Southend United U18s returned to winning ways with an impressive 1-0 win over in-form GillinghamSkipper Abdul Salami’s first-half header proved to be the difference between the two teams as Blues defeated a side that had won five of its last seven fixtures and drawn with league leaders Luton Town in recent weeks. With five matches left of the Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference season, Southend are now five points behind the Hatters in second place.
However, this victory was all the more notable as coach Dave Huzzey gave full debuts to three U16s, with another three schoolboys being rewarded with places on the substitutes’ bench. Goalkeeper Nathan Bishop, full-back Yonis Farah and forward Eren Kinali fitted comfortably into the starting line-up and played a full part in the success.
And, whilst experienced duo Harry Phillips and Salami combined for the Shrimpers’ goal, and Dan Walker started up front, they were the only three second-year scholars in the squad with Joe Bedford suspended, Josh Bexon travelling to Bradford City with the first-team squad and Sonny Coutts, Renei Batlokwa, Norman Wabo out injured.
Gillingham, playing with confidence, began the game on the front foot, forcing a succession of early set-pieces but, although the hosts had some joy in finding a player unmarked at the back post on each occasion, none of the aerial efforts was directed on target. Bishop got his hands on the ball in the tenth minute, claiming a high ball, and seconds later made a fine fingertip save to ease into the game.
Six minutes later the young shotstopper stooped at his near post to claim an innocuous free-kick, with the game at that point yet to find any rhythm owing to its stop-start nature. Despite that, Blues could have taken the lead in the 21st minute when Damani Dias closed down the goalkeeper, forcing a mistake, and Kinali found Walker in space, but he could only fire straight at the recovering custodian.
Southend built on that opportunity, and the visitors took the lead in the 28th minute. Kinali embarked on a right-wing run that was brought to a halt 30 yards from goal, Phillips delivered a pinpoint set-piece delivery to the far post and Salami rose imperiously to nod powerfully into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
A couple of moments later, Phillips elected to shoot when Blues were awarded a free-kick a few yards closer, but the goalkeeper smothered the ball on this occasion, and Gillingham attempted a response when a midfielder burst through the middle of the pitch, only to find Joe Mackenzie waiting on the edge of the penalty area to step in and block his path.
The contest was much more even by this point, and Ben Musselwhite combined with Phillips to set up Lewis Gard 20 yards from the Gillingham goal six minutes before the break. The midfielder’s strike was spilled by the goalkeeper, but Walker was caught on his heels and couldn’t latch onto the loose ball to tap home ahead of a defender.
The Gills finished the first half with a winger taking advantage of a Phillips slip in the right-back position, but a near-post header went wide and Southend completed the period a goal to the good. There was a nervous moment for Bishop and Salami straight after the restart when the captain was required to hold off a forward and the ball eventually dribbled wide of the right-hand post, but Blues generally defended well.
Three minutes into the second half, a booming Bishop goal-kick was flicked on by Walker for Kinali, but his first-time half-volley was lashed over the crossbar and Southend instead only held the most slender advantage when Bishop’s 57th-minute clearance was charged down. The ball spiralled over the young custodian’s head, but he spun around to recover and catch before it could be nodded into the net.
Walker was withdrawn shortly after the hour having come off badly in a 50-50 challenge, allowing Kinali to put his persistence to good use in a more central position. Perry Hirst fortified the midfield, but the Gills redoubled their attempts to grab an equaliser with 20 minutes to go. First a quickly-taken free-kick led to a left-wing volleyed cross that was headed wide, then a left-wing corner was similarly nodded off-target.
However, whenever they did get their attempts on target, they found an increasingly-confident Bishop standing in their way. In the 73rd minute, a right-wing centre was met by an attacker at point-blank range, but the youngster made the save look easy, and he continued to shine as the game entered the final quarter-of-an-hour.
There was an unmarked Gillingham header sent wide in the 76th minute, but Blues managed to relieve the pressure briefly in the 82nd minute when Phillips and Dias exchanged passes, with the playmaker smashing wide of the goal at the conclusion of the move. Southend spent much of the final ten minutes in their own half, but they held a good line and Tom Ripsher was brought on to bolster the defence.
In the 89th minute, Salami made a desperate diving header to keep out a right-wing cross, and the ball was eventually scrambled to safety before one final Shrimpers attack in stoppage time which featured Elvis Bwomono overlapping Phillips to blast over. Nonetheless, their work was done and – with the help of a first clean sheet in eleven matches – Southend ensured they had claimed the three points.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Elvis Bwomono, Yonis Farah, Ben Musselwhite, Joe Mackenzie, Abdul Salami, Damani Dias, Lewis Gard (Tom Ripsher, 80), Dan Walker (Perry Hirst, 63), Harry Phillips, Eren Kinali. Substitutes not used: Harry Seaden, Montel Brown, Josh Toyer.
Goals: Salami (28).
Cautioned: Farah (52, persistent infringement of the Laws of the Game).