Report from U18s' 2-0 win on Saturday...
Southend United U18s completed the 2016/17 season with a final-day victory over Bristol Rovers at Boots & Laces in EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One.
Sewa Marah put Blues in front during an excellent first half for the hosts, with schoolboy substitute Louie Hunt rounding off the 2-0 success three minutes from time just seconds after goalkeeper Nathan Bishop had prevented the Pirates from equalising with an outstanding one-on-one save.
In a season that has seen a whole host of schoolboy talent blooded in the U18s, Dave Huzzey handed four more youngsters their competitive youth team debuts. Marley Hutchings - son of former Shrimper Carl - and Idemudia Osimeh were given starts in the full-back berths, whilst another defender, Dan Hawkes, and forward Hunt came off the bench.
Terrell Egbri made his first start after appearing as a substitute at Cambridge United a fortnight earlier but, on a beautiful afternoon at Boots & Laces, it was one of the more experienced members of the team that sparked Southend into life inside the opening minute. Eren Kinali drifted in from his right-wing role to curl a shot into the gloves of the Rovers custodian.
Ten minutes later the attacker tested the shotstopper again, this time darting inside to latch onto a Hutchings pass and force the goalkeeper into a smart save before - at the opposite end - centre-back Miles Mitchell Nelson was called upon to effect an impressive challenge in the penalty area to divert the ball out for a corner.
The game was opening up, and Bishop had to be alert to scoop up a low left-wing centre and keep the match goalless in the 14th minute. Within seconds play had switched to the other end, where Marah's bustling run saw him connect with Taylor Curran's lofted pass and prod into the goalkeeper's gloves.
The fixture was still less than 20 minutes old when a Jon Benton corner almost led to the opening goal, with Kinali and Mitchell-Nelson helping the ball on to defender Curran at the far post, only for his half-volley to fly over. Seconds later midfielder Dru Yearwood exchanged passes with Marah before being forced to shoot wide by a Rovers defender.
Whereas the visitors had been able to build from the back in the early stages of the encounter, Southend now hounded them out of possession and attempted to sting them on the break. Egbri sought out O'Shane Stewart midway through the first half, but his 25-yard effort was tipped wide before another strike from the midfielder was steered wide from Kinali's knock-down.
Finally, in the 31st minute, Blues took the lead that their dominance demanded. Egbri initiated the move with a precise pass, but it was Marah's power and pace that opened up the Rovers back-line before he arrowed a right-footed shot into the bottom left-hand corner from 25 yards out.
Three minutes later the front-man seemed likely to double the advantage, but his strong header from a Benton corner was brilliantly palmed around the right-hand post by the goalkeeper. The first half ended with Marah and Yearwood combining again to set up Benton, but his sweeping shot was easily gathered.
The second period began with Southend seeking to assert themselves again and Osimeh almost marked his debut with a goal when his deep cross drifted against the crossbar in the breeze. Kinali couldn't divert the follow-up into the net with a diving header, but the game was slow to come alive.
The Pirates suffered a couple of injuries quickly after the interval, but they appeared to gain momentum and Curran was called upon to make a well-timed last-ditch challenge in the penalty area to preserve Southend's lead just before the hour mark. Eleven minutes later, a right-wing Rovers free-kick was glanced wide of the left-hand upright.
In the 74th minute Bishop - who again wore the captain's armband - pressurised a forward, who chipped over as he bore down on goal and, four minutes later, a close-range attempt was blazed over after Blues failed to clear a corner as the home goal came under increasing threat.
Chay Cooper, Hawkes and Hunt were all introduced as substitutes late on in the game, but the defining moment came three minutes from the end. Curran was robbed of the ball on the edge of the area and it seemed probable that Rovers would draw level, but Bishop summoned up a superb stop with his body before dropping on the loose ball.
From that save Southend broke away immediately and made it 2-0 with a goal that owed much to Kinali's perseverance. Having tormented the left-back all afternoon, he got the better of his man once again and drilled the ball into the six-yard box for Hunt to divert it over the goal-line.
A late Rovers effort was fizzed across the face of goal, but Blues were secure and Benton almost capped the performance with a third goal, only for his rasping strike from a Cooper pass to be repelled by the goalkeeper. Southend finished the Merit League One season in a best-ever fifth place, one point off third with four wins and two draws from their ten matches.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Marley Hutchings (Dan Hawkes, 79), Idemula Osimeh, O’Shane Stewart (Chay Cooper, 74), Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Taylor Curran, Eren Kinali, Dru Yearwood, Terrell Egbri, Jon Benton, Sewa Marah (Louie Hunt, 81). Substitute not used: Sam Knock.
Goals: Marah (31), Hunt (87).