Young Blues suffer narrow home defeat to Luton at Boots & Laces.
Southend United U18s lost out in their top-of-the-table clash with Luton Town at Boots & Laces as the Hatters fought back from behind to record a 2-1 victory.
Dan Walker’s ninth competitive goal of the season meant that Blues were set to head to the summit of the Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference standings three-quarters of the way into the encounter, but strikes from Kavan Cotter and Freddie Hinds ensured that Luton instead opened up a four-point lead over their hosts.
Those are the bare facts behind a gripping contest as the two leading sides in the early stages of the season went head-to-head in south-east Essex, but they don’t do justice to a fixture that youth team coach Dave Huzzey compared to a first-team match in terms of its intensity and competitive nature.
Perhaps with that in mind Huzzey named an experienced Shrimpers team for the game as Walker’s installation up front led to Norman Wabo moving into midfield in place of first-year scholar Lewis Gard. Despite that, there remained four first-years in the starting eleven as Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Joe Mackenzie and Damani Dias featured from the first whistle. Abdul Salami returned to skipper the side.
Both teams flew out of the blocks and sent early crosses into the penalty area, but it was indicative of the excellent defending on show that neither troubled the respective goalkeepers. Luton are traditionally a physical team, and the 2015/16 vintage are no exception, with a robust fifth-minute challenge on Dias drawing protests from the Shrimpers, but their play was always fair.
Undeterred, Southend stood up to their opponents, although Joe Bedford did well to divert a close-range header out of a corner from besides the left-hand post in the eighth minute. The Hatters were increasingly dictating the pattern of play, and a powerful aerial attempt just before the quarter-of-an-hour mark required Josh Bexon to palm the ball over the crossbar at point-blank range.
Mackenzie deflected a 25-yard strike out for a corner three minutes later and, after a scramble in the penalty area, Southend eventually cleared their lines from the ensuing set-piece. Renei Batlokwa’s caution for a foul midway through the first half was emblematic of the hosts’ frustrations at that time, but Blues slowly managed to get their foot on the ball and play.
In the 27th minute, Luton had to be aware to clear consecutive Dias centres from the right flank and, shortly after the half-hour mark, an excellent chipped pass from Harry Phillips was volleyed narrowly over by a marginally offside Walker. However, at the other end there was a scare when Tyreeq Bakinson nodded over from close-range for the visitors in the 32nd minute and Blues were forced onto the back foot.
As the opening period neared its conclusion Mackenzie failed to clear a long ball over the top, but he stood up the Luton forward and helped Bexon to make a comfortable save. On 40 minutes, Bwomono was caught out of position on the right wing, but he recovered well to block the ball on the goal-line and Bexon saved a skidding shot seconds later to make sure Southend went in level at the interval.
If the first half had been dominated by dogged defending from the Shrimpers, they were able to showcase their attacking talent after the break. Walker won a corner in the 47th minute, and a precise delivery from Phillips was headed over by Salami at the back post. Shortly afterwards Norman Wabo sent a teasing cross into the area that neither Walker nor Dias could convert as they arrived late in the penalty box.
In between, Luton missed a good chance when a winger got around Clifford to cut back from the right-hand bye-line, only for an attacker to fire over from eight yards out, and Bexon made a smart stop at his near post in the 55th minute after Salami and Mackenzie had combined to hold up a forward.
All that work was rewarded on the hour when Blues took the lead that their efforts merited. Batlokwa strolled through the midfield before threading the ball down the inside-right channel for Dias. The Luton defence hesitated as they appealed for offside, allowing the winger to square the ball to Walker, who had the simplest of tasks to tap past goalkeeper Liam Gooch.
The lead was to last just seven minutes as Luton hit back quickly. Hinds dashed down the left flank and sent the ball into the near post, where Cotter got across his marker to side-foot into the net. It could have got worse in the 74th minute, but Bexon was equal to a strong shot and managed to tip it around the post.
As the match approached the final ten minutes, both teams still believed they could win and an increasingly open encounter switched from end-to-end with regularity. Blues forced a series of set-pieces which were cleared by the away team, who then forced Bexon to turn away a close-range effort at the far post in the 81st minute.
The former Kent Schools FA shotstopper then made another brilliant save to palm over a fierce strike after Salami had nodded over from another Phillips corner at the opposite end, but he was helpless to prevent Luton from snatching the three points four minutes from the end. This time Cotter provided the assist from the right, switching play to Hinds, who rifled home via the underside of the crossbar to make it 2-1.
That goal signalled an almighty effort from Blues, who threw everything at their opponents in the dying stages. Clifford’s superb left-wing run culminated in a blocked Wabo strike, allowing Phillips to send yet another corner into the penalty area. This time substitute Lewis Gard laid the ball off to Wabo, who smashed his shot straight at Gooch.
Even after the regulation 90 minutes had concluded the Shrimpers weren’t finished, and Bedford saw a 25-yard shot charged down after Clifford had picked out the midfielder with a short free-kick. Deep into stoppage time, Salami had a chance to steal a draw for Southend, but he headed inches wide from a Phillips flag-kick to leave Blues frustrated ahead of next week’s trip to Stevenage.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Joe Bedford, Joe Mackenzie, Abdul Salami, Norman Wabo, Renei Batlokwa, Dan Walker, Harry Phillips, Damani Dias (Lewis Gard, 63).
Substitutes not used: James Macree, Imani Matthews, Ben Musselwhite, Tom Ripsher.
Goals: Walker (60).