Southend United U18s suffered a setback in their aspirations to claim the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One title as a 4-1 defeat at home to Luton Town on Saturday halted a run of four consecutive victories.
The Hatters netted twice in each half to render Emile Acquah’s 20th goal of the season a mere consolation. The striker matched the tally of Norman Wabo two seasons ago in becoming only the second youth team forward to reach the landmark this decade, although he will be disappointed that it did not help contribute to a success for his side.
Acquah was handled his first start since suffering an ankle injury in the U23s fixture against Milton Keynes Dons seven weeks previously. Midfielder Jon Benton made way, with Matt Rush moving into the hole just behind the front man to provide support with Eren Kinali and Sewa Marah.
Blues made a bright start to the match and had earned a corner within thirty seconds of the kick-off, but it was the visitors who took the lead in the fifth minute when a short corner routine culminated in a drilled cross from the byeline and the ball being swept into the roof of the net from inside the six-yard box.
Dave Huzzey’s side had fallen behind in their previous three home Merit League One encounters, bouncing back on each occasion to claim seven points from a possible nine, but on this occasion their attacking intent was stifled and Harry Seaden started to become overworked in the Southend goal.
Just before the quarter-hour mark he had to be alert to come off his goal-line and punch clear from an attacker and, midway through the opening period, Seaden turned sharply to push away a close-range finish from a right-wing cross. In-between Marah had seen his fierce attempt charged down on the edge of the penalty area after being teed up by Acquah as Blues attempted to breach the Town back-line.
That was a rare moment, however, as play switched to the other end and a Luton attacker chipped wastefully over in the 27th minute before Seaden made a parried stop to thwart a Town forward despite being unsighted. Inevitably the visitors doubled the advantage from the ensuing corner as an attacker rose unchallenged to plant a header into the left-hand corner of the net.
Seaden made another smart save shortly afterwards to keep the half-time deficit manageable, but Blues were by now aware that they had a difficult assignment ahead of them. Huzzey made an attacking substitution at the interval, introducing Benton for Sam Knock, and it almost reaped dividends when the playmaker’s corner was met by Mitchell-Nelson, but his effort was blocked on the line and scrambled away.
The third goal of the match would prove to be crucial, and it fell in Luton’s favour five minutes after the break. This time a left-wing flag-kick was met at the near-post and fired clinically into the net to complete a hat-trick of goals from corners.
Seaden made an unconventional save with his right shoulder when a 52nd-minute effort bounced up awkwardly from the Boots & Laces turf and, twelve minutes later, the England U17s international dived at full stretch to his left to save from a Luton forward.
To their credit, Blues kept working hard and Matt Rush bundled the ball into the net with 20 minutes remaining, only for the effort to be ruled out for a foul on the goalkeeper. The visiting shotstopper had to be replaced, and the substitute fouled Acquah almost immediately to earn Southend a penalty. Acquah himself sent the ball into the bottom left-hand corner via the goalie’s right glove to give Blues hope.
With 78 minutes played Benton almost increased the nerves in the Luton camp as he met Kinali’s knockdown with a thumping half-volley that was tipped wide. However, from the resultant corner, Luton broke away and, although Seaden got a hand to the eventual shot, he couldn’t keep it out and the Hatters restored their three-goal advantage at 4-1.
Inside the final few moments Kinali was denied twice in quick succession as his header from a Benton corner was blocked and then his follow-up attempt was cleared off the goal-line, whilst Benton again found himself frustrated when the goalkeeper made a good save after fine combination play with subs Terrell Egbri and O’Shane Stewart. The result was just Southend’s third defeat of 2018.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Rob Howard (Ide Osimeh, 88), Sam Knock (Jon Benton, 46), Taylor Curran, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Eren Kinali, Zak Pianim (O’Shane Stewart, 87), Emile Acquah, Matt Rush (Terrell Egbri, 71), Sewa Marah. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor.
Goals: Acquah (73 pen).
Cautioned: Pianim (80, foul tackle).