Shaun Newton climbed off the substitutes' bench to secure a creditable draw for Brian Horton's Nationwide Football League youngsters in Genoa yesterday.
The 21-year-old Charlton midfielder had only been on the pitch for three minutes when he hit the 62nd-minute goal which took the League's unbeaten record to three matches since these annual encounters were given an under- 21 age limit in 1995. No one will be more grateful to Newton than his captain, the Birmingham midfielder Chris Holland, whose first-half blunder led to Alessio Pirri putting the Italians ahead after 35 minutes.
There was no doubting that the Englishmen deserved their draw after matching the home side stride for stride - it was just a shame that the impressive 38,000-capacity Luigi Ferraris stadium housed no more than a few hundred fans.
Even so, the visitors looked a little overawed by their surroundings in the early stages and struggled to contain an Italian Serie B side which had a generous sprinkling of players contracted to Serie A clubs but farmed out to lower division teams to learn their trade.
Pirri curled a 25-yard free-kick just wide with Andy Marshall scrambling desperately to his right, and then the Norwich goalkeeper denied Andrea Zanchetta with a spectacular tip-over when the Foggia midfielder crashed in a half-volley.
Marco Campolonghi was next to threaten, only for Marshall to snuff out the danger by scooping the ball away and, with the Italians continuing to dictate the game, Pirri should have done better than strike a shot wide from 12 yards.
However, with Holland biting into every midfield tackle, the League side gradually turned the tide and it took a goal-line clearance from Dario Baccin to prevent Lee Bradbury from giving the visitors the lead, when he out-jumped goalkeeper Matteo Gianello to loop in a header from Alan Rogers' deep cross.
Bruce Dyer was crowded out moments later after a sharp turn had given the Crystal Palace forward a brief sight of goal, but that was the cue for the Italians to break downfield to take the lead.
Holland took possession deep inside his own half and tried to find Carl Serrant with a cross-field ball that simply invited danger. Pirri was in like a flash to intercept, and the midfielder raced clear unopposed before lifting his shot exquisitely over Marshall as the goalkeeper rushed out.
The visitors almost replied immediately when Dyer lashed in a shot on the turn that was blocked by Gianello. Then they should have had a penalty on the stroke of half-time, when Rogers was clearly tripped by Baccin as he raced into the area only for the French referee, Claude Colombo, to wave away the English appeals.
Dyer threatened again immediately after the restart with a clipped shot from a tight angled that was turned over by Gianello. However, the Italians showed that they were no in the mood to relinquish their lead with Giovanni Pier Rutzittu given a lecture for a clattering tackle on Rogers. Wrexham's Bryan Hughes was also spoken to for a late challenge on Gianello.
Horton made a double substitution on 59 minutes, with Newton and Scott Taylor coming on for Rogers and Bradbury, and it proved to be an inspired switch. Three minutes late, the determined Dyer shrugged off two Italian defenders down the right and sent over a cross that Newton controlled instantly before beating Gianello with a low drive.
Dyer was within a whisker of capping an impressive performance by putting the visitors ahead minutes later when he rose to meet Des Hamilton's cross only to guide his near-post header just over.
The Italians responded in spirited fashion themselves in the closing stages and substitute Vincenzo Chianese had a close-range shot blocked by the legs of Marshall.
Even so, the visitors could have snatched it in the final seconds, Newton seeing his first shot ricochet off the legs of team-mate Dyer and then forcing Gianello into a neat save from the rebound.
ITALIAN LEAGUE SERIE B UNDER-21 XI: Gianello; Baccin, Brioschi, Lanna (Mercuri, 69), Mezzano, Pirri (Chianese, 60), Rutzittu, Tedesco (Amoroso, 74), Zanchetta, C Zanetti, Campolonghi.
NATIONWIDE FOOTBALL LEAGUE UNDER-21 XI: Marshall (Norwich); Mills (Norwich), Rogers (Tranmere), Holland (Birmingham), Moses (Barnsley), Serrant (Oldham), Hamilton (Bradford City), Hughes (Wrexham), Dyer (Crystal Palace), Bradbury (Portsmouth), Bullock (Barnsley). Substitutes: Newton (Charlton) for Rogers, 59; Taylor (Bolton) for Bradbury, 59.
Referee: C Colombo (France).
Jimmy Rimmer, the former Manchester United, Swansea, Arsenal and Aston Villa goalkeeper, has taken up a post as the defensive coach of China's national side.