By Robert Craven
Southend United U18s picked up their first Football League Youth Alliance Merit League One victory of the season with a 4-2 triumph at Barnet U18s.
Defender Joe Mackenzie stabbed Blues in front after 39 minutes, but within three minutes of that goal, Barnet led after netting twice inside sixty seconds. However, Norman Wabo equalised a quarter-of-an-hour from the end and late efforts from Abdul Salami and Renei Batlokwa earned a hard-fought win.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey made just one change to the starting line-up from the team that claimed a draw in their season-opener against AFC Bournemouth with forward Dan Walker replacing Lewis Gard. That meant that schoolboy left-back Yonis Farah retained his place in the eleven with Tom Clifford missing out through injury.
The introduction of the imposing Walker almost paid immediate dividends for Blues at The Hive on a bitterly cold morning as he met a sixth-minute Harry Phillips free-kick and saw his powerful downward header bounce over the crossbar. From the resultant goal-kick, Walker was presented with possession again and was thwarted by custodian Muhammad Otuyo, who deflected his shot onto the woodwork.
In the 13th minute, Otuyo again made a crucial intervention as he palmed another Phillips around the right-hand post with the very extremities of his gloves, and the influential playmaker was involved when Southend broke forward again a minute later, hanging up a cross to the far post that just eluded Damani Dias and Walker.
The visitors continued to enjoy a monopoly on the early chances, and in the 19th minute Phillips rolled the ball into the feet of Joe Bedford 25 yard out, with the midfielder’s clean strike again brilliantly turned around the post by Otuyo. Five minutes later, Blues suffered a blow when Walker had to be stretchered off following an aerial challenge, necessitating his replacement with first-year forward Imani Matthews.
The switch meant that Blues had lost their physical presence up front, and Barnet, who had enjoyed a little success on the break, finally extended Josh Bexon with a back post header from a corner that required the shotstopper to push the ball over the bar in the 35th minute.
Shortly afterwards, Southend moved in front. Phillips initially delivered a corner to the near post and, when that was cleared back out to the second-year scholar, he volleyed the ball low to Mackenzie, who managed to turn home from close-range past Otuyo.
Any euphoria from that goal quickly dissipated as Barnet equalised in the 41st minute. A Bees attacker appeared to be offside as he attempted to latch onto a high ball forward. Bexon came out to meet the player, but he succeeded only in clearing to another home attacker, who coolly lobbed the ball in from distance.
With Blues still grumbling about the circumstances surrounding that goal, they gave the ball away straight from the kick-off, allowing Barnet to break down the right-hand side and an attacker to cut inside and steer his shot into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. Having felt sure that they would be heading into the interval ahead, Southend instead found themselves 2-1 down as a late Norman Wabo volley was blocked.
Blues tried to get back in the game after the break, with Matthews drawing a good save from Otuyo and Dias charging down a goal-kick that required the gloveman to quickly spin around to dive on the loose ball. However, the tussle between the pair that followed, and led to the duo both receiving yellow cards, dissipated any early momentum.
Bexon was forced to make a superb point-blank save on 65 minutes to keep out a close-range finish, with the goalkeeper not having the benefit of seeing the raised flag of the assistant referee. Seconds later, Mackenzie was drawn into a well-timed sliding challenge, with central defensive colleague Salami then nodded an effort off the goal-line as Blues held on.
Lewis Gard was brought on for Dias and, as the clock ticked past the 70-minute mark, Barnet began to look nervous. A Phillips corner was nodded out to Bedford, who floated a shot at Otuyo, but Blues were level soon afterwards. Wabo was the goalascorer, bursting onto a ball down the left-hand side and holding off a defender before sliding his shot underneath Otuyo.
Southend sensed that the match was there for the taking. Otuyo picked up a back-pass, giving Blues an indirect free-kick just inside the penalty area. Bedford touched the ball to Phillips, who saw his fierce strike deflected wide. Then, in the 81st minute, Otuyo was forced to backpedal to claim a Bedford shot which was lofted goalwards from fully 70 yards out.
Phillips and Bedford both played a part two minutes later as Blues took the lead. Phillips passed to his team-mate, who was stationed 30 yards from goal. He chipped the ball precisely to the far post, where skipper Salami timed his run perfectly to bundle the ball over the goal-line from three yards out.
Five minutes later, the success was secured. The two teams have met eight times in the past two seasons, and the final encounter was concluded with a slight element of fortune as Renei Batlokwa scored his second goal in his last four games with a mis-hit cross from the right touchline that sailed over Otuyo and in off the top of the left-hand upright.
“Coming into today we needed a win if we are going to contest for the top spot. We did that, so know we’re looking forward to going on a three-and-a-half hour journey to Cheltenham, who have had some good performances and results. It’ll be a good test for us; Barnet played them a couple of weeks ago and lost heavily, so it’ll be a real test,” said Huzzey after the match.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Elvis Bwomono, Yonis Farah, Joe Bedford, Joe Mackenzie, Abdul Salami, Damani Dias (Lewis Gard, 68), Renei Batlokwa, Dan Walker (Imani Matthews, 26), Norman Wabo, Harry Phillips (Tom Ripsher, 90+2). Substitutes not used: Ben Musselwhite, Eren Kinali.
Goals: Mackenzie (39), Wabo (75), Salami (83), Batlokwa (88).
Cautioned: Dias (47, adopting an aggressive attitude).