“We came with a game-plan and we executed it to every detail,” was the verdict of Southend United’s youth team coach Dave Huzzey after Blues U18s defeated Dagenham & Redbridge 2-1 at Barking & Dagenham College.
Blues leapt up to fifth in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference table as a result of an impressive performance on a tight and uneven pitch in Rush Green, just two points behind their opponents and seven off the total of pace-setters Milton Keynes Dons at the midway point of the season. Defender Miles Mitchell-Nelson and forward Sewa Marah were on target for the Shrimpers.
“We looked at Dagenham a lot at the beginning of the week and, as we got to Friday, we started focussing on us and the discipline shown by the boys, not just today but throughout the week, has been first-class. It’s no coincidence that they got the result and also put in that performance today,” said Huzzey, who brought in Marah for the injured Taylor Curran, with Zak Pianim dropping back into defence.
Marah, who was starting his first match since 12th September, had the ball in the net after just five minutes, but his thumping finish from an Emile Acquah flick-on was ruled out as his strike partner was flagged offside, and two minutes later a galloping run was ended by a covering defender as he attempted to square to Acquah on the edge of the six-yard box.
Dagenham - who are coached by former Watford and Burnley midfielder Micah Hyde - responded, with Harry Seaden parrying a half-volley after Mitchell-Nelson’s defensive header lacked distance and Harry Cuthbert then clearing off the goal-line as a powerful aerial attempt was directed on target.
However, despite the hosts having won six of their ten matches going into the game, Blues were the team on the front foot and Marah drew a save from the Daggers goalkeeper after a quarter-of-an-hour following Benton’s midfield pass, and ten minutes later Acquah was inches away from meeting a floated Benton free-kick at the far post.
The hosts did sent a shot into the side-netting on the half-hour, but Benton was coming to the fore in the centre of midfield, and he exchanged passes with Marah on 33 minutes before seeing a fierce strike deflected inches over the crossbar. The playmaker’s dead-ball delivery continued to be important and, on 42 minutes, Pianim nodded marginally over when well-placed to meet a free-kick.
Within seconds, Blues were in front. Another marauding run by Marah culminated in his shot being deflected into the side-netting, and Benton’s near-post corner was met by Mitchell-Nelson, who turned home his first Southend United goal from close-range.
“I believe the goal would have come anyway. We had 20 minutes at the start where I thought we were really, really good and I felt that the boys were just getting ahead of themselves a little bit. We had a game-plan where we wanted to play a defensive part of a formation and an attacking one, and we started getting a little bit more offensive after 20 minutes, which wasn’t part of the plan,” revealed Huzzey.
“But we went back to being a more resolute midfield five, being really hard to play through and frustrating our opponents and if we’d gone in at half-time at 0-0 I still believe we had better players in the most dangerous areas to go and win the game, so to get the goal before half-time just gave us a little bit more fire in the belly. It meant we had something more to fight for.”
Cuthbert sent a searing shot just over almost straight from the restart as Southend recovered possession, but Blues had to stay alert at the back, and Pianim effected a superb sliding challenge in the penalty area on the stroke of half-time to snuff out a counter-attack and ensure the visitors went in ahead at the break.
The teenage Shrimpers were resolute at the beginning of the second period, and as the half progressed they became more confident. Acquah flicked on an Ide Osimeh throw for Matt Rush, who saw his snapshot brilliantly turned around the left-hand upright by the Daggers goalkeeper, and on 53 minutes Kinali angled a driven shot across the face of goal following good work by Marah and Acquah.
Mitchell-Nelson made two crucial interventions in his own penalty area to preserve the lead as he cut out a cross before blocking a near-post shot and, on 65 minutes, that helped Southend stretch their lead. Kinali was the instigator as he won the ball in his own half before sweeping the ball across the pitch to Marah, whose back-post header hit the crossbar before he tucked in the rebound.
“The second goal was key. I was really pleased with it; I had asked Sewa and Eren to sit quite deep within our shape and nullify Dagenham before going to impose themselves on the game, but Eren won the ball deep in his own half, drove on with the ball on the counter-attack and sent in an unbelievable cross and there was Sewa, the other wide man, who had got inside the back post like we asked him to do to score,” said Huzzey.
Mitchell-Nelson nodded an Osimeh corner wide at the far post five minutes later, but on 72 Dagenham halved their deficit. Blues failed to clear their lines from a left-wing cross and, as the ball bobbled around in the penalty area, it was prodded in from six yards out. Dan Humphreys thought he had intercepted it before it crossed the line, but the match officials disagreed and the goal stood.
Marah had an opportunity to double his personal tally for the morning, but his curling effort from Rush’s slide-rule pass was brilliantly beaten away by the home custodian and Blues enjoyed a moment of fortune with seven minutes remaining when a shot from a right-wing centre thudded against the crossbar.
Despite that let-off and Humphreys working hard on 86 minutes to smother an attack, Southend ended the match on the front foot and could have added a degree of comfort in stoppage time. Acquah held off a defender to smack a shot against the left-hand post, whilst Egbri’s attempt was blocked, Rush fired over and the goalkeeper denied Kinali. It mattered little, though, as Blues ended up victorious.