By Robert Craven
Southend United began 2017 as they had ended 2016 with an impressive away victory as they fought back from a 2-0 half-time deficit to defeat Cambridge United U18s 4-2.
The victory stretched the club’s unbeaten record to nine matches and lifted the side into second place in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference table, ahead of their opponents. Emile Acquah began the comeback shortly after half-time, and went on to equalise on 69 minutes, before defender Zak Piamin and forward Eren Kinali completed the stunning fightback during the final eleven minutes.
Elvis Bwomono, Harry Cuthbert, Damani Dias and Lewis Gard joined Pianim in the starting line-up as Southend’s return to action following the festive break saw youth team coach Dave Huzzey make five changes to the team that had dismantled Peterborough United 9-1 on 17th December.
Blues had spent four days in training between Christmas and the New Year, but they made the worst possible start to the game, which was switched to The Cass Centre, part of the Cambridge University Press complex in the city, as a result of the U’s impending FA Cup tie against Leeds United meaning that their usual training facilities were out of use.
In just the first minute of the match Cambridge – who had earned a 5-1 win over Southend in the Boots & Laces meeting between the clubs – took the lead. A right-wing move ended when Joe Mackenzie made an important block, but the ball ran loose to an onrushing midfielder, who curled majestically into the top left-hand corner of an unsigned Nathan Bishop’s goal.
In an open start to the game, Blues attacked from the restart with Alex Clark dribbling past a full-back before passing to Damani Dias, who saw his 20-yard strike charged down after offloading an effort whilst surrounded by opponents, but the heavy pitch soon began to take its toll on Southend’s style of play and the hosts were proving difficult to break down.
In the 13th minute a Tom Clifford cross from the left flank was nodded over by Kinali as he approached the edge of the six-yard box with pace ahead of a defender, but opportunities were hard to come by and it wasn’t until the mid-point of the first half that Blues built up a concerted spell of pressure.
Although Bishop had not been tested since the goal, Bwomono made ground to cover Clifford at left-back and effect an important sliding tackle before the Shrimpers moved onto the front foot. A Clifford corner was punched out to Clark, but he was closed down quickly and could not get a shot away in the 21st minute, and Acquah then got up well to win a header for Gard, who guided his attempt narrowly wide from 25 yards.
Blues also showed that they were prepared to be combative and to fight for possession, with Gard repeatedly pressing Cambridge players in midfield, and that led to Mackenzie sending a high ball over the top for Kinali to chase down. He beat a defender to get to the ball first, but he angled his shot across the face of goal and wide with the goalkeeper beaten.
When the home side did get through, they found the back-line and Cuthbert, stationed just in front, in imposing form, but they did double their advantage on the half-hour mark from a dead-ball situation. The goal represented double punishment for Southend, who had just spurned a useful chance of their own when Acquah flicked on a Bwomomo cross but Clark failed to gamble and the ball drifted out of play.
Instead, at the opposite end, a near-post delivery was powered beyond Bishop by the U’s towering centre-half. Blues were temporarily rocked, but they hinted at what would come during the second period when Acquah nodded on Cuthbert’s chipped pass in the 42nd minute and Gard picked out Kinali’s run. The goalkeeper came off his line swiftly to apprehend the forward, and Southend trailed 2-0 at the break.
Blues gained their reward for their continuing endeavours three minutes after the interval. Clark, who had netted a hat-trick at Peterborough, turned provider on this occasion as he cut back smartly onto his left foot whilst positioned on the right flank. That allowed him to deliver a swinging cross into the penalty area and Acquah attacked it impressively, leaping into the air to steer his header beyond the goalkeeper.
It was just the tonic Blues required, and the tall centre-forward – who was awarded a scholarship with the Shrimpers this week – almost restored parity five minutes later from Gard’s pass. This time his effort was deflected over but Southend were full of belief and Cuthbert hoisted over from the edge of the penalty area just before the hour mark.
Imani Matthews replaced Dias and his energy helped the visitors to continue to gather momentum. When Kinali was tugged back 25 yards from goal, Clifford curled a free-kick onto the roof of the net, and shortly after he helped haul Blues level. The left-back won possession in midfield and continued his run to receive Clark’s return pass before inviting Acquah to stab in his centre from close range.
Far from settling for a share of the spoils, Southend now went in search of a winner. Matthews jinked his way into the penalty area to set up Gard, who saw a shot blocked, and in the 77th minute the away side went even closer as Clifford’s floating free-kick was nodded onto the top of the crossbar by Mackenzie with the goalkeeper stranded.
Kinali then nodded across for Acquah, whose own aerial effort dropped agonisingly wide of the post before the forward played a part in the go-ahead goal on 79 minutes. Acquah was brought down on the left edge of the penalty area, but he picked himself up to flick on Gard’s set-piece and Pianim was on hand to poke home his first competitive goal for the U18s.
There were periods of the final ten minutes when Blues had to defend hard, with Cuthbert particularly clearing under pressure in one attack before the referee waved away appeals for a penalty late on. However, Southend still looked likely to add to their advantage, and Gard sent a skidding shot into the gloves of the goalkeeper, who was then called upon to tip away an Acquah attempt.
Finally, four minutes into stoppage time, Southend secured the triumph with the goal of the game. Having made careful progress down the right wing, Matthews got to the bye-line and cut-back for Kinali, who acrobatically twisted his body in mid-air to volley home from ten yards out. It was a remarkable way to complete a remarkable match.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Harry Cuthbert, Joe Mackenzie, Zak Pianim, Eren Kinali, Lewis Gard, Emile Acquah, Damani Dias (Imani Matthews, 62), Alex Clark. Substitutes not used: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Taylor Curran.
Goals: Acquah (48, 69), Pianim (79), Kinali (90+4).
EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference
The Cass Centre, Cambridge
Saturday 7th January 2017