Blues Under-18's 2-2 Northampton Under-18's
Southend United U18s twice let a lead slip from their grasp as they returned from an entertaining match at Northampton Town with a 2-2 draw.
Daniel Matsuzaka put Blues in front on 17 minutes with his second goal in as many matches, but a contentious effort from Kieron Fitzgerald levelled matters for the hosts at Moulton College eight minutes before the break. Fope Coker’s thunderbolt a quarter-of-an-hour from the end looked to have won the game for the Shrimpers until Northampton’s Ivan Toney connected with a sensational diving header to restore parity once again with only three minutes remaining.
Head of Youth Ricky Duncan was not despondent with his squad, despite the late nature of the second equaliser: “It’s been a long week for these lads. We’ve played three tough games at Portsmouth, then at home to Milton Keynes Dons and now today. Some also played in the behind-closed-doors game against Dagenham & Redbridge, so there were some tired legs out there. I’m not disappointed,” he commented.
The experienced quartet of Fope Coker, Marlon Agyakwa, Seedy Njie and Mitchell Pinnock were restored to the side as well as Kojo Apenteng in a much-changed side from the 4-3 midweek victors over Milton Keynes Dons at Great Wakering Rovers. The disruption seemed to matter little inside the first minute, though, as Agyakwa released Jack Bridge to send over a cross to the back post where Pinnock nodded against the top of the crossbar.
A wayward pass from Bridge on the edge of his own penalty area a couple of minutes later presented Cobblers wide man Cook with a good chance to test Ted Smith, but he guided his shot the wrong side of the left-hand upright from just inside the penalty area, and Southend assumed a degree of control over proceedings from that point forward.
Pinnock set Njie clear with a precise through-ball in the eleventh minute and, although the second-year striker rounded goalkeeper Ben Heath, his goalbound attempt from an acute angle was scooped off the line by a defender. Pinnock then went close himself after flicking up Coker’s short free-kick and volleying a couple of feet wide from the ‘D’.
Blues finally took the lead thanks largely to Pinnock’s viciously inswinging corner. A measure of the danger set-pieces could cause the hosts came a little earlier when Matsuzaka and Aaron Tatham just failed to force the ball over the line from a Bridge delivery, but this time schoolboy Matsuzaka got on the end of Pinnock’s seemingly goalbound flag-kick to ensure a defender on the goal-line couldn’t clear.
Southend remained untroubled until the 37th minute. Having maintained possession in routine fashion for long periods, a chipped pass over Tatham momentarily caused confusion. Whilst the centre-back assessed his options, he appeared to be clipped from behind by Fitzgerald, who then raced clear with the ball at his feet, rounded Smith and tapped into an empty net. Blues complained to the referee, but the goal was allowed to stand.
“I thought Aaron was probably fouled in the build-up to the equaliser, but I’ve also told him that if he had cleared the ball quicker, then the situation wouldn’t have arisen. We probably shaded the first half, so we were a little unfortunate to go in level at 1-1,” mused Duncan. Northampton could even had taken the lead a couple of minutes before the break, but Cook’s glancing header from a Callum Powell free-kick dropped inches wide.
Town had the first opportunity of the second period, too, as Matsuzaka - who otherwise impressed with some important interventions and diligent defensive work to add to his goal - was robbed of the ball by Cook on the edge of the penalty area. He fired goalwards, but Smith saved well with his legs and Matsuzaka had recovered sufficiently to block Fitzgerald’s follow-up.
The game opened up and, after Coker had set Njie away at one end for a deflected strike into the side-netting, a Fitzgerald cross at the opposite end was nodded off-target by Toney. That was soon followed by a Powell corner onto the head of Cobblers substitute Danny Harmon, who failed to bring more than a scrambled save from Smith with a downward header.
Proceedings were lit up by Coker in the 75th minute. After a staggered build-up, he scored at the end of a fourth phase of attacking play by Southend. Agyakwa was first to burrow into the Northampton penalty area and, when he was stopped, Njie drilled the ball across the six-yard box with no-one able to divert it home. It was then cleared to Pinnock, whose half-volley appeared to be charged down by a defender’s arm, but Coker remained alert and rifled an unstoppable shot into the top left-hand corner from 25 yards out.
Unfortunately, the previous week caught up with Blues in the final quarter-of-an-hour and they dropped deep to invite pressure onto themselves. Fitzgerald was thwarted within three minutes of the goal, Matsuzaka initially blocking before Smith brilliantly palmed the deflected effort around the left-hand upright and, in the 86th minute, Toney inexplicably skied Harmon’s swinging centre from close range.
Within a minute, he had made amends in spectacular fashion. Fitzgerald had just been moved back into a midfield role for Northampton, but he still found the space on the right flank to get in behind and send over an accurate cross that Toney met with an outstanding diving header at the back post to arrow the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
To their credit, Southend summoned up some additional energy in an attempt to find a third goal, and another schoolboy in Brandon Scott provided impetus from the right, but neither Jason Williams nor Macauley Keaton could find the required finish in the closing stages to earn Blues all three points.
“I thought, to be fair to Northampton, they were the better side after the break, so a draw was a fair result. Fope had a good game, and his goal was excellent, but their second goal was also top quality, although it came about because we were tired and they were able to work the flanks and get in behind us. We got it wrong in the second half because we tried to go too long, instead of keeping the ball in a manner that would’ve preserved our legs,” Duncan revealed ahead of Wednesday morning’s trip to Watford.
Southend United: Ted Smith, Daniel King, Robert Hyams, Fope Coker, Aaron Tatham, Daniel Matsuzaka, Marlon Agyakwa (Brandon Scott, 76), Kojo Apenteng (Macauley Keaton, 57), Seedy Njie (Jason Williams, 84), Jack Bridge, Mitchell Pinnock. Substitutes not used: Charlie Barlow, Kane Farrell.
Goals: Matsuzaka (17), Coker (75).