Southend United held EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One leaders Exeter City to a goalless draw at Boots & Laces on Saturday despite playing for over an hour with only ten men.
Central defender Taylor Curran was dismissed in the 28th minute for violent conduct, but Blues battled through the adversity to record an impressive clean sheet against the free-scoring Grecians. Indeed, had Miles Mitchell-Nelson's second-half header not rebounded off the crossbar, the result could have been even better.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey made four changes to the team that had lost 5-1 at AFC Bournemouth seven days previously. Ide Osimeh was recalled at left-back, with Dan Humphreys dropping out of the squad, whilst Terrell Egbri replaced Eren Kinali in the starting line-up. Isaac Hutchinson, a second-year trialist from Brighton & Hove Albion, came in for Matt Rush and Zak Pianim displaced Sam Knock.
Exeter began the match in the vein of a team who had scored 22 goals in their previous five fixtures and thrashed Bristol Rovers, 7-0, and Milton Keynes Dons, 5-1, in their previous two. In the fourth minute an attacker cut inside from the right to smash a left-footed shot against the underside of the crossbar and, in the tenth minute, Rob Howard made an important challenge in the six-yard box to break up another attack.
Blues failed to hit their stride in the early stages and, when an Exeter forward steered a shot wide from the edge of the penalty area after a quarter-of-an-hour, it appeared that the hosts may be forced permanently onto the back foot. However, Egbri won a corner with an enterprising 20th minute run and, although Osimeh's delivery was easily claimed by the City goalkeeper, the Shrimpers began to impose themselves on the match.
Within sixty seconds Sewa Marah had squared the ball for Egbri at the far post, only for his attempt to fizz off-target, and midway through the first half Hutchinson was unfortunate to graze the top of the crossbar with a 25-yard strike having worked himself intelligently into space. In the 27th minute an Osimeh corner was nodded over the goalkeeper by Mitchell-Nelson at the far post and had to be hooked off the goal-line.
However, the aftermath of that attempt would change the complexion of the game again; Curran had been sent forward for the flag-kick and he tangled with a defender before appearing to kick his opponent. The referee deliberated before showing a red card and Blues would have to complete the encounter without their most experienced back-liner.
Initially Southend were undeterred by the set-back as Egbri tried to seize on some indecision in the Exeter defence before the ball was scrambled to safety, and then 22-goal leading scorer Emile Acquah planted a header wide from Jon Benton's free-kick in the 32nd minute. Sewa Marah saw a ferocious effort charged down and Blues went in at half-time in good spirits despite their numerical disadvantage.
Within five minutes of the restart the hosts could have been ahead. Egbri was fouled on the right touchline and Osimeh's inswinging delivery was nodded against the woodwork by Mitchell-Nelson. Hutchinson then chipped the follow-up over as the Exeter goal led a charmed existence.
Southend's spirited display was impressive in the circumstances, with the likes of Marah, Hutchinson and Benton occupying three or four defenders at a time. In the 52nd minute Marah exchanged passes with Acquah before tormenting a defender and firing narrowly over. Six minutes later Hutchinson drew a save from the Grecians goalkeeper with a dipping 25-yard shot.
Exeter, who needed the full three points to maintain their advantage at the top of a congested league table, did create chances, but Blues continued to repel their efforts. In the 62nd minute Osimeh came to the fore as he made an important tackle on the edge of the penalty area before clearing a cross and then blocking a shot out for a corner.
Six minutes later the first-year full-back made another important intervention as a scuffed finish from the left-hand side beat Harry Seaden. Osimeh was positioned on the goal-line to clear, and Blues returned to the other end of the pitch, where Marah fired wide from the 'D' after good play from Hutchinson and Benton.
An Exeter attempt was dragged across the face of goal in the 77th minute and, as the match approached its conclusion, another effort was chipped over from 20 yards out. Egbri and Mitchell-Nelson were withdrawn following substantial shifts, with Rush and Knock offering fresh legs, and Blues almost snatched victory in the 90th minute.
Benton's trademark set-piece delivery was sent dangerously into the penalty area and, had Pianim or Acquah managed to get a touch to the ball, it would've been sent into the net. Instead it drifted out for a goal-kick and, after an anxious moment when Knock almost mistimed a challenge in the six-yard box in stoppage time, Blues were able to reflect on a fine display and a share of the spoils.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Rob Howard, Ide Osimeh, Zak Pianim, Taylor Curran, Miles Mitchell-Nelson (Sam Knock, 87), Terrell Egbri (Matt Rush, 85), Jon Benton, Emile Acquah, Isaac Hutchinson, Sewa Marah. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, O’Shane Stewart.
Dismissed: Curran (28, violent conduct).
Cautioned: Hutchinson (71, foul tackle).