Read the report from Blues Youth Team's latest fixture...Southend United U18s 2-1 Gillingham U18s; EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference; Boots & Laces; Saturday 29th October 2016; Kick-Off 11:00am
By Robert Craven
Southend United U18s moved back into the top half of the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference table as the campaign reached its mid-point with an exciting 2-1 victory over Gillingham at Boots & Laces.
Blues made seven changes to the starting line-up for the fixture as youth team coach Dave Huzzey challenged his squad to show their depth ahead of The FA Youth Cup First Round clash against Leyton Orient at Roots Hall on Wednesday evening, and his teenage charges didn’t disappoint with a superb performance against the Gills.
The game was all-square at 1-1 as the match entered the final five minutes, but a grandstand finish was set up when substitute Emile Acquah – fresh from contributing two goals in successive friendly fixtures against Reading – poked the hosts in front from five yards out. Even then the victory was not secure, and Nathan Bishop had to save an 88th minute Noel Mbu spot-kick to ensure the three points.
With Elvis Bwomono sitting the game out, Joe Mackenzie skippered the side from centre-half, and he had to be on his mettle from the opening stages as Gillingham made an excellent start. Mbu, who had posed a threat the last time the clubs met, was thwarted by the captain stepping across his to nod away in the second minute before he side-footed another right-wing cross past the near post.
The visitors continued to enjoy a monopoly on the opportunities, and in the seventh minute Sam Lawford glanced a Danny Devine centre wide of the left-hand upright before Bradley Stevenson dragged a 20-yard strike wide of the goal. Despite all their possession, though, Gillingham had not tested Bishop, whilst opposite number Will Sykes was similarly unemployed.
After a quarter-of-an-hour Damani Dias smashed a 25-yard free-kick into the defensive wall for the hosts, who would eventually take the lead against the run of play in the 26th minute. Second-year scholar Matthews has found chances hard to come by given the form of Sewa Marah, but he shook off any rustiness to put Blues in front.
The move started at the back, and progressed with Dias driving purposefully through midfield and riding a couple of challenges. He then offloaded to Dan Humphreys, who had advanced from his right-back position, and the defender rolled the ball down the flank to Eren Kinali, who measured a cross to the near post. Matthews got in front of Sykes to deftly divert his finish inside the left-hand upright.
The Gills were stung, and Ryan Huckle should have done better in response in the 33rd minute when he failed to connect with an enticing Stevenson corner. Two minutes later Mbu eluded the attentions of Mackenzie for the first time, but his dangerous pass was cut out by the determined Humphreys and Bishop was able to sweep up.
Gillingham could have equalised when Stevenson held off Dias and Humphreys to centre for Mbu, but he wastefully chipped over and Southend ended the half strongly with Cuthbert stepping up to cut out an attack and free schoolboy Jon Benton, who curled a shot into the gloves of Sykes from distance.
Nonetheless, it was a positive way for the homesters to finish the half, and they began the second period with real intent and confidence, even if Mackenzie was swiftly required to launch himself into a sliding tackle to thwart the jinking Stevenson. Yonis Farah linked up with Humphreys and Cuthbert to set up Matthews in the 52nd minute, but he curled high and wide, although more openings would be created.
Within sixty seconds, Dru Yearwood had almost brilliantly extended Southend’s advantage as he met a Kinali cross at the near post with a cheeky volley that was well saved by Sykes, who would find himself untroubled moments later when Dias and Farah combined to find Matthews. The forward sent a skidding shot wide of the left-hand post.
Then, on 54 minutes, Gillingham levelled. Blues had been playing with such freedom but Dias was penalised when his flick allowed the visitors to seize possession in a dangerous position and Devine meted out the ultimate punishment with a sumptuous strike into the top right-hand corner. Bishop’s outstretched left hand allowed him to get a fingertip to the ball, but he couldn’t keep it out.
Lawford could have put Gillingham in front for the first time almost straight from the kick-off, but his free header was directed wide, and the frenetic pace of the match continued when Matthews unselfishly picked out Dias in the penalty area, only for the attacker to be hounded away from goal. Kinali eventually picked up the ball 30 yards out, but his effort was saved by Sykes.
Farah attempted an audacious 30-yard shot midway through the second half that dipped just wide, but Blues were required to stay alert defensively and Bishop made a superb stop with his legs at point-blank range to prevent Devine from converting a Stevenson corner. He then made an impressive diving save to thwart Mbu, who had unleashed a powerful 71st-minute strike.
Stuart O’Shane was introduced for his debut with 13 minutes to go, joining fellow replacements Zak Pianim and Acquah on the pitch, and he made an assured impression ahead of the dramatic conclusion to the game as Southend earned a crucial victory.
The action began in the 85th minute as Blues moved ahead for the second time in the game. Sykes punched out a Humphreys cross under pressure from Acquah, but he could only find Matthews, who was unlucky to see his strike thwack the woodwork. The rebound dropped to O’Shane, who rolled the ball into the path of Acquah and he did the rest, slotting past the desperate dive of Sykes to make it 2-1.
Even then there was a late opportunity for Gillingham to secure a share of the spoils when Pianim was adjudged to have pulled an opponents’ shirt. The referee pointed to the penalty mark, but Mbu’s spot-kick was saved by Bishop, who leapt up immediately to narrow the angle and encourage the forward to side-foot the follow-up against the right-hand post.
Blues held on in the final two minutes plus stoppage time to record their third victory in the past five matches, and Huzzey’s team can now begin their FA Youth Cup campaign in midweek with a spring in their step following a notable performance.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Dan Humphreys, Yonis Farah, Harry Cuthbert, Joe Mackenzie, Taylor Curran (Zak Pianim, 64), Damani Dias (Emile Acquah, 68), Dru Yearwood, Imani Matthews, Jon Benton (Stuart O’Shane, 77), Eren Kinali. Substitutes not used: Callum Calder, Tom Clifford.
Goals: Matthews (26), Acquah (85).
Cautioned: Humphreys (75, adopting an aggressive attitude).