Youngsters register first win of the season with opening day victory.
Southend United U18s kicked off the 2015/16 season in style with a 3-1 victory over Dagenham & Redbridge at Boots & Laces.
Central defender Joe Mackenzie put Blues in front shortly before the break ahead of fellow first-year scholar Tom Clifford’s exquisite free-kick, which doubled the advantage on the hour. The visitors did manage to halve the deficit, but Renei Batlokwa won and converted a penalty to make sure of the three points.
Academy Manager Ricky Duncan and youth team coach Dave Huzzey named a team which included five first-years on the opening day of the campaign with full-back Elvis Bwomono, midfielder Damani Dias and new acquisition Alex Clark joining Mackenzie and Clifford in the starting line-up. Sonny Coutts has been named skipper for the season but, as he was training with the U21s, Abdul Salami took the armband.
Dagenham officially got the 2015/16 Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference season underway a couple of seconds before the scheduled 10:30am start, and it was the Daggers who produced the first attempt on goal, in the seventh minute, when they worked the ball in from the left-hand side and Josh Bexon made a confident save to thwart the close-range finish
Two minutes later Southend delivered their first shot on goal as Norman Wabo outpaced the Dagenham left-back before drilling his shot straight at the goalkeeper. The clock had still yet to tick over to the quarter-hour mark when the Shrimpers carved out another opening, Clark’s free-kick recycled into the penalty area by Harry Phillips and Dias nodding over when well-placed.
Wabo believed his team should have been awarded a penalty for handball when a Dagenham defender prevented him from latching onto a Phillips knock-down in the 17th minute, but thereafter Southend struggled to impose their will on their visitors for a period.
Bexon was called upon to make a comfortable stop and another Daggers effort from a set-piece sailed over on the half-hour before Wabo finally created another opportunity on 37 minutes, cutting the ball back for Phillips from the right bye-line and then watching on in agonising fashion as the playmaker narrowly failed to make the required connection to convert at the near post.
Three minutes later, Southend were finally in front. Clark was brought down on the left flank and Phillips delivered a hanging free-kick to the back post, where Salami was able to nod the ball back across the face of goal. The header dropped down a few yards from goal and Mackenzie slid in to prod the ball over the line and into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
That was enough to secure a slender half-time advantage, and Blues used the break to introduce Lewis Gard for his U18s debut. Gard, who is the younger brother of former youth teamer and current U21s prospect Freddie, made an excellent impression on the right-hand side of midfield, although it was Phillips who warmed the goalkeeper’s gloves straight after the break with a skidding shot from 25 yards out.
Bexon was forced into action again five minutes after the interval when he grabbed a header from point-blank range, but Blues continued their positive start to the second period when Joe Bedford fired across the face of goal from a Phillips pass on 54 minutes.
Five minutes later, they had doubled their lead. Gard was pulled back on the very edge of the penalty area, and that presented Clifford with the opportunity to show off his set-piece skills. The ball was positioned perfectly for the left-back to curl the ball majestically around the defensive wall and into the bottom left-hand corner and make it 2-0.
It seemed as though the Shrimpers might run rampant at this point, and a slide-rule pass from Phillips set Gard away, with his inviting right-wing centre going unconverted, but Dagenham gained reward for a spirited display when they reduced the arrears on 63 minutes as the ball was blasted into the roof of the net from close range.
Blues dealt with the set-back well, and Phillips scuffed a shot wide on 66 minutes before Batlokwa wasbrought down on the edge of the penalty area and only a superb save from the Daggers custodian prevented another Clifford free-kick from nestling in the corner of the net.
Gard was then put clear of the back-line, only for a defender to recover and effect a goal-saving challenge before Wabo went even closer to extending the advantage as he powered past a substitute before smashing a 20-yard shot against the crossbar. The ball dropped to Clark, who was bundled out of possession by a defender as he attempted to mark his first appearance with a goal.
The finishing touches to the success were applied by Batlokwa, who was awarded a penalty after being sent tumbling to the ground down the inside-right channel. The midfielder quickly scooped up the ball and placed it on the spot himself before stroking confidently past the goalkeeper to make it 3-1.
Blues brought on Ben Musselwhite - another to make his debut - and Imani Matthews either side of a fine fingertip save by Bexon, who got down low to his right-hand side to tip the ball around the left-hand upright in the 86th minute, but Southend had already done enough to secure the win. They will now be hoping to back that up with another home triumph, against Stevenage, next Saturday.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Joe Bedford, Joe McKenzie, Abdul Salami, Damani Dias (Lewis Gard, 46), Renei Batlokwa, Norman Wabo, Harry Phillips (Ben Musselwhite, 85), Alex Clark (Imani Matthews, 89). Substitutes not used: James Macree, Tom Ripsher.
Goals: Mckenzie (40), Clifford (59), Batlokwa (77, pen).