Young Blues continue winning start to the league with seventh straight win.
Southend United U18s continued their victorious start to the 2015/16 season with a hard-fought 1-0 win against Gillingham at Boots & Laces.
A seventh straight success for the Shrimpers owed as much to excellent defensive work as it did to Dan Walker’s eighth goal in his last four appearances for the U18s, with youth team coach Dave Huzzey admitting after the game that his side “rode their luck” at times during a pulsating second period.
Blues made three changes to the team that had defeated Milton Keynes Dons 6-1 in their previous outing, with goalkeeper Josh Bexon replacing James Macree between the posts and Tom Clifford returning at left-back instead of namesake Ripsher. Alex Clark was handed a starting berth in place of Imani Matthews, who dropped to the substitutes’ bench, but Ben Musselwhite retained his position ahead of the injured Renei Batlokwa.
A strong cross-field wind caused problems for both sides in the opening stages of the encounter and Blues, with the marginal benefit of the breeze behind them, struggled to keep some of their through-balls in play. A scrappy start was epitomised by Joe Bedford’s booking on 14 minutes as the game was broken up by a succession of fouls.
Gillingham managed a couple of deflected long-range efforts but, by the mid-point of the first half, neither goalkeeper had been tested. It was at this stage that Clark finally managed to tease a cross into the penalty area from the left touchline, but a confident Walker’s acrobatic overhead bicycle kick was skewed over the crossbar from ten yards out.
Southend were beginning to move themselves into better positions, but a precise final pass was often found wanting with both Bedford and Harry Phillips guilty of over-hitting through-balls. Then, on 35 minutes, Blues was indebted to Bexon’s excellent fingertip save to turn a rasping 25-yard shot against the top of the crossbar and over.
One final episode of penalty box action arrived at the other end five minutes before the break when playmaker Phillips, who had been starved of possession for much of the opening period, eventually got onto the ball and combined with Lewis Gard and Bedford to curl an attempt past the right-hand upright from 15 yards out.
Blues decided upon a change of approach at half-time, with Norman Wabo introduced in place of the industrious Musselwhite and Gard moved infield. The move almost reaped immediate dividends as Wabo linked up with Clifford to set Phillips away on the left flank, but his cut-back to Gard was steered the wrong side of the left-hand post in the 48th minute.
The visitors responded four minutes later with a 20-yard effort directed over following a throw-in, but the end-to-end nature of the encounter continued in the 55th minute when Bexon’s booming goal-kick set Wabo and Walker away two-on-two with the Gills defence. Wabo was apprehended by a defender, and Walker’s attempts to guide the follow-up home were similarly thwarted.
That was a portent of what was to follow, however, once a Gillingham attacker had chipped over from a right-wing pass and a free-kick was glanced marginally wide of Bexon’s goal. From the resultant goal-kick, on the hour, Clark challenged a defender and Walker pounced on the loose ball, spotting that the goalkeeper had strayed off his goal-line to brilliantly lob into the net from the edge of the ‘D’.
The goal showcased Walker’s outstanding awareness in front of goal, and his positivity of thought, and he almost added a quick-fire second within a minute. Wabo danced down the right wing and centred for his fellow forward, who nipped in front of the goalkeeper but found a covering defender scampering back on the goal-line to clear as he attempted to turn his shot home.
Two minutes later, Southend burst forward again and a quick Phillips throw released Walker, who was denied a chance to double the advantage by a well-timed challenge. Blues were playing with a certain swagger at this stage and Wabo was encouraged to shoot from 25 yards, but his effort was partially charged down and looped over.
Having failed to add an element of comfort to the scoreline, Blues had to weather a late storm from the Gills, who were unlucky in the 68th minute when a superb strike flew back across the face of goal after hitting the inside of the right-hand post. Even then an onrushing forward could have converted the rebound had Abdul Salami not throw himself in front of the player to nod the ball out for a corner.
Six minutes later, a dipping shot just cleared the crossbar and another moment of anxiety followed when a watchful Bexon was forced to push out a hanging cross and Joe Mackenzie scooped the loose ball off the line. Centre-back partner Salami followed that fine work by emulating his team-mate after 80 minutes as he tracked a jinking run by a forward and stepped in to tackle at exactly the right time.
Gillingham continued to throw everything at Southend and, with two minutes remaining Bexon misjudged a deep free-kick, giving an attacker the chance to fire into a gaping goal, only for him to slash wide. Blues still had work to do and, in stoppage time, they cleared a couple of long throws, but they held on to maintain their 100% record and their position at the top of the Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Ben Musselwhite (Norman Wabo, 46), Joe Mackenzie, Abdul Salami, Lewis Gard, Joe Bedford, Dan Walker, Harry Phillips (Damani Dias, 83), Alex Clark. Substitutes not used: Imani Matthews, Tom Ripsher.
Goal: Walker (60).