Youngsters suffer narrow defeat to Plymouth Argyle at Boots & Laces.
Southend United U18s slipped to a narrow 2-1 defeat against Football League Youth Alliance Merit League One leaders Plymouth Argyle, despite captain Ross Johnson handing them a first-half lead.
All three goals came in the opening 45 minutes of the match, with a sublime Argyle free-kick on the stroke of half-time proving to be the decisive moment in the contest. Johnson’s close-range finish had put Southend ahead in the 21st minute, but Plymouth levelled just before the half-hour and eventually won to extend their unbeaten run in the second phase of the 2014/15 campaign to nine matches.
Despite a third consecutive defeat, there were positives for Blues, who fielded four schoolboys in the encounter and started with full-back Elvis Bwomono and exciting attacker Damani Dias linking up on the right-hand side. Cameron John and Imani Matthews featured as second half substitutes, whilst Tom Ripsher was also involved in the squad, narrowly missing out on a starting place when Sonny Coutts came through a late fitness test to take his place in the back four.
A highly-competitive clash began with Plymouth controlling the pace and pattern of play in the opening 20 minutes. However, despite their probing, the visitors were unable to penetrate the Southend defence with Bwomono, Dias and Abdul Salami all making last-ditch challenges to prevent James Macree being brought into action.
Macree finally made his first save in the 18th minute, comfortably gathering a long-range Plymouth effort, before Renei Batlokwa delivered Southend’s first shot on goal. A skidding effort from 25 yards after holding off the challenge of an opponent required a fingertip save at full-stretch from the Argyle custodian, but that save merely delayed the hosts in their attempts to take the lead.
Freddie Gard’s resultant right-wing corner acted as the precursor to birthday boy Johnson, who turned 18 the day before the match, making it 1-0. Batlokwa retrieved the dead ball delivery at the back post and set up Joe Bedford for a fierce strike that the goalkeeper could only parry out to Johnson, who netted his second goal in the last three games by reacting quickest to the loose ball.
Blues could have extended their lead in the 27th minute when a short corner led to Gard picking out Bedford on the edge of the penalty area again, but this time the midfielder’s strike flew marginally wide of the left-hand upright. Instead Plymouth levelled within minutes as Emmanuel Adeyeye lost his man at the back post and a hanging left-wing cross was nodded back to an onrushing forward, who volleyed home unchallenged from a central position.
Until that point, Southend’s concentration had been excellent, and they returned to that default after the equaliser. Blues could have edged ahead once more five minutes before the break when Norman Wabo let fly from distance, but this time the goalkeeper’s parried save was swept clear by a defender ahead of Bedford.
That defensive intervention gave Plymouth the chance to take the lead sixty seconds before the interval. Johnson lost possession and Salami fouled an opponent on the edge of the ‘D’, allowing an Argyle player to show off his set-piece prowess with a wonderful curling free-kick out of Macree’s reach and into the top right-hand corner of the net.
Blues set out to keep things tight at the start of the second period, but a menacing Dias right-wing run almost led to an equaliser with the centre eventually delivered inches out of the reach of Wabo and Batlokwa. There was a let-off at the other end when a left-wing free-kick was volleyed against the left-hand post by an Argyle attacker, but Southend remained in the game.
Dias took up a more central role when Macauley Keating came on for Wabo, but it was Plymouth who appeared more likely to score with a flowing move ending with a shot deflected into the side-netting with a quarter-of-an-hour to go. Macree also made a smart save at his near post during the closing stages, but Blues were unable to break down their opponents and create a chance of their own which may have led to a leveller.
Southend United U18s: James Macree, Elvis Bwomono, Emmanuel Adeyeye, Ross Johnson (Cameron John, 82), Abdul Salami, Sonny Coutts, Damani Dias (Imani Matthews, 85), Joe Bedford, Norman Wabo (Macauley Keating, 72), Renei Batlokwa, Freddie Gard.
Substitute not used: Tom Ripsher