Blues U18s suffer first loss since November...
By Robert Craven
Southend United’s ten-match unbeaten run in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference was brought to an end by Stevenage U18s following a 3-2 defeat in Bragbury End.
Blues had not been beaten in the league since an identical Boots & Laces scoreline against Luton Town on 15th October, but despite Sewa Marah’s tenth goal of the current campaign and Ben Musselwhite’s first-ever Under-18s goal, they were overcome by their hosts at Boro’s leafy training complex.
Dave Huzzey’s team had not played a competitive match for over two weeks, and they were without regular full-backs Elvis Bwomono and Tom Clifford, who both featured for the Under-21s in their 2-1 triumph at AFC Wimbledon 24 hours earlier. First-year scholars Dan Humphreys and Yonis Farah came into the team, along with Marah and Musselwhite further forwards.
After a cagey opening in which the two teams sized each other up, it was Southend who threatened first. In-form forward Emile Acquah unleashed a strong shot from 25 yards which was blocked out to Imani Matthews in the eighth minute, but the attacker’s follow-up was pushed over the crossbar by the Stevenage goalkeeper.
Yonis Farah’s dangerous delivery caused concerns in the Boro box, but no-one could turn the ball home and it was only after centre-back Zak Pianim had won a throw that the ball was worked back to Humphreys, who saw a 35-yard thunderbolt charged down. Seconds later Marah galloped clear of the home defence, but his run was tracked well and an excellently-timed tackle saw the ball run out of his control.
Acquah and Marah pressed high up the pitch, and as a consequence Stevenage were finding it difficult to get a foothold in the game. Even when they did have an opportunity, from a free-kick, Farah’s block flew into the path of Marah, who cut in from the left flank before drilling his shot at a defender.
When Musselwhite won the ball in midfield Acquah dragged his attempt wide of the left-hand upright, and Stevenage began to turn the tables on the visitors. A free-kick was swung inches over the crossbar midway through the opening period, and they took the lead on 24 minutes with a superb move, culminating in an incisive pass and a sweeping finish underneath Nathan Bishop.
Blues suffered a further set-back when stand-in skipper Joe Mackenzie was forced off with vision problems following a clash with a forward, but they restored parity after 26 minutes. Matthews did well to win a corner on the right wing and Farah’s hanging flag-kick was powerfully nodded home at the back post by Marah.
Five minutes later Blues struck the woodwork after Acquah’s cross was retrieved by Damani Dias and his curling effort was tipped onto the crossbar by the Stevenage shotstopper, but it was Bishop that was the busier goalkeeper in the closing stages of the first half.
On 41 minutes the young custodian pushed out a cross into the path of a forward before linking up with Pianim to divert the ball wide. Two minutes later the former Harefield Academy pupil got down low to his left-hand side to parry out a skidding strike and, in the final minute before the interval, Pianim covered the run of a forward before blocking a shot out of play.
Trialist Solomon Bah, a winger formerly with Charlton Athletic, was introduced at half-time, and he almost made an instant impact by cutting inside from the left flank before angling his strike wide of the opposite upright. On 53 minutes, Stevenage went even closer to a second goal when a left-wing centre was prodded against the base of the right-hand post and Bishop dropped gratefully on the ball.
Alex Clark was brought on for Damani Dias on the hour mark, but it was Stevenage who continued to push forwards and Bishop had to make a stunning near-post stop to beat away a ferocious strike following a quickly-taken free-kick. Within seconds Bishop had sprung off his goal-line to apprehend a forward, but Blues would soon trail 2-1 despite their goalkeeper’s best efforts.
Clark had just slashed over the crossbar for the Shrimpers when a booming goal-kick released an attacker at the opposite end. Bishop managed to keep out the initial close-range effort with a smart stop, but he was powerless to prevent the same player from tapping home the rebound.
The topsy-turvy encounter continued to ebb and flow, and Southend attempted to bounce back. Clark saw his claims for a penalty kick turned down after he had darted into the area, but he brushed him down and soon combined with Lewis Gard for the midfielder to cross for Acquah, who side-footed languidly wide of the near post.
With 17 minutes remaining, Musselwhite levelled with a fine strike. In 39 previous competitive appearances for the Under-18s the midfielder had never found the back of the net, although he made up for that with a wonderful finish having travelled with the ball to the edge of the penalty area. He assessed his options and then curled sublimely into the top right-hand corner of the net to make it 2-2.
Bishop was immediately required to save at point-blank range, and he provided another outstanding intervention on 77 minutes to turn the ball behind for a corner at full-stretch. Five minutes later he pushed out a strong strike at his near post, and some desperate defending by Taylor Curran and Pianim prevented another attack from culminating in an effort on goal.
However, Blues were hit with a hammer-blow four minutes from time when Stevenage took the lead for a third time. On this occasion Bishop had no chance to make a save as a forward wickedly whipped the ball inside the right-hand post past the unsighted gloveman. It was cruel for Bishop, and Southend will now be looking to bounce back when they travel to Gillingham on Friday.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Dan Humphreys, Yonis Farah, Ben Musselwhite, Joe Mackenzie (Taylor Curran, 25), Zak Pianim, Imani Matthews (Solomon Bah, 46), Lewis Gard, Emile Acquah, Sewa Marah (Eren Kinali, 74), Damani Dias (Alex Clark, 60). Substitute not used: Harry Cuthbert.
Goals: Marah (26), Musselwhite (73).