Southend United U23s fell just short of completing an astonishing comeback as they lost their opening Central League fixture of the season 5-4 at Milton Keynes Dons.
Kevin Maher's side trailed 4-1 at the break, but Norman Wabo added to his first-half effort and Amadou Ba and Michael Klass also found the target to haul the visitors to level at Stadium MK. Unfortunately a last-gasp finish by Giorgio Rasulo left Blues on the wrong end of a nine-goal thriller.
Maher spoke of his frustration at a bit of naivety that cost them.
“It’s disappointing to lose the game at the end,” said Maher.
“We struggled first half with their physicality and a few of their seasoned players, which told.
“We responded to get back to 3-1 and then going 4-1 at half time we knew it was an uphill task.
“We said to go out and win the second half and credit to the players, we dominated long parts of it and got ourselves right back in the game at 4-4. Then a bit of naivety at the end cost us getting a point.
“We’ve actually conceded from one of our corners in the last minute looking to win it.
“Conceding five goals isn’t good enough and we’ve got a lot to learn. That’s a team thing; all over the pitch we’ve got to do better. Whether that’s through cleverness in where you’re playing and sensing danger all over the pitch.
“You score four goals in a game away from home you should win it.”
Ted Smith, Daniel Matsuzaka, Sonny Coutts and Jack Bridge had all been unused substitutes for the first-team against Rochdale on Saturday, whilst midfielder Klass had made his first-team debut in the Checkatrade Trophy clash at Gillingham. Youth team full-back Dan Humphreys made his competitive U23s debut in defence.
Blues were on the back foot early on, and Brandon Thomas-Asante had already forced a save from Smith by the time that Chuks Aneke opened the scoring. The former Arsenal youngster - who has scored 29 goals in 136 league appearances for Stevenage, Preston North End, Crewe Alexandra and MK - beat two defenders before slotting home.
Midway through the first half MK doubled their advantage through Rasulo, who exchanged passes with Aidan Nesbitt before beating Smith with a superb strike from just inside the penalty area.
Worse was to follow for the young Shrimpers as they fell 3-0 down inside the opening half-an-hour. This time Rasulo was the provider, returning the favour for Nesbitt, who angled his finish across Smith and into the corner of the net.
Robbie Muirhead then saw an effort bounce back off the crossbar for the hosts, but by that point Blues were beginning to pick up and Wabo reduced the arrears five minutes before the half-time interval when he nodded a right-wing cross into the top left-hand corner of the net.
Disappointingly MK restored their three-goal cushion before the break when Thomas-Asante gently chipped the ball over Smith from Hugo Logan's through-ball and Southend faced an uphill battle to get back into the game.
It was a task that Maher's charges took up with real spirit, especially once Smith had prevented Thomas-Asante from converting a Conor McGrandles pass, even if Rasulo was thwarted by the post after curling a shot beyond the young custodian.
Smith played a part as Blues fought back to make it 4-2 just before the hour mark, sending a booming goal-kick downfield for French forward Amadou Ba to fire past substitute goalkeeper Alfie Jones.
And, two minutes later, Southend were right back in the Buckinghamshire-based encounter as Wabo notched his fifth goal in nine U23 starts. The Academy product was picked out after ghosting into an excellent position on the edge of the penalty area and he finished well to cut the lead to a single goal.
Parity was finally restored with a little under a quarter-of-an-hour remaining when former Queen's Park Rangers trainee Klass skipped past a couple of challenges and fired clinically into the bottom right-hand corner of the net. The scoreline was now 4-4 and Blues had all the momentum.
However, MK Dons managed to find a response and Rasulo stabbed home the rebound after his initial attempt had been blocked, leaving Blues to focus on their next match, away to Barnet in the Central League Cup, on Tuesday 19th September.
Barnet are up next for Blues in a few week’s time in the league again.
Southend United U23s: Ted Smith, Dan Humphreys, Dan Matsuzaka, Sonny Coutts, Nico Cotton, Michael Klass, Renei Batlokwa, Jack Bridge, Harry Phillips, Norman Wabo, Amadou Ba.
Image provided by MK Dons