Southend United U18s began the 2014/15 Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference season with a 1-1 draw against Gillingham after an eventful morning at Boots & Laces.
Midfielder Renei Batlokwa gave Blues the lead with his first competitive goal for the club in the 15th minute but Southend were indebted to goalkeeper Josh Bexon, who saved a penalty late in the opening period, for ensuring that they went in ahead at half-time. However, Gillingham scored early in the second half and, despite a strong finish from the hosts, they couldn’t force a winner.
Jordan Williams returned to the U18s after appearing for the senior side in each of their previous three pre-season friendlies, and he lined up in defence alongside Abdul Salami, who replaced Sonny Coutts in the starting line-up when the central defender suffered a tight hamstring in the aftermath of the Charlton Athletic fixture.
The match settled into a pattern early on as Gillingham forced a succession of corners in just the fourth minute. Blues defended strongly and cleared each one with ease, allowing them to have the first shot on target shortly afterwards when Nico Cotton half-volleyed Ross Johnson’s cross goalwards. The Gills goalkeeper palmed the ball out into the path of Norman Wabo, but his overhead bicycle kick flew over.
Southend began to control the tempo of play and a Cotton free-kick was nodded over by defender Daniel Matsuzaka before Batlokwa’s through-ball for Wabo was marginally over-hit in the tenth minute, allowing the visiting custodian to scoop up the ball inside his penalty area.
Blues took the lead after a quarter-of-an-hour. The move itself was intricate as Williams moved the ball into Batlokwa’s feet from the left-back position. The first-year scholar spun onto the ball and quickly offloaded to Wabo, who found his team-mate with a return pass. There was an element of fortune when Batlokwa’s next pass ricocheted off a defender back into his path, but he showed real composure to stroke the ball into an unguarded net.
That should have been the signal for Southend to push on, but instead Gillingham pressed hard and made it difficult for their hosts. They move the ball quickly down the pitch, and within minutes of the opening goal, Bexon was called upon to grab hold of a close-range header from a left-wing cross.
When Bexon was beaten in the 26th minute he found his skipper, Johnson, perfectly positioned besides the left-hand upright to stab a header from a corner off the goal-line and Southend were pleased to relieve the pressure a little shortly before the half-hour mark when Cotton curled a 25-yard free-kick over the crossbar.
Gillingham continued to push on, and they were awarded a penalty five minutes before half-time when a right-wing cross was adjudged to have struck Harry Norman’s arm as he attempted to cut it out. Bexon guessed correctly to maintain his side’s advantage by pushing the ball out to his left, and Johnson again was involved in clearing the follow-up to safety.
Bexon was called into action once again in the final minute of the first half when he gathered a deflected strike from yet another flag-kick, but he was powerless to stop the Gills from equalising five minutes into the second period. The shotstopper’s goal-kick was won in midfield by a visiting defender, and an attacker latched onto the ball as it travelled down the centre of the pitch before arrowing his finish into the bottom left-hand corner.
Gillingham continued to starve Blues of possession during this period, but the final 25 minutes saw a change in momentum. Harry Phillips had been introduced at the interval in place of Batlokwa, and he put Wabo clear only for the first-year forward to be flagged offside as he rounded the goalkeeper in the 66th minute.
Phillips himself had an opportunity to score when Cotton and Wabo combined for the latter to deliver a cross from the right midway through the half, but the playmaker couldn’t direct his header goalwards. Southend went even closer to scoring two minutes later when Wabo and Phillips set up Cotton, but his clean strike from the edge of the box cannoned off the left-hand post and away to safety.
Blues remained on the front foot as the match moved into the final quarter-of-an-hour with Cotton tackled by the last defender when he danced down the right flank and Johnson seeing a side-footed finish deflected out for a corner. Joe Bedford replaced Brandon Scott in midfield, and he had an immediate chance to score after exchanging passes with Johnson, but his shot lacked the power to test the goalkeeper.
Wabo’s final act before being substituted himself was to race clear of the defence down the right-hand side, but his low strike was well saved by the goalkeeper. Either team could still have claimed victory at this stage, but it was Southend who went closest six minutes from the end when Matsuzaka met Cotton’s free-kick at the back post. The danger passed with no-one able to anticipate the path of the downward header, and the two teams had to be content with a share of the spoils from the first fixture of the season.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Ross Johnson, Jordan Williams, Harry Norman, Daniel Matsuzaka, Abdul Salami, Brandon Scott (Joe Bedford, 75), Renei Batlokwa (Harry Phillips, 46), Norman Wabo (George Burton, 80), Freddie Gard, Nico Cotton.
Goal: Batlokwa (15).
Cautioned: Norman (85, foul tackle).