Read the report on Blues latest victory.Cheltenham Town U18s 1-4 Southend United U18s; Football League Youth Alliance Merit League One; Seasons Business Complex; Saturday 5th March 2016; Kick-Off 12:00 noon
By Robert Craven
Southend United U18s continued their unbeaten start to the Football League Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign courtesy of a 4-1 victory at Cheltenham Town.
The result lifted Blues up to third in the table, three points behind early pacesetters AFC Wimbledon with a game in hand and above both the Robins and next weekend’s opponents, Portsmouth. All the goals came in a compelling second period with Damani Dias, Norman Wabo – who bagged a brace – and Renei Batlokwa responsible for the scoring.
Dan Walker missed out after being injured in the 4-2 success at Barnet, meaning that first-year scholar Imani Matthews was handed a start on the right-hand side of the attack. Long-term injury absentees Alex Clark and Sonny Coutts were both put through their paces by strength and conditioning coach Terry Baker at Town’s Seasons Business Complex training ground as they near a return to action,
After a long trip up from Essex on the morning of the match, Southend began the match sluggishly. Faced with the task of playing up the slope in the opening period, Blues over-hit too many early passes, and a well-drilled Cheltenham side looked threatening with a fifth-minute strike shaving the right-hand post.
Six minutes later full-back Elvis Bwomono was called upon to head off the goal-line before Josh Bexon clutched hold of the 20-yard follow-up, but Blues saw out the opening 20 minutes and finally began to find their feet in the beautiful Gloucestershire country. Norman Wabo sent a rasping strike over from a Bwomono pass midway through the half, and shortly afterwards Matthews fired over from a Wabo lay-off.
The pair were starting to link up well, and Harry Phillips got involved on the half-hour, setting up Matthew with a well-judged reverse pass that the young forward stroked into the goalkeeper’s gloves with his left foot. Joe Bedford then shot goalwards from a Phillips corner, with the effort cleared off the line, before blasting over once Phillips had been dispossessed following a Dias through-ball.
The first half had been intriguing as both teams sought to move into the ascendancy, but it was broken up by too many fouls, with Bedford cautioned for a foul in the 29th minute. However, the second period was immediately lit up by Dias, who scored within three minutes of the restart at the end of an excellent move.
Matthews played a prominent role, breaking down the right-hand side and skilfully beating three defenders to get to the bye-line. With the angle too narrow for a shot, he cut the ball back into the path of Wabo, who failed to get the necessary connection to beat the goalkeeper. His touch, though, had taken the custodian out of play, and the onrushing Dias was on hand to slide in and stab home from close range.
Southend’s joy was short-lived as Cheltenham equalised just two minutes later. The ball was worked across the penalty area from right to left and Bexon was left with too much to do as he attempted to close down an attacker and the ball was steered inside the right-hand post to make it 1-1.
Tempers threatened to boil over after Phillips was cautioned for his poor reaction to a perceived foul, leading to an entertaining period of play that defined the outcome of the game. Bedford’s long-range attempt was ill-directed in the 58th minute following good work by Wabo and Batlokwa, and the hosts also went close with an effort dragged across the face of goal, but Blues edged in front just after the hour mark.
The goalscorer was Wabo, who had assumed the role of Southend’s attacking talisman in Walker’s absence. He was found by an excellent Phillips pass, and he used his strength to hold off a defender and move into the penalty area before subtly lifting the ball past the advancing goalkeeper.
Yonis Farah, making his third straight start in the Merit League, made a crucial intervention to nod a far post header off the goal-line in the 63rd minute to stop the Robins from equalising immediately for a second time, but the introduction of Lewis Gard a couple of minutes later saw Southend start to move the ball around impressively in midfield.
Matthews had a shot blocked from a Phillips pass when Gard was well-positioned to finish from a square ball, and Phillips himself went close in the 69th minute when he was picked out by Wabo, forcing the goalkeeper to scramble to his right to save but, sixty seconds later, Southend moved 3-1 ahead.
The third goal was the goal of the game, with Batlokwa starting the move by striding through midfield on the left-hand side. He offloaded to Phillips and immediately sprinted off to the right-hand side of the penalty area, where he was spotted by Wabo. The forward rolled the ball into Batlokwa’s path and the second-year schemer made no mistake to net his third goal in his last five appearances.
Matthews slashed over in an attempt to get on the scoresheet, and Batlokwa was replaced by trialist Harry Daly, who had impressed Ricky Duncan and Dave Huzzey when playing against Blues in a midweek friendly against Ipswich Town. Tom Ripsher also made an appearance at left-back in place of Farah for the final ten minutes of action.
The scoring was wrapped up in stoppage time after Blues had kept the ball alive deep in Cheltenham territory. Gard eventually teed up Wabo, who nutmegged the goalkeeper to record his 19th competitive goal of the campaign. Seconds later, he squared to Bedford, who shot wide after galloping onto the ball three yards out, but the late miss failed to take the shine off of an impressive 4-1 victory.
Southend United U18s: Josh Bexon, Elvis Bwomono, Yonis Farah (Tom Ripsher, 82), Joe Bedford, Joe Mackenzie, Abdul Salami, Imani Matthews, Renei Batlokwa (Harry Daly, 74), Norman Wabo, Harry Phillips, Damani Dias (Lewis Gard, 65). Substitutes not used: Nathan Bishop, Ben Musselwhite.
Goals: Dias (48), Wabo (62, 90+1), Batlokwa (70).
Cautioned: Bedford (29, foul tackle), Phillips (55, adopting an aggressive attitude).