THE young Saints dropped to the floor in almost unison as referee Lewis Sandoe blew his whistle for a final time on the Under-18 Premier League national final.

They dropped to the floor at the end of a game – and a season – in which they, many having just come out of secondary school, could not have given any more.

Bodies ached and hearts even more so, and it was so close to the ultimate unforeseen prize. Manchester City’s youngsters can say they are national champions again.

But it is a remarkable achievement for Saints, bottom of the division last season due to circumstances beyond their control, who are still proud champions of the south.

Daily Echo: Saints under-18s can be proud of their season achievements (Pic: Stuart Martin)Saints under-18s can be proud of their season achievements (Pic: Stuart Martin)

The players will come to reflect on their achievements fondly, if not immediately. For the coaches, Carl Martin and Mikey Harris, meticulous work soon begins on where these lads will be come August.

And that is not, hopefully, anywhere other than Staplewood, but many mature beyond their years have already been floating between the under-18s and B team this season.

“You never want to be on the losing end in a final but hopefully we can use this as motivation to be here next year,” Harris said, speaking at full-time.

Daily Echo: Manchester City lifted the U18 Premier League title (Pic: Stuart Martin)Manchester City lifted the U18 Premier League title (Pic: Stuart Martin)

“A lot of this group can play again next year so the challenge is to see how we can get here again and then hopefully win it.

“It’s a really interesting one, from our perspective as an academy and especially as a PDP (player development project), we will sit down with what is best for each individual at any given time,” he explained.

“You see players go up to the B team, there is a real intentional process with that which everyone is involved in, it’s not slap-dash from week-to-week.

“There’s an intentional process behind those decisions and we will continue with that moving forward. We’ll see what that is for each player.”

Opening goalscorer on the night, 16-year-old Kamari Doyle, is one of those who has already been featuring regularly for the under-23 setup.

Technician and attacking-midfielder, Doyle, tallied 11 appearances at Premier League 2 level for Dave Horseman’s B team, making a sweet debut just weeks after turning 16.

Injured Dom Ballard, the side’s top goalscorer across the season, is already prolific at under-23 level but can play again for Harris next season.

Others, like Luke Pearce – who the Daily Echo understands could target a first professional loan move as early as this summer, with no shortage of suitors for natural finishers – and defender Lewis Payne will turn 18 in the coming weeks.

For all of them, experience of playing in front of a 13,035 crowd in a national final will spur them on whatever their next steps.

Daily Echo: Supporters packed St Mary's over a third full to cheer the young side on (Pic: Stuart Martin)Supporters packed St Mary's over a third full to cheer the young side on (Pic: Stuart Martin)

“You hope so because if they want to be professional footballers, if this experience tonight, a big crowd and one of arguably the biggest clubs in the world doesn’t, then I don’t know what will,” Harris insisted.

“They’re all aspiring young players, it’s really important that they learn from these moments, reflect on them and get better for it.”

Saints legend Dave Merrington, speaking on the St Mary’s pitch at half-time of the first-team’s final home match on Tuesday, commanded the young side to leave themselves with no regrets.

They can do that, but if there is one big miss from not winning the final against Man City – it’s the UEFA Youth League qualification on the line.

Daily Echo: Dejection at full-time for the young Saints (Pic: Stuart Martin)Dejection at full-time for the young Saints (Pic: Stuart Martin)

The UEFA Youth League mirrors the Champions League at under-19 level and includes the very best in Europe’s academy teams, from Real Madrid and PSG to 2022 winners Benfica – and all Champions League clubs have their academies automatically qualify.

As a result of City's qualification through both Champions League and Domestic Champions paths, what could have been Saints' slot will now go to a champion of a league lower on the UEFA coefficient.

“Of course. What an experience that would have been,” Harris admitted. ”And that is something that the boys will be gutted about, as we will, as for the players and the staff that is something that can really accelerate your learning.

“So we’re gutted to miss out on that, but it wouldn’t be unfair to say that if you told any of us we’d be in this position competing against Man City and coming out the wrong side of a goal, we’d have probably gone that’d be a pretty good season.

“So it’s hard to take at the moment but when the dust settles we will reflect on what’s been a pretty good season.”

Daily Echo:

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