Southend United U23s were defeated 2-1 by Bristol Rovers in their first home Central League encounter of the season despite young striker Norman Wabo giving Blues the lead.
With nine potential players in the first-team squad to take on Reading U23s in the Checkatrade Trophy later that evening, it was a young Blues U23s squad that took on their counterparts from Bristol Rovers at Boots and Laces. Indeed, there were full debuts for Zak Pianim and Miles Mitchell-Nelson as well as a first appearance off the substitutes’ bench for Matt Rush.
After even opening exchanges the first chance of the game came in the seventh minute when Renei Batlowka crossed with outside of his boot but the lofted ball just eluded the head of Alex Clark at the far post. The next opportunity fell to the visitors six minutes later when a jinking run and cross from Cameron Hargreaves found Luke Russe, but his shot was tipped over the bar by Nathan Bishop.
It was slightly against the run of play when, after a quarter-of-an-hour, Wabo opened the scoring for Southend. A concerted spell of Rovers pressure ended when Mitchell-Nelson hacked the ball clear from a free-kick. Wabo raced onto the clearance and deftly lofted the ball over Alexis Andre in the visitors’ goal.
The Pirates had a chance to level six minutes later when Rhys Kavanagh’s cross found Russe in space but his goalbound shot deflected wide for a corner. In the 31st minute Rovers had a shout for a penalty when Mo Baghdadi went sprawling in the box but the referee deemed there was no contact from Dan Humphreys.
Two minutes later Mitchell-Nelson was booked for a robust challenge on Hargreaves and, almost immediately, Wabo broke down the right for the Blues, with his cross finding Batlokwa. However, the young midfielder was only able to blast wide of the goal.
Pressure mounted from Rovers and, in the 43rd minute, a corner from Hargreaves saw a header from Lewis Ison fly straight into the hands of Bishop. The young Pirates did level the scores moments before half-time, though, when Kavanagh’s hard drive found the net despite Blues having several chances to clear the danger.
The interval saw Nathan Bishop replaced by Harry Seaden in the Southend goal as the second-year scholar prepared for an evening as back-up to Mark Oxley at Roots Hall. Rovers again started in the ascendancy and, four minutes after the restart, Kavanagh burst into the Southend area only for a last-ditch challenge from Mitchell-Nelson to force the lively forward to blaze wide of the target.
There was then a period of play with few chances until the 60th minute when Rovers’ left back, Michael Kelly, charged into the area and his fierce left-footed drive beat Seaden on his near post to give the visitors the advantage.
Four minutes later the dangerous Kavanagh nearly increased the visitors’ lead when he held off Mitchell-Nelson, but Seaden saved smartly. Southend’s only real chance to level the score came in the 83rd minute when skipper Harry Phillips’ corner saw substitute Emile Acquah’s powerful header fall just wide of the target. Blues travel to Colchester United in the Central League Cup next week.
Southend United U23s: Nathan Bishop (Harry Seaden, 46), Dan Humphreys, Tom Clifford, Zak Pianim, Taylor Curran, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Renei Batlokwa (Eren Kinali, 77), Harrison Reeves (Matt Rush, 88), Norman Wabo, Harry Phillips, Alex Clark (Emile Acquah, 65). Substitute not used: Harry Cuthbert.