Report from another fine win for the youth team...
By Robert Craven
Southend United U18s moved five points clear of the chasing pack in second place in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference following a 3-1 victory over Luton Town at Shefford & Campton FC.
Cambridge United, Stevenage and Luton all have games in hand over Dave Huzzey’s squad, but goals by Emile Acquah, Zak Pianim and Sewa Marah in their latest triumph mean Blues know that further victories in their final two league fixtures – at home to Stevenage on Saturday and then away to Gillingham seven days later – will confirm the runners-up spot.
That Southend would have their destiny in their own hands did not appear probable after an opening half-an-hour during which their hosts settled more quickly and took the lead through Kavan Cotter. However, Acquah’s sixth goal of the campaign just before the break was crucial, and a much more confident second-half performance gave Blues all three points.
Imani Matthews, who had replaced Damani Dias during the 4-2 win at Cambridge United, was included ahead of the attacker in the only change to the starting line-up and, on a wide and sloping playing surface, it took both teams a little while to get going. Luton accomplished this first and, on 11 minutes, Nathan Bishop leapt off his line quickly to stop a forward from latching onto a left-wing cross.
Winger Alex Clark was the first player to bring a save from Luton’s goalkeeper as he moved across his marker to latch onto an Eren Kinali delivery from the right flank, but the effort was easy to save. Three minutes later, hard work from Kinali helped Lewis Gard slide the ball through to Clark, but again his effort resulted in a comfortable save for the young custodian.
Second-year scholar Clark continued to probe away and, after Joe Mackenzie strode confidently out of defence to pass to Gard, he ran onto another through-ball from the midfielder. This time his 15-yard attempt flashed wide, and Southend were made to pay midway through the half when Cotter collected possession 25 yards from goal and arrowed a beautiful strike into the top left-hand corner of Bishop’s goal.
The gloveman had no chance with that strike, but he made a vital contribution on 33 minutes to keep his team in touch. Skipper Elvis Bwomono was robbed of possession in the right-back position, and a winger darted into the box before smashing goalwards, with Bishop called upon to brilliantly tip the shot onto the crossbar and away to safety.
The save galvanised the visitors, who should have equalised on 40 minutes when Gard stole possession for Matthews, and his centre was poked at the grateful goalkeeper by Acquah. The forward made no such mistake four minutes later; Tom Clifford worked hard to win the ball, Zak Pianim brought it forward and eventually picked out Gard, whose chipped cross was converted from close-range.
Getting level with the Hatters was no mean feat, but winning a game against their hosts would be another proposition. Blues had not triumphed over Luton since March 2014, losing five of the subsequent six meetings, but their second-half display made such an achievement appear to be a formality at times.
Southend could have edged in front within four minutes of the restart when Matthews hustled and harried an opponent on the left flank and then broke into the penalty area, only to see the goalkeeper made a smart save as he made his small frame as imposing as possible. From the follow-up, Acquah touched the ball back to Kinali, who saw a fierce strike charged down at close quarters.
Five minutes later, Blues did edge in front for the first time. For the second match in succession, central defender Zak Pianim notched the go-ahead goal. Clifford’s free-kick was nodded across goal by Mackenzie, and Bwomono’s snapshot was deflected over. That allowed Clifford to deliver a dead-ball into the danger zone again, and this time Pianim was able to power a header home from five yards out.
Despite being denied in the build-up to that goal, Bwomono was undeterred. He drilled a 30-yard attempt straight at the goalkeeper after Gard had spread play into his path just before the hour mark, and he followed that by smashing Kinali’s left-wing cross goalwards on 64 minutes, only for the shotstopper to produce a fine block.
At the mid-point of the second period, Clark and Acquah combined on the left flank for the former to cross into the path of Kinali, and he became the latest Southend player to be denied by the Luton goalkeeper, who turned his diving header against the crossbar. It looked as though Town had ridden out the storm after that, and they would enjoy chances to restore parity during the next few moments.
On 69 minutes, Cotter slid the ball through for a forward, who slashed his shot across the face of goal and then, with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, Blues benefitted from a massive slice of fortune. Bishop brought down a forward after misjudging the bounce of the ball, but instead of awarding a penalty, the referee played an advantage and the shot that was delivered went wide.
It was all the incentive Southend required to snuff out any further hopes of a Luton revival, and substitute Marah secured all three points with seven minutes remaining. The forward won possession from a defender on the halfway line, outmuscling his opponent and moving effortlessly clear of the back-line to stroke home his ninth goal of the campaign from just inside the penalty area.
Defender Taylor Curran was immediately brought on as a precaution for Kinali, who had tweaked a muscle chasing down a long ball just before the goal, but the change made no difference to Southend’s attacking intent. Marah could have netted a quickfire second from Ben Musselwhite’s set-piece, but his attempt was blocked and Clark directed the rebound at the goalkeeper.
Marah was then denied by a covering defender in the 87th minute before Clark won a corner with a rampaging run sixty seconds later. Clifford’s delivery was headed at the goalkeeper on this occasion by Pianim, and Clark also dragged a shot wide in stoppage time. Bishop produced more brilliance in between, making good ground to turn a near-post strike against the bar, and Blues celebrated a 3-1 victory.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Elvis Bwomono, Tom Clifford, Harry Cuthbert (Ben Musselwhite, 53), Joe Mackenzie, Zak Pianim, Imani Matthews (Damani Dias, 74), Lewis Gard, Emile Acquah (Sewa Marah, 74), Eren Kinali (Taylor Curran, 84), Alex Clark.
Goals: Acquah (44), Pianim (54), Marah (83).
Cautioned: Bishop (75, foul tackle).