkatrade Trophy group stage match at the Cambs Glass Stadium.

There was a general perception that the youngsters were perhaps bullied out of their opening day defeat to League One high-fliers Peterborough United in August.

But this was a demonstration of real character by the under-21s side, who overcame some early jitters to express themselves well against senior opposition, who may feel they could have imposed themselves more on this fresh-faced Saints side.

In the end, though, it was Alfie Jones’ first-half effort that was the difference, to put Saints equal on points with southern group H second-place side Peterborough and a point behind leaders Northampton Town, who they face in their final group match next month for the chance to reach the knockout stages for a second successive season.

Cambridge did dominate the second half but couldn’t make the breakthrough in front of a less than enthused crowd of just 480.

The low attendances continue to be something of a trademark for this reformatted tournament, which Saints won in 2010 under its former name, the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.

The mid-table fourth tier outfit demonstrated how much value they were placing on the competition by naming just three of the side that lost to Swindon 2-0 on Saturday – although they did deploy a strong spine, despite eight changes overall.

It seemed mainly an exercise for many of the club’s fringe players to impress manager Shaun Derry, the former QPR, Crystal Palace and Portsmouth midfielder.

Saints named a very young team meanwhile, with only Alex McCarthy, the understudy goalkeeper to Fraser Forster, having come anywhere near a first-team outing.

The youngsters had to show their mettle straight away, having to stand firm during some early U’s pressure.

But it was certainly a half they grew in to.

The in-form Callum Slattery, playing in the hole behind striker Marcus Barnes, was particularly impressive, really making the visitors tick and keeping their quick-passing style moving.

Saints’ academy side have had a mixed start to the season with many of their more experienced players gaining valuable game-time with Football League and Scottish clubs.

The likes of Harrison Reed, Olufela Olomola, Ryan Seager, Harry Lewis and Sam Gallagher have all left to taste life away from the academy bubble on loan.

Without those more senior academy players, younger lads have had to step up.

And this was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their progress against League Two opposition here.

Martin Hunter, the club’s technical director has always maintained this competition, which has been highly divisive after its change of format, has huge value for his young players.

Some League One and Two clubs believe it is the beginning of increased Premier League influence on the Football League with the introduction of some academy teams in to this competition.

There were early nerves from this Saints team and for the most part the hosts were on top as the visitors settled.

But the first big chance fell to Saints, as the bounce of the ball caught the U’s backline unawares.

But Ollie Cook, the 19-year-old centre-back, could not steer a close range header on target.

Saints were starting to bring their brand of well-drilled academy football midway in to the half, attempting to get the ball down and play and looking to release Tyreke Johnson, 18, and Harlem Hale, 17, on the flanks.

United did threaten from Jeavani Brown as well as Jake Carroll, but former United loan man McCarthy’s goal was not breached.

Saints captain Jones took advantage of some very slack U’s marking from a Slattery’s corner to head home at the near post on 36 minutes to score what would be the decisive goal.

After a fairly innocuous opening to the second half, the U’s looked to level, throwing caution to the wind, but Brown could not fire on target from close range inside a packed box.

U’s boss Derry threw his dice on 54 minutes with a triple substitution and a change to a 4-4-2 formation.

It almost had an instant impact and Cambridge were looking for a penalty but Brown, the 22-year-old Jamaican attacker, was adjudged not have been fouled as he galloped in to the box on the right and dragged down before he could pulled the trigger.

Saints were able to show their swift passing in the first half, but the second half they had to weather lots of Cambridge pressure.

The trio of substitutes did start to have an impact for the home side, with David Amoo really pulling the strings, while Emannuel Osadebe forced a flying save from McCarthy with a dipping effort from the right.

Saints demonstrated defensive solidity late on, with goalscorer Jones excellent in keeping his team’s shape and the barrier up to stop the U’s from finding the equaliser.

The under-21s now head to Northampton Town for their final group game on November 7.

SAINTS: McCarthy, Wood, O’Driscoll, Cook, Bakary (Valery 45), Jones, Rowthorn (Hamblin 79), Johnson, Slattery (Smallbone 87), Hale, Barnes. UNUSED SUBS: Cull , Vokins, Hansen.

CAMBRIDGE: Mitov, Carroll, Howkins, Taylor, Davies, Mingoia (Amoo 54), Deegan (Dunk 54), Elito (Osadebe 54), O’Neil, Brown, Foy. UNUSED SUBS: Iron, Legge, Maris, Worman.

Attendance: 480