The report from the U18s opening game in the Merit League...
Southend United U18s began their EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign with a frustrating 2-1 defeat at Stevenage on Saturday.
The reverse was Southend's third in succession this term, following a 3-2 loss against the same opposition and a 4-3 defeat at Gillingham in their final South East Conference outing. It was also the third time they had been beaten by Stevenage this season after a 3-0 setback in August.
Regular youth team coach Dave Huzzey was in Madrid on a week-long trip organised by League Football Education, leaving Dean Austin and Head of Coaching, Ian Hart, in charge. They brought Ben Musselwhite and fit-again Dru Yearwood into the starting eleven in place of Harry Cuthbert and Solomon Bah.
Yearwood was immediately involved in the action, setting up Lewis Gard in the fourth minute for a strike that was charged down by a defender. Blues enjoyed plenty of possession in the early stages, but they were repelled by an organised Stevenage outfit and they struggled to create any further openings.
Two minutes later the hosts sprung an attack of their own down the right-hand side, culminating in a dangerous centre that Elvis Bwomono managed to divert out for a corner. Then, just before the quarter-of-an-hour mark, a left-wing move required opposite full-back Tom Clifford to be perfectly-positioned on the goal-line to calmly clear.
Southend's play was fragmented, and too many moves were breaking down in midfield. When the visitors did create a chance, in the 16th minute, it appeared out of nothing as the industrious Imani Matthews chased a lost cause and stole the ball from a defender before rolling the ball into Sewa Marah's feet, only for the front-man to drill his shot into the side-netting.
On 25 minutes, Yearwood skipped through Stevenage territory to drive a deflected strike narrowly wide of the left-hand post, but at the other end there was a scare for the Shrimpers as a fierce attempt was sent narrowly wide. However, as the first half drew towards a close, it was Blues who seemed more likely to score.
On 39 minutes, Eren Kinali's 25-yard effort was partially charged down at the expense of a corner. Clifford's delivery was met by Joe Mackenzie at the back post, but the ball was blocked on the goal-line. And then came the sucker-punch.
With just seconds of the opening period remaining, Stevenage took the lead. Blues were sloppy in possession in midfield, and the hosts took full advantage as an attacker caught out the Southend back-line and forced the ball beyond Nathan Bishop who, until that point, had been required to make just one comfortable save.
Emile Acquah was introduced in place of Marah up front, and he would soon be joined by winger Alex Clark, who replaced Kinali, but not before Zak Pianim had been called upon to make a crucial intervention as he stepped out of defence to apprehend a Stevenage forward.
Restoring parity would be a long process for the away team, who threatened on 58 minutes when Matthews scrapped hard and set-up Gard, who saw his goal-bound effort hacked off the line. Two minutes later Matthews combined with Yearwood to tee-up Bwomono, who flashed his shot wide from 15 yards out.
Matthews continued to exert an influence and, midway through the second half, he picked out Musselwhite, who lifted a 25-yard attempt over the crossbar having opened his youth team account against Stevenage a couple of weeks earlier.
Clark then smashed wide from Musselwhite's corner, but Blues sourced an equaliser with twelve minutes remaining. Clark retrieved the ball and laid it off to Clifford, who chipped a pass over the defence for Acquah to chase down. He beat the goalkeeper to the ball and brilliantly steered it over the onrushing custodian to make it 1-1.
There was still time for Southend to chase a winner. Yearwood attempted an optimistic lob when the Stevenage goalkeeper's clearance landed at his feet 40 yards out, and he then set-up Bwomono for a wayward effort from distance. But, as the clocked ticked towards 90 minutes, Blues were stunned once again.
A simple pass in behind the Southend defence caught the visitors out, and despite Bishop managing to block an attacker's initial attempt with his legs, he was powerless to stop the follow-up from being guided home. Blues finally return to Boots & Laces for the first time in over two months when Luton Town visit this weekend.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Ben Musselwhite, Joe Mackenzie, Zak Pianim, Lewis Gard, Dru Yearwood, Sewa Marah (Emile Acquah, 46), Imani Matthews, Eren Kinali (Alex Clark, 54). Substitutes not used: Dan Humphreys, Harry Cuthbert, Damani Dias.
Goal: Acquah (78).