Report from the U18s' latest game...
By Robert Craven
Southend United U18s claimed second place in the final EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference table on goal difference despite suffering a 4-3 defeat at Gillingham in their last fixture.
Sewa Marah's eleventh and twelfth goals of the season, and a stunning 25-yard strike by Tom Clifford, hauled Blues level on three separate occasions, but a missed penalty by Lewis Gard on the hour mark proved to be costly as the Gills converted a spot-kick of their own in stoppage time to claim the seven-goal thriller.
The victory also booked the Kent side's place in Merit League One alongside Dave Huzzey's squad when the second phase of the season begins in 18th February. Anything less than a win would have left Gillingham relying on AFC Wimbledon dropping points in their final fixture.
Full-backs Elvis Bwomono and Clifford returned to the side, whilst Eren Kinali and Harry Cuthbert were also restored to the starting line-up. Trialist Solomon Bah was handed his first start for Blues after appearing as a second-half substitute in the 3-2 reverse at Stevenage.
Nathan Bishop was called upon to turn a fierce shot around the right-hand post inside the first sixty seconds and, although Marah linked up well with Kinali to try and set up Imani Matthews a couple of minutes later, a Gillingham defender read the play well to cut out the cross.
In just the sixth minute of the match, the home side took the lead. Bishop's goal-kick was headed back towards the Shrimpers goal by a Gillingham player, and an attacker sprung the offside trap to slot home easily.
It was a frustrating start for Blues, who had fallen behind three times in their previous outing as well, but they responded well with Zak Pianim nodding back Cuthbert's free-kick and Gard watching as his crashing drive was charged down in the tenth minute.
Shortly afterwards Bah rolled the ball on for Marah, who centred again for Matthews, but he was muscled off the ball. There was to be no repeat when Marah was picked out by Kinali's touch-back in the 19th minute. Having already initiated the move by powerfully holding off a defender and helping the ball on to Gard, the first-year forward now nonchalantly swept his finish into the top left-hand corner.
Blues tried to capitalise, and Bah almost sent Gard clear, only for the goalkeeper to claim bravely at his feet. And although Pianim had to make a good block in his own area, Marah and Matthews combined well again on 31 minutes for a deflected strike wide by the latter.
However, Gillingham moved ahead again on 36 minutes. Blues surrendered possession in midfield and Pianim was unable to stay with Noel Mbu as he sprinted away to slide the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of Bishop’s goal.
Southend could have levelled within two minutes of that effort when Kinali chased down a pass and then retrieved a square pass from Matthews before dragging his shot narrowly wide of the left-hand upright. And, despite that opportunity, the visitors were pleased to see Bishop make a crucial save in the final minute of the first half, brilliantly palming a shot away from the right-hand corner, to keep them in touch.
There was an early opportunity for the Gills in the second period as well, but this time an attacker snatched at his strike from an Mbu knock-down and sent the ball flying over the crossbar. Clifford was not to prove so profligate in the 52nd minute when he was picked out by Bah. He pushed the ball out of his feet before slamming a superb strike into the top left-hand corner to make it 2-2.
Blues moved easily into the ascendancy, and Bah saw a good shot from Gard’s pass deflected inches past the post in the 55th minute. Then, on the hour mark, Gard was presented with the chance to stroke Southend into the lead when Kinali was brought down just inside the penalty area. The second-year midfielder, usually so composed, sent his spot-kick off-target and the teams remained all-square.
Even then Southend were not dispirited. Gard threw himself into the game, attempting to atone for missing the penalty, and he sent Bah clear on the left, only for the winger to angle his shot wide midway through the half. Shortly afterwards, midfielder Dru Yearwood made a welcome return from injury as he replaced Harry Cuthbert.
The youngster, who picked up the knock over Christmas whilst training with the first-team squad, was first called into action in a defensive capacity, tracking his runner before effecting a fine block to prevent Bishop’s goal being breached. Unfortunately, from the resultant corner, Gillingham moved in front again, a far post header dropping dangerously before being rifled home by a defender.
Again Southend responded in the right way. Within two minutes of that goal, Bah had struck the woodwork with a rasping effort from Gard’s slide-rule pass. From the rebound, Marah saw the ball whipped off his toes as he attempted to drag the ball away from the defender instead of smashing first-time into the net.
Alex Clark was introduced, and he found the side-netting after a flowing move that began with Bishop rolling the ball out to Clifford and saw the ball move through Gard, Yearwood and Bwomono before being passed to the substitute. Then, with six minutes remaining, Blues equalised as Marah bundled home his fourth goal in his last three games from close range following a Bwomono cross.
Tempers frayed on both sides as Gillingham saw their Merit League One spot slipping from their grasp, but they were given a chance to steal the victory in the second minute of stoppage time when the referee spotted a push in the penalty area. Bishop guessed correctly, but he couldn’t prevent the ball from finding the bottom left-hand corner as the Gills inflicted a second successive defeat on Blues.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Lewis Gard (Damani Dias, 83), Joe Mackenzie, Zak Pianim, Eren Kinali (Alex Clark, 78), Harry Cuthbert (Dru Yearwood, 66), Sewa Marah, Imani Matthews, Solomon Bah. Substitutes not used: Dan Humphreys, Taylor Curran.
Goals: Marah (19, 84), Clifford (52).