Youth team coach Dave Huzzey hailed his squad’s “commitment, desire and tactical nous” as Southend United U18s returned to the top of the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One table with a 2-0 win against Milton Keynes Dons.
Blues leapfrogged Gillingham with their fourth consecutive victory as substitute Emile Acquah grabbed his 19th goal of the current campaign and Sewa Marah netted the 25th youth team goal of his career during the final 21 minutes of the game. Matt Rush had earlier followed an MK counterpart in missing a first-half penalty kick in a tough battle at Woughton-on-the-Green Playing Fields.
“I think that’s the best performance, the best result and the best victory we’ve had all season,” opined Huzzey, who brought in Zak Pianim ahead of Terrell Egbri. “The boys’ commitment, desire and tactical nous was outstanding. They are perfecting what we’re asking of them during the week on a Saturday and, if they continue to do that, they will get results like this.”
“It could’ve been a gamble because I thought Terrell was really unlucky to not get a place in the starting line-up. He has performed really well, but we felt, away from home against a really good side, that we needed a little more reassurance by putting Zak Pianim and Sam Knock in there.”
Blues made an excellent start and Matt Rush got the better of Tommy Hope in the second minute but could only prod his finish into the gloves of MK’s trialist goalkeeper, Doyle. Five minutes later the visitors’ high pressing almost forced a mistake from Finn Tapp as Rush sought to steal the ball in the penalty area, but Doyle was able to clear.
Harry Seaden was brought into action for the first time in the ninth minute as he beat away a fierce Liam Sole strike and, for a short spell, Southend were pinned back in their own penalty area. Eventually Rush led a breakaway and only the close attention of full-back Delsin Ackom prevented him from delivering a shot on goal.
The hosts had an excellent opportunity to break the deadlock in the 16th minute. The tricky Sole again darted inside from his left-wing position and drew a foul from Dan Humphreys as he entered the penalty area. The referee deemed the infringement to have occurred inside the box, but Sole smacked the crossbar with his spot-kick and Bradley Bell smashed the rebound over.
MK remained in the ascendancy as the match approached the 20-minute mark, but Seaden managed to tip an angled Sole strike wide before a succession of corners were cleared. In the 25th minute, Blues were awarded a penalty of their own when Jon Benton was tripped from behind. Rush assumed responsibility from Eren Kinali for taking the spot-kick, but he was unable to score for a third straight game when Doyle guessed correctly.
Miles Mitchell-Nelson was cautioned for a perceived foul on James Holmes, but Blues were gradually getting back into the game and Benton steered an effort wide from 15 yards out after Kinali had brought down a Humphreys throw on the half-hour. Six minutes later the midfielder curled over from the ‘D’ following Pianim’s combination with the industrious Rush.
Blues ended the first half with a flourish as Marah’s powerful run culminated in a foul and Benton forced Doyle into a save besides his left-hand post from the resultant free-kick, whilst the shotstopper made a smart stop with his legs when Benton’s brilliant control and pass released Rush one-on-one down the inside-right channel.
“It was even in the first half,” said Huzzey. “I thought we had probably the better of the chances but they had some as well and they missed a penalty. We missed a penalty and Matt Rush should’ve scored with two one-on-ones, and I was a little bit disappointed that we hadn’t scored at the break but, by the same token I was pleased that we hadn’t conceded.”
“We say it quite a lot but the boys hang in there and that, for me, shows the mental toughness of this side. I don’t think I’ve had a side like it since I’ve been here. We hold on and cling on for dear life and I’ve not known a team get as many blocks and tackles and last-ditch tackles in and get as many bodies in between the sticks to prevent the opposition scoring. That’s not luck; it’s dedication and it’s what they work on during the week.”
Jay Bird dragged an effort wide within four minutes of the restart for MK Dons before Kinali responded by smashing narrowly off-target having brought the ball through midfield. Blues were further frustrated in the 53rd minute when Rush got in behind and chipped the ball beyond Doyle, only to be thwarted by the raised flag of the assistant referee.
The action was end-to-end and, after Sole had again forced a save from Seaden at his near post, Marah set up Benton for a floated cross that Kinali nodded into Doyle’s gloves from outside of the right-hand post. England U17s international custodian Seaden then made a fantastic intervention, diving full-length to prevent Joe Evans from netting and leaping onto the loose ball.
Another good save followed shortly afterwards, but the introduction of Emile Acquah for Benton reaped rewards for Huzzey, who admitted that it had been tough to leave him out after he returned from an ankle injury. Marah’s deflected strike earned a corner and, from Rush’s driven delivery, Acquah slotted home his tenth goal in his last ten appearances inside the right-hand upright.
“When we brought him on we almost expected him to score, and he’s in the right place at the right time too often for it to be luck. His timing and movement is unbelievable and his awareness is excellent, and he deserved his goal,” claimed Huzzey.
“It’s been difficult and it’s been a real challenge for me. Emile has come back from injury after scoring the amount of goals that he has but I couldn’t put him back in because of the performances of the other boys in and around him. Sewa has been outstanding in the last couple of weeks, Matt Rush has been outstanding in the last couple of weeks and Eren, too, has been outstanding.”
“It’s been one of the biggest challenges for me this season whether to put him back in or not. I decided not to because I wanted to stick with what we had, what we had been winning with and what we were performing well with, but it gives you that bit of belief when you turn around and you’ve got him sitting on the bench because you know he’s got goals in him.”
MK could have equalised within two minutes, but an effort from the edge of the penalty area was angled wide and Marah almost added a second when he remained alert to indecision from Ackom and won the ball 25 yards from goal. He forced a fine save from Doyle with a curling shot on this occasion, but he would not be profligate when the next opportunity presented itself six minutes from the end.
By that time Seaden had been required to acrobatically turn a defensive Pianim header over the crossbar, whilst Rush’s audacious chip sailed over from 25 yards out. But Marah made no mistake when Doyle’s short goal-kick was miscontrolled by Ackom and the second-year scholar travelled into the penalty area to curl majestically into the top right-hand corner of the net.
“Sewa’s performance today was the best we’ve seen from him for a very long time, and he has been performing well so that shows how well he has done. He took his goal well and he earnt it through hard work. He worked hard for the whole game and deserved what he got.”
“We do a lot on looking disinterested and sometimes it comes across the wrong way because people think you’ve not bothered. He nearly nicked in the last time, and then he looked disinterested and he got in, and the finish was excellent considering the pitch,” remarked Huzzey.
The hosts had a couple of chances to reduce the arrears in the final couple of minutes, but a strong shot was directed into the side-netting in the 88th minute before a late attempt bounced off the inside of the left-hand post but travelled along the goal-line before being hacked to safety. Blues return to Boots & Laces on Saturday in high confidence as Luton Town visit south-east Essex.
“They are all tough games in this league, and that’s why we like it,” declared Huzzey. “It gives us a real chance to put our wits against the best in the league. MK Dons are a very, very good side and they showed that in the first league stage, but we’ve put a nice little run together with four results and four wins and, if we continue to build on this, you never know where it might take us.”
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Rob Howard, Sam Knock, Taylor Curran, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Eren Kinali (Terrell Egbri, 80), Zak Pianim, Matt Rush, Jon Benton (Emile Acquah, 64), Sewa Marah. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, ide Osimeh, O’Shane Stewart.
Goals: Acquah (69), Marah (84).
Cautioned: Mitchell-Nelson (28, foul tackle), Knock (61, foul tackle).