Blues close the gap on the top four with narrow victory over local rivals
Southend United closed the gap on the top four to six points as the race to earn a spot in the top Merit Division heated up courtesy of a 4-3 victory over Dagenham & Redbridge.
The Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference and the South West Conference will merge into three Merit Divisions at the end of January and Blues kept up their hopes of making it into the top division with a fifth victory in seven matches and their second inside 40 hours after Thursday night’s tremendous 1-0 FA Youth Cup win over Barnet.
Six of the starters at Roots Hall retained their places in the starting line-up, whilst Joe Bedford - a second-half substitute at Roots Hall - was also included in the eleven. Daniel Matsuzaka has rejoined Harlow Town on a work-experience loan and Ross Johnson was injured with Josh Bexon, Macauley Keating and George Burton rested. James Macree, Abdul Salami, Renei Batlokwa and Norman Wabo came into the side. Sonny Coutts skippered the side from the outset for the first time in a competitive match.
Blues did not enjoy the best of starts at a sodden Boots & Laces. Following the euphoria of the Barnet success, they were met by grey skies and persistent rain before a spirited Dagenham & Redbridge team took the lead on eight minutes. Batlokwa lost possession on the edge of his own penalty area and that allowed a Daggers forward to arrow his shot home via the inside of the right-hand post.
Neither team appeared to be enjoying the conditions and mistakes were plentiful early on, but Southend began to hit their stride and levelled the scores in the 14th minute. The goal was wonderfully crafted by Bedford, who spread the play to the right wing, and Jordan Williams, whose inside pass was drilled into the net from 25 yards by Nico Cotton.
Southend still looked a little leggy after their exertions just a day-and-a-half previously, but they really began to throw off the shackles after taking the lead ten minutes later through Wabo. The forward took full advantage of the position he found himself in after wrong-footing a defender, firing a shot underneath the Dagenham goalkeeper after cutting in from the left-hand side of the penalty area.
Chances remained at a premium, and custodian Macree judged a potentially awkward strike that bounced just in front of him well on 28 minutes to keep Blues ahead. The hosts could then have extended their advantage four minutes before half-time when Batlokwa was brought down just outside the penalty area, but Fredde Gard’s free-kick was smothered by the visiting shotstopper.
However, Southend did make it 3-1 before the break thanks to a wonderfully crisp passing move down the left-hand side. Wabo was involved again, slipping the ball out to an overlapping Emmanuel Adeyeye, and the full-back cut it back brilliantly for Brandon Scott to slam his fifth goal of the campaign into the roof of the net from close range.
That move was indicative of the passing football that Blues had managed to start playing in the latter stages of the first period, and the signs were good early on in the second half as well when Scott set up Wabo, only for the former Westward Boys striker to be denied by the goalkeeper’s legs. From the resultant corner, Williams was unlucky not to register his first youth team goal when his 25-yard attempt grazed the left-hand upright.
Unfortunately, any aspirations that Southend had of closing out the match comfortably were drastically diminished when Dagenham pulled a goal back in the 54th minute. Blues were partially the architects of their own downfall as a free-kick on the edge of the ‘D’ gave a Daggers player the opportunity to curl the ball delightfully around the wall and into the bottom left-hand corner.
Macree made an important stop at his near post on the hour to keep Blues in front, and the advantage was extended to two goals once again as Scott marked his 50th youth team appearance with the 15th U18s goal of his career twenty minutes from time. Receiving the ball from Adeyeye’s throw, the winger arced the ball over the goalkeeper and inside the right-hand post from the left touchline to make it 4-2.
By this time Harry Phillips and Jordan Lawrence-Gabriel had been introduced, and they were joined by FA Youth Cup hero Burton, who almost made an instant impact in the 80th minute when he raced onto a loose ball that had ricocheted out from a Wabo challenge to thump a shot goalwards, only for the Dagenham goalkeeper to parry it to safety.
Four minutes later Scott’s pass put the striker clear again, only for Burton’s ferocious attempt to be beaten out again by the visiting gloveman, who then watched Wabo slide the follow-up past the post. That meant a few nervous moments for Blues after a glancing header looped over Macree in the 86th minute to reduce the arrears to one goal again, but Southend held on to win their sixth league match of the season.
Southend United U18s: James Macree, Jordan Williams (George Burton, 76), Emmanuel Adeyeye, Joe Bedford, Abdul Salami, Sonny Coutts, Brandon Scott, Renei Batlokwa (Harry Phillips, 46), Norman Wabo, Freddie Gard, Nico Cotton (Jordan Lawrence-Gabriel, 66). Substitute not used: Josh Bexon.