Southend United’s hopes of usurping EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference leaders Milton Keynes Dons at the top of the table took a sizeable blow at the hands of 2016/17 champions Leyton Orient.
Returning to Boots & Laces for the first time since 7th October Blues were hoping to narrow the seven-point gap to MK, but the concession of three goals in the opening eight minutes of the match contributed to a 6-2 defeat that means work is still to be done to secure a top half finish and a place in Merit League One during the spring.
Goalkeeper Harry Seaden returned to the starting line-up following his international exploits with England U17s, with Nathan Bishop linking up with the senior squad once again. Marley Hutchings replaced the suspended Taylor Curran in defence, whilst there was a debut for Marcel McDonald, an attacking midfielder on trial from Thurrock.
However, Southend got off to the worst possible start as they fell behind in just the second minute. Having lost the ball in midfield, Blues were forced to defend as the O’s attacked down the right-hand side and a fizzing centre into the six-yard box was easily slotted past Seaden by an attacker.
Two minutes later, Orient had doubled their lead. This time the opportunity arose when Miles Mitchell-Nelson misplaced a header in midfield. The ball skewed off the defender’s head and fell to an O’s forward and he made no mistake by rolling the ball into the bottom left-hand corner beyond an exposed Seaden.
And, with less than eight minutes on the clock, Blues’ disastrous start was compounded by a Dan Humphreys own goal. This time the visitors attacked down the left-hand side and hung up a cross to the far post, where the ball was nodded across goal. Humphreys attempted to clear, but he succeeded only in thumping the ball into the top right-hand corner to leave Seaden with no chance.
Despite that hefty setback, Humphreys showed his resilience and determination by giving Southend a foothold in the match in the eleventh minute with his first youth team goal. The full-back collected the ball from Emile Acquah 25 yards from goal and slammed a deflected strike into top right-hand corner to make it 3-1.
Three minutes later it could have been 3-2 but, after Mitchell-Nelson had met Ide Osimeh’s corner at the far post, Marah’s half-volley was brilliantly turned around the post by the Orient goalkeeper. The match finally began to settle down, and Southend appeared more organised at the back, which allowed them to build from a good base.
Just before the half-hour McDonald, who has been training with the Shrimpers, showed his fine quality on the ball as he tested the O’s goalkeeper from the edge of the penalty area, but at the other end captain Harry Cuthbert had to make an impressive block to keep out a fierce strike.
Southend’s good work in the final half-an-hour of the first half was undone three minutes before the break when Orient restored their three-goal lead. McDonald conceded a set-piece in a dangerous area and a fine delivery was nodded goalwards by a visiting head. Seaden was confident that he had kept the ball out, but the officials ruled that it had crossed the whitewash and Blues went in at the break 4-1 down.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey made two changes at half-time with Hutchings and McDonald withdrawn and replaced by Matt Rush and Terrell Egbri. The intention was clear and within seconds of the restart Marah had bullied a defender to cross just out of reach of Acquah and Eren Kinali.
Rush also fired a shot into a defender before Marah’s fourth goal in the last seven games gave the Shrimpers hope. Rush hoisted a ball up for Acquah to challenge, and he touched the ball into the path of the forward, who raced clear before rounding the goalkeeper and finishing confidently.
The next goal would prove crucial, and Southend worked up a head of steam towards ensuring that it would be they who claimed it. Cuthbert found Rush for a shot from the edge of the penalty area that required an excellent save before Mitchell-Nelson and Acquah failed to turn home from close-range from an Osimeh corner.
Bobby Unwin, an U15s player who was thrust onto the pitch in place of Kinali for his debut, also tested the goalkeeper with a long-range effort. Unwin’s inaugural appearance was full of promise as he showcased his ability with a superb left boot.
Acquah also forced the goalkeeper to grab a header from another Osimeh corner, but it was looking increasingly as though it would not be Southend’s day and, by that time, Humphreys had blocked a strong shot at close quarters before Seaden made a smart near-post block to turn another attempt away.
With ten minutes remaining, Orient made it 5-2 as a free-kick led to a close-range attempt that Seaden did well to save. Unfortunately the ball rolled out of the custodian’s grasp and the rebound was swept in. Last season, Blues conceded six against the O’s in The FA Youth Cup, and that total was matched when a sublime 83rd minute free-kick was curled in to inflict a 6-2 defeat upon the teenage Shrimpers.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Ide Osimeh, Zak Pianim, Marley Hutchings (Terrell Egbri, 56), Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Eren Kinali (Bobby Unwin, 64), Harry Cuthbert, Sewa Marah, Marcel McDonald (Matt Rush, 46), Emile Acquah. Substitutes not used: Sam Knock, Jon Benton.
Goals: Humphreys (11), Marah (52).
Cautioned: Cuthbert (67, dissent).