Blues FL Youth Alliance Cup hopes come to an end against the Cherries.
Southend United U18s bowed out of the Football League Youth Alliance Cup at the Third Round stage after suffering a 1-0 home defeat to AFC Bournemouth.
Full-back Ollie Harfield scored the only goal of the game after 18 minutes to send the Cherries into the last eight of the competition, but Blues battled hard and were particularly unfortunate not to equalise during the last quarter-of-an-hour, a period during which they faced the added adversity of playing with ten men after losing skipper Sonny Coutts through injury.
Coutts had only been on the pitch for 15 minutes after appearing as a second-half substitute, but he twisted as he attempted to cut out a beautiful reverse pass from Bournemouth forward Sam Surridge to team-mate Ben Cooper. Cooper went on to thwack the outside of the right-hand post, with Coutts helped from the field and Southend unable to bring on a fourth substitute.
Tottenham Hotspur loanee Joy Mukena had taken Coutts’ position in the starting line-up, with Lewis Gard replacing Harry Phillips in the only other change from the team that had defeated Dagenham & Redbridge seven days earlier. After three consecutive away games, Bournemouth were the first visitors to Boots & Laces for three weeks, and they began the game on the front foot.
The Cherries forced a succession of corners inside the opening couple of minutes, although it was Norman Wabo that had the first shot of the encounter in the 5th minute as his strike following a short corner routine involving Gard and Joe Bedford was deflected wide.
Josh Bexon was called into action for the first time a couple of moments later when he stood tall to push a Keelan O’Connor effort into the side-netting with Surridge having strode unchallenged into the penalty area, and Surridge himself was presented with a good opportunity in the eleventh minute, only to drag his shot wide from a long Corey Jordan pass.
Play immediately switched to the opposite end, where Dan Walker held off Cherries captain Henry Lander to fire a shot at goalkeeper Callum Stanton. Stanton parried the initial strike, but Walker had a chance to convert the rebound on the volley, only for his airborne attempt to skew off of his right foot and loop away from the goal.
With the game still in the 17th minute, Ben Cooper slid the ball into the path of Matt Worthington, who was denied by another crucial intervention by Bexon. However, from the resultant corner – delivered by Worthington – Bournemouth took the lead. The ball was rolled into the path of left-back Harfield, who had galloped free of marker Imani Matthews to arrow his shot clinically into the bottom right-hand corner.
The Cherries arrived in south-east Essex having won their previous four games, and their confidence began to show as Ethan Millar picked out Surridge’s run and only a superb fingertip save by Bexon prevented Bournemouth from doubling their advantage. Two minutes later, a dangerous O’Connor centre was cut out by Mukena at the near post as the visitors continued to press forwards.
Southend were working hard, and on the half-hour mark a period of possession concluded with Renei Batlokwa putting Wabo through, but Lander managed to muscle the front-man off the ball and Stanton was able to dash off his goal-line to scoop it up. At the other end, Mukena held up Cooper before deflecting his shot into the gloves of Bexon, who was involved again as the half drew towards a close.
The movement of the Bournemouth front three was causing the Blues back-line problems and, after Surridge had fired wide in the 39th minute, he was presented with another chance to score as he ran in behind the defence. Bexon was out smartly and he diverted the ball to safety with his shoulder to keep the hosts within touching distance at the interval.
Academy Manager Ricky Duncan decided to bring on Phillips for Matthews at the break and change the formation to counter the threat of the Cherries, and a high-tempo start to the second period hinted at greater success for Southend. Elvis Bwomono and Walker both sent in early crosses, but Bournemouth stood firm and Bexon had to turn away another stinging Surridge strike on 51 minutes.
The encounter was taking on a true cup-tie atmosphere, and Blues hit back through Bedford who, encouraged by Duncan to try his luck, teased Jordan before blasting his shot straight at the centre-half. Then, on 58 minutes, Tom Clifford won possession for Phillips, who advanced through midfield before drawing Stanton into a brilliant save at full stretch to tip a dipping 30-yard effort over the crossbar.
As Southend sought an equaliser, they left themselves open to attack at the opposite end, and Surridge smashed over after Bexon punched a Harfield free-kick into his path. Then came Cooper’s strike against the woodwork and Coutts’ unfortunate departure, leading to a wasteful Worthington finish when unmarked in front of goal and Clifford hacking a looping O’Connor attempt off the goal-line.
However, just when it seemed that the ten men faced a struggle to hold onto their one-goal deficit rather than hunt for a leveller, Blues summoned up incredible spirit to force a grandstand finish against a tiring Bournemouth side. Walker chased down a long ball to set up Wabo, who flashed his 25-yard shot across the face of goal before Phillips drilled at Stanton from distance following a Ben Musselwhite pass.
Musselwhite enjoyed an impressive half-an-hour as a substitute for Batlokwa, and his thunderous effort from a Phillips corner was charged down with five minutes remaining. Bedford was thwarted in a similar fashion, and Wabo also thumped the ball into Stanton’s gloves after exchanging passes with first-year Musselwhite, but Blues couldn’t find a way to send the tie to penalties and Bournemouth progressed.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Joe Bedford, Joy Mukena, Abdul Salami (Sonny Coutts, 60), Norman Wabo, Renei Batlokwa (Ben Musselwhite, 63), Dan Walker, Lewis Gard, Imani Matthews (Harry Phillips, 46).
Substitutes not used: James Macree, Damani Dias.