Blues turn on the style for opening Youth Alliance Merit League fixture against Swindon Town.
Winger Nico Cotton scored a hat-trick and striker George Burton also found the target as Southend United U18s opened their Football League Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign with a 4-0 victory over Swindon Town at Boots & Laces.
Cotton scored the first Shrimpers treble of the season to help his team record an impressive victory against a Swindon side that had finished third in the FLYA South West Conference table and, with Burton also reaching double figures for the season, Blues put down a firm marker for their Merit League One aspirations.
Jordan Williams and Daniel Matsuzaka returned to the Southend side and Josh Bexon replaced James Macree in goal as Blues added experience to their defensive ranks. Harry Phillips dropped to the substitutes’ bench and, with Macauley Keating and Freddie Gard unavailable, first-year scholars Joe Bedford and Renei Batlokwa brought youthful exuberance to the midfield area.
Visitors Swindon made the brighter start to the game, and they delivered the first shot after five minutes when Sonny Coutts forced a forward to fire wide. Two minutes later, they were rocked when Southend took the lead against the run of play, Brandon Scott hanging a cross up from the right that was dropped by the goalkeeper onto the feet of Cotton, who gleefully swept the ball home from eight yards out.
Town attempted to bounce back, and they could have equalised in the 11th minute when Bexon made a smart parried stop to beat away a fierce strike delivered from the right-hand side of the penalty area. Five minutes later, Jordan Williams did well to tackle a forward in a dangerous position and, from the ensuing corner, Blues breathed a huge sigh of relief when an attacker thwacked the crossbar with a swivelling snapshot.
Incredibly, Southend doubled their lead in the 19th minute with just their second attempt of the match. Again Scott was involved, drifting inside from the right flank before the ball ran loose to Cotton 25 yards from goal. The second-year scholar made no mistake after lining up his shot 25 yards from goal, dispatching a fine finish into the top right-hand corner of the net.
Joe Bedford, who linked play well in midfield, failed to test the goalkeeper with a low shot from distance, but Swindon continued to press forward and only a typically brave Coutts block stopped a flowing passing move from ending with a shot on goal just after the half-hour mark. Then, on 37 minutes, a fizzing strike flew across the face of goal from the right apex of the penalty area.
The match was evening up at this stage and Burton’s industry helped set up skipper Ross Johnson for a 30-yard half-volley that bounced inches wide of the left-hand upright, although the hosts were indebted to Bexon once again in the 41st minute when he made an outstanding fingertip save to push a thunderous shot onto the inside of the post and out.
That crucial intervention was followed by another vital passage of play on the stroke of half-time that saw Southend increase their advantage to three goals. Cotton fired in a shot from the edge of the penalty area that bounced up kindly for Johnson to recycle into the box, with Burton finding himself perfectly positioned to stab home at the back post.
With a 3-0 scoreline in their favour, Blues were able to express themselves more after the interval and both Burton and Scott drew comfortable saves from the goalkeeper in the early stages of the second half. Then, in the 52nd minute, Cotton completed his hat-trick, slamming the ball into the top right-hand corner from the edge of the penalty area after Batlokwa had pressurised the goalkeeper into a hurried clearance.
Scott could have added a fifth just before the hour mark following good work on the right flank by Cotton and Williams, but he did not react quickly enough to keep his chipped back post finish down. Seconds later, Burton snatched at a similar opportunity, blasting over after Bedford had seen a 25-yard strike blocked.
Blues introduced Harry Phillips and Norman Wabo for Batlokwa and Burton midway through the second half, and they continued to put pressure on the Swindon goal once Bexon had made another smart near post stop on 70 minutes. Cotton saw a shot deflected wide from Emmanuel Adeyeye’s cross and Phillips was thwarted twice in quick succession late on but, while Bexon turned an injury-time shot wide, Southend’s work was done.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Jordan Williams, Emmanuel Adeyeye, Ross Johnson, Daniel Matsuzaka, Sonny Coutts, Brandon Scott, Joe Bedford, George Burton (Norman Wabo, 68), Renei Batlokwa (Harry Phillips, 68), Nico Cotton (Damani Dias, 82). Substitutes not used: James Macree, Abdul Salami.