Southend United U18s produced a much-improved performance against Milton Keynes Dons but it was not enough to prevent them from falling to a second defeat inside three days.
Nico Cotton gave Blues the lead at Boots & Laces in the 26th minute but, crucially, the visitors equalised shortly before half-time and MK eventually claimed all three points with a 2-1 win thanks to another strike midway through the second period. Despite the scoreline there was still much to be positive about and Southend had a number of chances with Cotton rattling the woodwork shortly before the leveller.
Blues made three changes to their starting line-up with James Macree replacing Josh Bexon in goal and George Burton coming in ahead of Harry Phillips in midfield from the side beaten 4-0 in the Youth Alliance Cup by AFC Wimbledon. There was also a first competitive start of the campaign for defender Sonny Coutts, who was picked ahead of Abdul Salami at the heart of the defence.
That meant that eight players were featuring in their second game in less than 48 hours, but there were few signs of fatigue in the opening stages. Norman Wabo delivered the first shot of the match in the seventh minute, bustling past a defender to force the goalkeeper into a good low save, but MK retaliated immediately with a shot across Macree’s goal.
Both sides displayed a high level of technical ability, although it was Southend that edged the chances created early on. Indeed, Blues looked as though they might have taken the lead in the eleventh minute when Burton found the back of the net via the inside of the left-hand upright, but the assistant referee’s flag was raised as he clinically dispatched Brandon Scott’s slide-rule pass.
Sixty seconds later Wabo was thwarted after he had robbed a full-back of possession on the right touchline. The first-year forward darted inside and forced the goalkeeper into a parried stop, and then watched agonisingly as the rebound was blocked by a defender who had recovered to clear off the goal-line.
The match was still only a quarter-of-an-hour old when Burton found Jordan Williams with a cut-back and his shot was blocked out to Joe Bedford, who sent a 20-yard effort into the gloves of the goalkeeper. Blues continued to press the MK players back, and Burton was unlucky again ten minutes later when his fierce shot from Bedford’s chipped pass was turned around the near post.
From the resultant corner, Southend took the lead. Cotton rolled the ball short to Scott, who returned the pass to his team-mate. Cotton assessed his options and arced the ball over the defence and inside the far post as a number of Blues attackers tried, and failed, to get a touch to the inviting delivery. It was Cotton’s second goal of the season and the fifth of his career at U18s level.
Within seconds the visitors could have equalised as a forward found himself with a sight of goal to the left side of the penalty area. A ferocious shot was brilliantly pushed around the post by Macree, who seven minutes later was thankful to be making a rather more routine stop following further neat build-up play.
Play immediately switched to the opposite end where Cotton was unfortunate not to make it 2-0. Blues moved the ball well down the right flank and Williams cut the ball back to the second-year, who took a touch before thumping his shot against the crossbar. Two minutes later he was inches away from converting a Scott centre as he slid in at the back post, although in between Macree made another fingertip save to keep Blues ahead.
Southend were on top, and Coutts saw a header drift wide following another short Cotton corner, this time to Williams, but the hosts were pegged back three minutes before the break. The defence had a couple of opportunities to clear the ball, but they couldn’t make a convincing connection and the ball was worked wide to the right side of the penalty area where an MK forward drilled his shot into the bottom left-hand corner.
Coutts did well to distract a forward in the final minute of the half as he looked to convert a right-wing cross, and that allowed Southend to begin the second period in the ascendancy even if the scoreline was level. Scott flashed an effort narrowly over from the edge of the penalty area and Cotton saw an attempt from a Williams cross deflected off-target.
Phillips replaced Burton on 57 minutes but, after an MK forward had fired wide on the hour, Southend continued to press forwards. Cotton slipped the ball into Wabo’s path in the 65th minute but, just as he was about to shoot, a defender made a superb sliding challenge in the penalty area and, from the ensuing corner, Coutts recycled the ball into the box where Daniel Matsuzaka nodded down for Williams and he was denied by a desperate save by the goalkeeper.
Macree made a good stop in the 69th minute to push the ball to safety after his goal-kick had fallen to an opposition player in midfield, but he was beaten two minutes later when MK took the lead for the first time. A long ball down the right wasn’t dealt with and a cross was converted from close range.
Salami and Damani Dias replaced Coutts and Bedford as Blues freshened things up in the final 20 minutes, and a number of players began to suffer cramp as the closing stages approached. One of those, Scott, saw another shot blocked in the 79th minute before Macree made another smart save, and Scott had yet another attempt deflected wide from Ross Johnson’s cross shortly afterwards.
Blues tried to come up with a grandstand finish and they refused to let their heads drop as they tired. Johnson was cautioned after mis-timing a tackle in midfield, although that only served to underline Southend’s commitment to the cause, which was also evidenced by Macree making two reaction saves and Emmanuel Adeyeye nodding off the goal-line deep into stoppage time.
Despite that, the hosts couldn’t locate an equaliser and they will now be grateful for a weekend away from League action before returning to the field, again at Boots & Laces, on 13th September against a Cambridge United side managed by Mark Bonner, who previously worked in the youth department at Southend.
Southend United U18s: James Macree, Jordan Williams, Emmanuel Adeyeye, Joe Bedford (Damani Dias, 77), Sonny Coutts (Abdul Salami, 72), Daniel Matsuzaka, Brandon Scott, Ross Johnson, Norman Wabo, Nico Cotton, George Burton (Harry Phillips, 57). Substitutes not used: Josh Bexon, Cameron John.
Goal: Cotton (26).
Cautioned: Johnson (89, foul tackle).