Southend United U18s made it consecutive 1-0 victories in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference as Eren Kinali’s first-half header saw off Luton Town at Boots & Laces.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey named the same starting line-up that had defeated Stevenage by the same scoreline at the weekend, and he was rewarded with an identical result as the Blues back-line registered back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since January 2015.
However, Huzzey left Boots & Laces frustrated that the squad had not put in a better performance and, after a break this weekend, he will be hoping for an improved showing when the Shrimpers take on Cambridge United on 2nd September. Nonetheless, Southend put in a resilient defensive display to make sure that Kinali’s first goal of the season was enough to claim all three points.
For any neutrals present at the club’s training ground, this was an engaging encounter that only really came to life when Kinali nodded Blues in front after a quarter-of-an-hour. The second-year scholar timed his leap to perfection to out-jump his marker and convert a header after a Luton defender had failed to clear Jon Benton’s corner.
Before that point, Blues had twice threatened to take the lead, first when Sewa Marah released Matt Rush, only for the playmaker to be crowded off the ball in the eighth minute, and then when Marah was inches away from reaching an Idemula Osimeh cross five minutes later. On that occasion Corey Panter got back and the ball was scrambled off the goal-line.
Luton threatened an immediate response to Kinali’s goal, but Nathan Bishop and Taylor Curran combined to block Callum Stead’s effort from the right-hand side before Bishop recovered quickly to scoop up Arthur Read’s follow-up. That was a rare moment of anxiety for the hosts, and attention soon turned to the opposite penalty area where Marah thumped a shot against Kinali’s back and Benton aimed a free-kick into the defensive wall.
Bishop made a comfortable save in the 26th minute, despite being initially unsighted by Drew Richardson’s long-range strike, but Blues pressed forward again and Terrell Egbri seized on a misplaced pass on the half-hour before advancing one-on-one with Tiernan Parker, only to see the custodian smother his shot.
Egbri soon warmed the goalkeeper’s gloves again, this time after Marah had earned possession following a slip by Joe Mead in the Luton defence, but the visitors managed to turn the tables on Southend and Scott Belgrove dragged an effort wide in the 32nd minute. Six minutes later Bishop watched a skidding Ciaran Jones strike into his gloves and made a simple stop.
Blues enjoyed a narrow advantage at the break, but they sought to extend it in the five minutes immediately after the interval. Kinali could have doubled his personal tally when he slashed Marah’s pass across the face of goal and Rush was even more unfortunate when his slaloming run culminated in a strike against the outside of the right-hand post.
In between those opportunities Connor Tomlinson stabbed Josh Neufville’s dangerous centre inches wide of the far post, and in the 54th minute Bishop was called upon to make an outstanding double save from a Neufville cross. First he denied Richardson at full-stretch to his left before leaping up to beat away Jake Peck’s follow-up at the near post.
Blues were coming under increasing pressure, and Bishop did well to force Richardson wide before Curran got back to clear the eventual shot off the line. From the ensuing corner Mead rose highest to plant a header towards the bottom right-hand corner, but a host of Blues defenders combined to hack the ball away to safety.
On 64 minutes the Hatters went even closer to scoring after Humphreys was adjudged to have committed a foul on the left-hand edge of the penalty area. Full-back Jack James lined up the set-piece and arced the ball towards the top left-hand corner of the net, but Bishop got a crucial hand to the shot to turn it against the crossbar.
Emile Acquah and O’Shane Stewart were introduced as Blues continued to work hard, but they dropped deeper and invited further Luton pressure. Zak Pianim and Humphreys did well to force Michael Shamalo away from goal and, when Southend did try to attack, Egbri was wayward with a shot from the edge of the penalty area and a Rush free-kick cleared the crossbar by inches.
With twelve minutes remaining substitute Shamalo rolled the ball out for Neufville, but Bishop stood tall at his near post to divert the ball around the upright before Mead and Tomlinson combined to set up Shamalo, who angled his attempt wide of the left-hand upright.
Just when it looked as though Luton would lay siege to the Southend goal, the daring Egbri twice went close to giving his team some breathing space. First he collected the ball after good work from Humphreys and Kinali on the right, only to see a defender charge down his attempt, then he drew a fine save from Parker with a curling strike from Stewart’s lay-off.
Those attempts strengthened Southend’s resolve, and the next seven minutes up to the end of the regulation ninety passed without a scare. However, in stoppage time, the Hatters almost snatched a share of the spoils when Richardson was found in space, but he smashed into the side-netting from ten yards out to much relief amongst the home contingent amongst those present at Boots & Laces.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Dan Humphreys, Idemula Osimeh, Harry Cuthbert, Taylor Curran, Zak Pianim, Eren Kinali, Jon Benton (O’Shane Stewart, 66), Sewa Marah (Emile Acquah, 58), Matt Rush, Terrell Egbri. Substitutes not used: Yonis Farah, Marley Hutchings, Miles Mitchell-Nelson.
Goals: Kinali (15).