Report from the Youth Alliance League game between Southend United and Luton Town
Southend United’s three-match winning sequence came to an end at Boots & Laces on Saturday morning as Luton Town edged an enthralling Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference encounter thanks to Geo Craig’s first-half goal.
Blues were without skipper Ross Johnson and in-form winger Nico Cotton, who had scored in his previous four league matches, as they served one-match suspensions ahead of Friday’s FA Youth Cup Third Round tie against Middlesbrough, but the hosts controlled large portions of the match and could count themselves unlucky not to secure at least a draw even taking into account the second-half dismissal of Brandon Scott.
Emmanuel Adeyeye was restored to the starting line-up after missing the 2-0 win at Cambridge United through illness whilst Renei Batlokwa made his first start since returning from injury. Joe Bedford replaced Johnson in the centre of midfield and Sonny Coutts took over captaincy responsibilities.
Kick-off was delayed by 45 minutes after the closure of the A127 left the Luton squad, and some Southend players, stuck in traffic but Blues made a strong start and forced a couple of early corners. Batlokwa was involved immediately, releasing Adeyeye down the left flank, and the full-back picked out George Burton with an immaculate square pass that was chipped over from close range.
However, the Hatters took the lead against the run of play in the eleventh minute. A swift move down the right-hand side saw the ball passed inside to Craig on the edge of the penalty area, and his low strike rolled underneath Josh Bexon’s dive and into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
The set-back failed to deter Southend, who could have equalised within two minutes when Bedford sent a skidding shot goalwards from 25 yards. The Luton goalkeeper got a hand to the ball and somehow managed to turn it just inches over the crossbar. Four minutes later Batlokwa was unfortunate when a cheeky curling attempt delivered with the outside of his right boot shaved the left-hand upright.
Luton managed to obtain more of a foothold in the match as the half continued, but despite their increased possession levels, they did not force any saves from Bexon. A right-wing cross was side-footed wide of the far post in the 20th minute and a fierce shot was charged down ten minutes before the half-time interval, whilst a back-post header from a corner was also directed off-target for the visitors during the second quarter of the game.
Blues came out after the break determined to grab an equaliser, and striker Burton was close to netting within three minutes of the restart when his 35-yard free-kick was driven inches wide of the left-hand post. There was a nervous moment for centre-half Abdul Salami just before the hour mark when he misjudged a high ball over the top, but he recovered his composure to force the ball out for a corner.
Within seconds, Southend had been thwarted again by the Town custodian, this time at the end of a wonderful move involving Jordan Williams and Burton. Batlokwa managed to squeeze the ball out of a challenge into the path of Scott, whose angled finish was helped around the post at full stretch by the goalkeeper.
Ten minutes later skipper Coutts was the unfortunate player to be denied by the agile gloveman when he powerfully headed Freddie Gard’s cross goalwards at the far post. The ‘keeper palmed that attempt over the bar as Southend continued to endure a frustrating morning.
Norman Wabo appeared as a 78th-minute substitute for Batlokwa with Blues looking to get in behind the Luton defence with more frequency, but they were dealt a blow three minutes later when Scott received his second yellow card of the game after flying into a tackle having surrendered possession 30 yards from goal.
There was no let-up for the Luton defence, though, and Macauley Keating was inches away from making more telling contact with Burton’s measured right-wing cross as Southend continued to pile on the pressure with ten men. Gard and Salami delivered long throws into the penalty area to no avail, and the late introduction of Imani Matthews also failed to produce a leveller, leaving Blues seven points from the top four places in the league table.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Jordan Williams, Emmanuel Adeyeye, Macauley Keating, Abdul Salami, Sonny Coutts, Brandon Scott, Joe Bedford (Imani Matthews, 90+2), George Burton, Freddie Gard, Renei Batlokwa (Norman Wabo, 78). Substitutes not used: James Macree, Tom Clifford.