Report from the latest U18s EFL Youth Alliance Merit game...
By Robert Craven
It was a case of déjà vu for Southend United U18s as they were defeated by a late Noel Mbo header at Gillingham following a see-saw EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One encounter.
Having lost their final EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference fixture in a seven-goal thriller at Beechings Cross, Blues had arrived at the Medway venue intent on setting the record straight, especially after clinching a 2-0 victory over Luton Town in their previous outing. However, they were undone despite second-half strikes from Alex Clark and Emile Acquah which had put the visitors in front.
If there was a major positive from the match, it was the exciting performance of midfielder Chay Cooper, promoted from the U15s side, who lined up in an attacking position following an injury to Lewis Gard in midweek. Dan Humphreys replaced Elvis Bwomono in the only other change from the team that had overcome the Hatters.
In truth, Blues would have been fortunate to have come away with a win in this fixture, despite having led with just seven minutes remaining, after a disappointing first-half showing. Gillingham, having had a lot of success in the previous meeting with a physical approach, replicated that in the early stages with goalkeeper Nathan Bishop bundled to the floor inside the opening five minutes.
Dru Yearwood worked the ball into the path of Emile Acquah in the seventh minute to set up Southend’s first attempt on goal, but the tall forward was denied from 25 yards out by a comfortable save from Gills goalie Louis Catherall. Within a couple of minutes Mbo went close for the hosts, drilling his near-post strike into the side-netting following a left-wing break.
The powerful Mbo was terrorising the Blues back-line, and in the tenth minute he was prevented from opening the scoring by the woodwork. He darted inside from the left, outpacing Humphreys in the process, before clattering his 15-yard attempt against the right-hand post.
Cooper, who made two appearances at the end of last season whilst still eligible for the U14s, instigated Southend’s response in the 14th minute, spreading play to Eren Kinali, who then picked out Acquah. His curling finish was claimed by Catherall, who was indebted to his defence after a quarter-of-an-hour for closing down Imani Matthews after the forward had latched onto another Cooper pass.
Gillingham took the lead in the 24th minute. The ball was fed into the feet of Leroy Hlabi, and he was allowed to take his time, find some space around 20 yards from goal and then dispatch a bouncing shot into the bottom left-hand corner beyond Bishop’s desperate dive.
Bishop made a smart stop a couple of minutes later to keep out a close-range Finn O’Mara header, but Southend found it difficult to reply to the home team’s intense performance. The visitors were lacklustre and found themselves unable to compete, and their frustration was compounded sixty seconds before half-time when Humphreys was cautioned for a foul.
Again it was Blues’ youngest player who proved to be the inspiration at the beginning of the second period. Cooper exchanged passes with Matthews and then curled the ball into Catherall’s gloves from 25 yards out. It was the final involvement of the match for Matthews, who was withdrawn five minutes after the break to allow Alex Clark to inject pace and width to the team.
Humphreys did well to throw himself at a Gillingham shot and deflect it over the crossbar, but Clark’s introduction produced early dividends when he equalised in the 58th minute. Kinali, who had worked hard throughout the match, hung up a right-wing cross to the back post, where Clark’s effort was smashed into the turf and spiralled over the helpless Catherall and into the net.
Within three minutes, Kinali could have put Southend ahead as he latched onto an Acquah flick-on. He advanced one-on-one with Catherall, who spread himself well to divert the shot wide of the left-hand post. Coach Dave Huzzey sought some more experience at this stage, and he introduced Damani Dias in place of Cooper, who had played well for over an hour.
Bishop made a save from a swerving and dipping effort look easy midway through the second half, and that allowed Blues to take the lead in the 74th minute. Dias created the goal, finding Acquah in the penalty area, and the forward held the ball up before turning his marker and scuffing his shot into the bottom left-hand corner.
It was an unconventional finish, but it gave Southend an opportunity to claim a second successive Merit League win. That appeared even more likely eleven minutes from time when O’Mara deflected Tom Clifford’s fierce strike wide and Zak Pianim powered a header over from the resultant inswinging delivery by Dias.
However, Bishop was called upon to make a good save in the 82nd minute, and just seconds later he had to pick the Gillingham equaliser out of the net. A substitute picked up possession and twisted inside Humphreys before slotting home via the inside of the upright to make it 2-2.
And Southend were stunned when the Gills stole the three points almost straight from the restart. The hosts collected the ball from the kick-off and won a right-wing corner, which was delivered into the heart of the penalty area. From there, Mbo rose above Kinali to nod into the roof of the net and inflict a fourth straight away defeat on the teenage Shrimpers, who travel to Plymouth Argyle next weekend.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Dan Humphreys, Tom Clifford, Harry Cuthbert, Joe Mackenzie, Zak Pianim, Eren Kinali, Dru Yearwood, Emile Acquah, Chay Cooper (Damai Dias, 62), Imani Matthews (Alex Clark, 50). Substitutes not used: Taylor Curran, Yonis Farah, Matt Rush.
Goals: Clark (58), Acquah (74).
Cautioned: Humphreys (44, foul tackle), Cuthbert (70, foul tackle), Kinali (76, delaying the restart of play).