Southend United U18s backed up their victory over Exeter City with a 2-1 home triumph against Swindon Town as they continued their impressive EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign.
Blues are up to second in the league table after their most recent success, and will rise above opponents Newport County on Saturday if they emerge victorious from their trip to south Wales. That they have the opportunity to do so was based on an excellent team performance and goals either side of the half-time interval by schoolboy O’Shane Stewart and first-year scholar Eren Kinali.
Stewart, who was awarded his first start for the youth team having made a substitute appearance against Gillingham earlier in the campaign, began the match ahead of Lewis Gard, whilst vice-captain Joe Mackenzie was handed the skipper’s armband in the absence of Elvis Bwomono. The centre-half replaced Zak Pianim from the team that defeated Exeter City 4-3 seven days previously.
The match kicked off twelve minutes late, but there was no sluggish start from visitors Swindon, who enjoyed plenty of possession in the opening stages. Repeatedly playing out from the back, they attempted to frustrate Southend by preventing them from getting a feel of the ball and, on six minutes, Robins forward Scott Twine curled inches wide of the right-hand post from a Tommy Ouldridge corner.
Blues responded a couple of minutes later when Sewa Marah’s mesmerising wide play ended in him coaxing a left-wing delivery onto the head of Kinali, but he directed his aerial attempt off-target and Swindon were soon on the front foot again. This time midfielder James Georgaklis sent a 25-yard strike wide of Nathan Bishop’s goal.
Having maintained their shape, and with the assistance of a consistent pressing game, Southend did start to get some opportunities, and they opened up the Swindon defence in the 14th minute when Dru Yearwood’s pass released Kinali. He exchanged a one-two with Dan Humphreys, but Yearwood was muscled off the ball as he tried to enter the penalty area.
Sol Pryce glanced Louis Spalding’s left-wing centre across the face of goal ten minutes later for the Robins before visiting goalkeeper Dan Lawrence was called upon to make his first contribution of the game when Kinali’s long-range shot thudded into his gloves after industrious play by Marah. On 39 minutes, Yearwood sprung onto Kinali’s pass, but his superb cross went unconverted as it fizzed through the six-yard box.
With just two minutes of the first half remaining, Southend took the lead. The chance was created by high pressing, and Lawrence was pressurised into miskicking his clearance. Stewart brought the ball under control and, sensing that the custodian was out of position, he remained calm to loft the ball over a backpedalling Lawrence and into the net for a superb debut goal.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey challenged the team to continue the good work of the first half after the break, and they could have scored twice before Kinali’s penalty doubled their advantage. Emile Acquah was involved both times, firstly holding the ball up well to set up Marah, who eschewed the opportunity to release Kinali and saw his fierce shot charged down.
Acquah’s pass in the 49th minute did find Kinali, and on this occasion he forced Lawrence into a fine save, palming the ball around his left upright, before Southend’s next attack ended in a goal. Kinali was shoved to the ground as he entered the penalty area and bore down on goal, and the attacker brushed himself down to force the spot-kick beyond Lawrence.
Like their previous outing, Blues were not content to sit on a two-goal lead, and Marah drove the ball into Lawrence’s gloves in the 55th minute after jinking inside Will Christopher. Seconds later Yearwood pressurised Christopher into a mistake and advanced to the edge of the penalty area before dragging his shot wide of the post.
Another schoolboy, Matt Rush, replaced Stewart on 63 minutes, and he scrapped hard in an unfamiliar midfield role. However, Blues were pegged back a quarter-of-an-hour from the end when Scott Twine converted a penalty following a trip by Tom Clifford and the deficit was halved. Cautions for Taylor Curran and Nathan Bishop in the immediate aftermath perhaps proved Southend’s anxiety at this stage.
Twine sent a deflected volley narrowly wide in the 81st minute, but Blues realised that their best hope of protecting their narrow lead was to try and extend it. Acquah embarked on a powerful run into the Swindon area, but his effort was partially charged down and Lawrence was able to grab hold of the ball.
Southend stood firm during the final ten minutes, and closest the Robins came to equalising was an Ouldridge attempt that was drilled into the side-netting during stoppage time. A 2-1 success earned Blues back-to-back wins for the first time since January, and they travel to Newport next week knowing that they have already posted the best top-flight Merit League season in the club’s history.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Dan Humphreys, Tom Clifford, Harry Cuthbert, Joe Mackenzie, Taylor Curran, Eren Kinali, Dru Yearwood, Emile Acquah, O’Shane Stewart, Sewa Marah. Substitutes not used: Harry Seaden, Yonis Farah, Sam Knock, Tyrell Egbri.
Goals: Stewart (43), Kinali (50 pen).
Cautioned: Curran (78, dissent), Bishop (78, dissent).