Blues' youth side beat Aldershot Town
Southend United’s first competitive Under-18's match for ten weeks ended in hard-fought 2-1 victory at Aldershot Town as Jack Payne and Josh Banton scored the crucial goals either side of the half-time interval.
Ricky Duncan’s patched-up side claimed all three points from the encounter at Surrey Sports Park despite Reece Beckles-Richards having put the hosts in front with a screamer midway through the opening period, leaving the Head of Youth to exclaim: “I’m really pleased with the performance today.”
“When you haven’t played a competitive match for so long, there’s definitely an element of relief just to be back out there. I was just happy to get a game in, and we can now start to focus on the upcoming challenges,” Duncan continued.
With just internal friendlies and a couple of hastily arranged meetings with Millwall and Norwich City having taken place in 2013, Duncan revealed that he wasn’t sure what to expect from the match against the Shots: “We’ve done a lot of training indoors at Garon’s, lots of 4v4 play and stuff like that, and you could see at times that we weren’t used to spreading the play on a normal-sized pitch. Hopefully the weather will pick up now and we’ll be able to get back onto the training ground.”
Duncan was without three experienced defenders in the form of right-back Harry Jeffreys, long-term injury victim Rob Hyams and centre-back Aaron Tatham, who picked up a knock last weekend. Seedy Njie, who scored on his debut on loan at Bishop’s Stortford, and Shamir Mullings, who has linked up with Tilbury, were also missing.
After such a long lay-off, it was no surprise that Blues were a little sluggish early on, and it wasn’t until the ninth minute that they created their first opportunity. Payne’s cross-field pass picked out Mitchell Pinnock on the left-hand side of the penalty area, but the winger’s shot was dragged across the face of goal.
Four minutes later, Pinnock was presented with another chance after Payne had narrowly failed to connect with Marlon Agyakwa’s driven right-wing centre. Unfortunately the second-year scholar could not get the ball out of his feet and his eventual effort was easily charged down.
After those early openings, Southend were forced onto the back foot, and Ted Smith had to advance off his goal-line on 22 minutes to prevent Elliott Blair from stabbing past him after the forward had outpaced debutant Dan Missoussa, a graduate of the Under-16 side. Seconds later, Smith was forced to fling himself to his right to keep out Matt Steer’s well-struck 20-yarder, with Blair slipping and sending the resultant rebound onto the top of the crossbar.
Aldershot eventually took the lead from the ensuing goal-kick. Blues surrendered possession in midfield and Beckles-Richards seized upon the space he was afforded 25 yards from goal to smash an unstoppable strike into the top left-hand corner of the net.
Payne saw a shot beaten away by the Shots goalkeeper just before the half-hour mark, but that was a rare foray forward during this period: “I thought we did well overall, but there was a 20-minute spell during the first half when we couldn’t really get out of our own half. Aldershot weren’t really threatening, but we invited unnecessary pressure on ourselves by continually giving the ball away,” remarked Duncan.
With only a one-goal deficit Blues were still in the game, and they levelled two minutes before the break. Payne was the instigator, collecting the ball after Kane Farrell had won it in midfield and embarking on a mazy run down the left. Having offloaded to Agyakwa, he was also the finisher, firing the return pass inside the right-hand post to make it 1-1.
An early shot in the second half from the goalscorer failed to test the home custodian, and Aldershot could have restored their advantage in the 51st minute when Mitch McDonald nodded Kofi Halliday’s cross wide of the near post. A physical approach and a stop-start rhythm to the match made it difficult for Blues to gain any momentum, but the introduction of substitutes Jack Bridge and Jason Williams would eventually help.
Just before the hour mark, Bridge released Agyakwa and encouraged him to advance to the edge of the penalty area, but the wide-man sent a dipping attempt narrowly over the crossbar. When Williams won a 71st minute corner with a persistent run, it was the chance Southend needed to grab what would prove to be the winning goal. Fope Coker swept a short Payne corner into the box and, when it was cleared, Jack Edwards recycled the ball to the back post, where Agyakwa squared it to Banton for a thumping close-range finish.
There were some anxious moments in the final quarter-of-an-hour - Farrell was required to poke Steer’s drilled finish off the goal-line in the 76th minute and a substitute nodded wide four minutes later - but Blues ended strongly with Payne heading inches wide from Kojo Apenlenu’s right-wing cross in the final minute as the visitors kept pace with the chasing pack in the Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference.
“I’m pleased with the result and with most aspects of the performance. Josh Banton, in particular, played brilliantly given that he had played for the reserves on Thursday and spent all of Friday with the chiropodist having treatment on a toe that was stamped on in that game. I was really chuffed with him popping up at the other end to get the winning goal,” Duncan concluded.
Blues’ Youths have a friendly lined up at Boots & Laces next Saturday against Category Two Academy side Queens Park Rangers before they face Watford in a rearranged Football League Youth Alliance Cup Second Round clash at the same venue on Tuesday 19th February.
Southend United: Ted Smith, Daniel King, Kane Farrell, Jack Edwards, Dan Missoussa, Josh Banton, Marlon Agyakwa (Kojo Apenlenu, 82), Fope Coker, Dan Snook (Jason Williams, 55), Jack Payne, Mitchell Pinnock (Jack Bridge, 46).
Goals: Payne (43), Banton (71).
Cautioned: Coker (30, foul), Edwards (31, foul).