Blues honours even with the HattersSouthend United U18s 1-1 Luton Town U18s; Football League Youth Alliance Merit League One; Boots & Laces; Saturday 16th April 2016; Kick-Off: 11:00am.
By Robert Craven
Southend United U18s halted a run of three consecutive defeats in Football League Youth Alliance Merit League One with an impressive 1-1 draw against Luton Town at Boots & Laces.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey named a team comprising exclusively of players eligible to play in 2016/17 for the club’s final home match of the season, with schoolboys Nathan Bishop, Harry Cuthbert and Sewa Marah all starting the match and new scholars for next term Eren Kinali and Dru Yearwood joining them in the second half, along with 14-year-old Che Cooper, who made his debut for the final few minutes.
Luton, too, elected to name a youthful side for the match, the third meeting of the season between the clubs who had completed the South East Conference campaign occupying the top two spots. Tom C;lifford gave Blues the lead shortly before half-time, but Arthur Read’s second-half set-piece ensured that the points were shared.
Southend could draw particular encouragement by an excellent first half performance. The hosts began the match on the front foot, and in just the third minute Alex Clark’s menacing left-wing run culminated in a shot being deflected over by defender. Two minutes later, the Hatters eventually scrambled a Clifford corner to safety before his next delivery was nodded over by a frustrated Marah from close-range.
Inspired by the passing range of Cuthbert in the centre of the pitch, Blues continued to push on and, in the seventh minute, Clark cut the ball back for the onrushing Lewis Gard, who side-footed wide when well-placed to test the goalkeeper. At the other end the central defensive partnership of Joe Mackenzie and Tom Rispher, shielded by Ben Musselwhite, was protecting Bishop’s goal with some comfort.
Huzzey’s side had to be patient, and their next opportunity would not arrive until the 25th minute, when Mackenzie nodded a hanging Clifford free-kick across the face of goal and Marah managed to head into the six-yard box, where a Luton defender hacked off the goal-line. Three minutes later a jinking Damani Dias crossed for Marah and, when he missed his kick, Clark’s back-post effort was blocked.
Clifford enjoyed his first sight of goal in the 34th minute when he was upended and he curled the resultant free-kick inches over the crossbar, but he made no mistake three minutes before the break when Elvis Bwomono’s attempts to force the ball past a defender were blocked by a defender’s hand. The referee gave a penalty and Clifford confidently swept his twelve-yarder into the top left-hand corner.
Bishop had been called upon to make one save, clutching a fierce strike to his chest at the near post shortly before the goal, but the second half saw a slight change in momentum, even if Southend almost created the first chance within four minutes of the restart when Mackenzie stepped in to make a tackle and Gard’s through-ball found Marah marginally offside.
A 25-yard effort was well saved by Bishop in the 52nd minute but, when Luton next moved forwards, it gave Blues the chance to launch a counter-attack. Gard found Clark on the left flank and he picked out Marah rampaging through the middle, but he was brilliantly challenged as he began to bare down on goal scenting a chance to test the visiting custodian.
That was the forward’s final action of the match as he was replaced by Kinali, and Yearwood soon followed, coming on for Musselwhite, forcing Blues to reorganise slightly. Another long-range attempt flew narrowly wide of Bishop’s goal, but Southend were unfortunate not to double their lead when Clark’s teasing centre was diverted into his own net by a defender, only for the assistant referee’s flag to thwart the homesters.
In the 77th minute, that misfortune was to be compounded. Clifford was cautioned for a rash tackle on the edge of the penalty area, and the ensuing free-kick was swung into the penalty area by Read. The ball bounced awkwardly for Bishop, who was also momentarily unsighted by a forward’s run, and the shot curled into the back of the net for Luton’s equaliser.
Blues went in search of a winner, but the Hatters initially went closest to earning all three points with a vicious shot over in the opening minute of stoppage time. Bishop then sprang to the force, making an outstanding stop at his near post to keep out Connor Tomlinson’s first strike before recovering quickly to turn the attacker’s follow-up around the post.
Nonetheless, Southend could still have snatched victory in the third minute of time added on at the end of the game when they were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the ‘D’ and Clifford was only prevented from doubling his personal tally by the crossbar as he arced a set-piece against the woodwork.
“In the first half we completely dictated the play. We passed sideways and backwards quite a lot, but to good effect because we were finding spaces further up the pitch when they came and stepped out. We dominated possession, so I was really pleased with a young side putting in an experienced performance,” reported Huzzey, who reserved special praise for late substitute Cooper’s display.
“Che, at 14-years-old, didn’t give the ball away when he came on for ten or twelve minutes and didn’t give the ball away. I think he was magnificent. There’s a real bright future for that young lad because he was superb. He didn’t look out of place one bit, except the kit was too big for him!”
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Ben Musselwhite (Dru Yearwood, 60), Tom Ripsher, Joe Mackenzie, Damani Dias, Harry Cuthbert, Sewa Marah (Eren Kinali, 55), Lewis Gard, Alex Clark (Che Cooper, 85). Substitutes not used: Josh Bexon, Yonis Farah.
Goal: Clifford (42).
Cautioned: Clifford (76, foul tackle).