Youth team coach Dave Huzzey expressed his pride despite watching Southend United exit The FA Youth Cup following a 1-0 defeat to Milton Keynes Dons.
Blues went out of the competition at the First Round stage for the second season in succession, although - for the third time in four years - the draw was unkind as they were pitted against the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference leaders. In the end only Jay Bird's 37th-minute effort separated the sides, with substitute Jon Benton extremely unfortunate to see a late free-kick rattle the woodwork for the visitors.
“I’m upset in the fact that this group of players deserve more, but I’m really proud of the performance and the way the boys didn’t give up,” remarked Huzzey before leaving Stadium MK.“For the whole 93 or 94 minutes they worked hard and, at the end, we hit the crossbar and had a couple of really good chances to nick something but it didn’t go our way.
“The nail in the coffin was that we got beaten by a set-play, which hurts because we haven’t been undone by the first phase of set-plays this season. The boys gave everything they’ve got, so I’m really proud of them. I couldn’t stand there and have a go at them because they’ve given us everything."
Six of the Southend team had experience in The FA Youth Cup having lined up in last year's heavy reverse to Leyton Orient. They included Nathan Bishop and Dru Yearwood - the latter making his first youth team appearance of the campaign - who were introduced after their recent exploits in the first-team. Zak Pianim and Taylor Curran were reunited in the centre of the defence having been rested at the weekend.
Blues began the match exhibiting the quiet assurance of a squad that had won their past three matches and, with the industry of Emile Acquah and Matt Rush to the fore, they created the opening chance in the sixth minute when Ide Osimeh's free-kick was nodded over at the near post by Pianim.
The hosts responded three minutes later when the dangerous Dylan Asonganyi squared to Liam Sole and he flashed a shot across the face of Bishop's goal. However, MK were restricted to that singular attempt in the opening half-an-hour, and Huzzey was happy with the early exchanges.
“In the first 20 minutes we dominated in the way we played. We didn’t dominate possession because we weren’t playing like that. My only criticism of the boys today is that we could’ve been a little bit braver on the ball and we could’ve passed it more. It sounds simple and basic, but if we could’ve passed it more and a bit better, we’d’ve created more opportunities early on,” he remarked.
Dan Humphreys was cautioned midway through the first half after breaking up a home attack with a foul, but Southend were soon on the front foot again with Osimeh arcing a 25-yard free-kick over. In the 25th minute Sewa Marah had the ball in the MK net as he converted Yearwood's pass, but a prospective fourth goal in as many games for the forward was chalked off for offside.
Bishop comfortably gathered an Asonganyi free-kick after 30 minutes and Pianim did well to step in and clear as Charlie Pattison appeared threatening for the hosts shortly afterwards, but Blues retained their own menace and Yearwood galloped onto a loose ball to fire over from distance in the 35th minute.
Unfortunately the teenage Shrimpers conceded eight minutes before the break. Bradley Bell delivered a corner from the right-hand side and Bird met the ball on the volley from close range to crash home via the underside of the crossbar. Blues players appealed that the ball hadn't crossed the whitewash, but Huzzey had no complaints about that after the game.
“The team we played today were excellent and they managed the game really well. I don’t think there was anything between the teams and I think anyone who watched the game would say the same thing, but it was a set-play that undone us,” he said.
Blues had to regroup quickly, and captain Harry Cuthbert managed to block Bird's 40th-minute strike at close quarters to ensure that there was just a single-goal deficit to manage at the interval. Half-time gave Huzzey a chance to calm his side, and again they looked unflustered as they began the second period.
“Sometimes you come into a stadium and The FA Youth Cup and it does overwhelm the boys a little bit, but it wasn’t like last year. This was a bigger occasion than last year in an unbelievable stadium for a League One club. All-in-all the boys coped with the occasion well, and they were unlucky not to get something from the game,” he said.
Steadily Blues began to impose themselves and, in the 53rd minute, MK required all their defensive resolve to maintain the advantage. Eren Kinali got in behind their back-line to test Nathan Pickworth and, when the goalkeeper brilliantly saved, Rush's follow-up was repelled by Finn Tapp. Yearwood quickly recycled the ball into the penalty area, but Rush couldn't turn home.
That galvanised MK, and Pattison drilled the ball wide on the hour mark. Four minutes later Yearwood had to execute a perfectly-timed tackle to keep Asonganyi away from goal before Sole smashed inches wide of the right-hand upright. Sole then found Asonganyi on 70 minutes, but Bishop was equal to a goal-bound strike.
Blues introduced Terrell Egbri and Benton in place of Acquah and Rush and, following MK's best spell of the fixture, they finished strongly. Yearwood dragged wide of the left-hand post on 76 minutes and the visitors determined to throw all their might into sourcing a leveller.
Joe Evans could have put the tie beyond Southend had he not shot wide from fellow replacement Recoh Martin's pass, but only the frame of the goal would deny Benton three minutes from the end. The Blues midfielder was given the opportunity to shoot from 20 yards after Egbri was upended, but he directed his set-piece agonisingly against the crossbar with Pickworth beaten.
Two minutes later Egbri and Yearwood combined to set-up Kinali, but he uncharacteristically failed to find the target from eight yards out. Then, in stoppage time, Marah's fierce effort was deflected wide for a corner which even Bishop went up to attack. It was not to be and, even though Asonganyi volleyed wide deep into added time, MK had done just enough to progress.
“In the second half it got better, but with a little bit of fine detail we could’ve created more chances than we did and maybe the result would’ve been different, but I’m so proud of the boys. I thought we created some great opportunities and Eren had one on his left foot that I expect him to do better because he has done all season,” claimed Huzzey.
“It is a massive disappointment, but we have to look at the positives and Dru Yearwood playing in and around the first-team every week is a massive positive; Nathan Bishop being on the bench most weeks is a massive positive and then we’ve got other players knocking on the door. I don’t think any of the boys did themselves a disservice in the way they played.”
“They did themselves justice, regardless of whether they were first- or second-years. I’m disappointed because I want to win football matches, and so do the boys, but there’s no way I could have a go at a team like that who gave me everything they’ve got.”
“Let’s not lose sight of the most important thing, which is Dru Yearwood in the first-team and Nathan getting a chance, and we’ve got a manager at this football club that is giving us a chance as youth developers, which doesn’t happen all around the country.”
“We’re really excited and looking forward not just to the Youth Alliance games that we’ve got but getting more players into the first-team set-up and more players into the U23s because it showed tonight that we’re competing with the best team in our league - as the league table says, they are seven points clear – and there was nothing between us tonight,” he concluded.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Dan Humphreys, Ide Osimeh, Harry Cuthbert, Taylor Curran, Zak Pianim, Eren Kinali, Dru Yearwood, Emile Acquah (Terrell Egbri, 66), Matt Rush (Jon Benton, 79), Sewa Marah. Substitutes not used: Harry Seaden, O’Shane Stewart, Marley Hutchings.
Cautioned: Humphreys (22, foul tackle).