Full-back Dan Humphreys was delighted to help Southend United U18s bounce back from their weekend defeat to Luton Town by playing his part in a 4-1 victory over Cambridge United at the Len Forge Centre.
Blues were forced to switch the match to the 3G surface on Eastwoodbury Lane following persistent overnight rain, but it had a positive effect on their performance as a first-half brace by Emile Acquah was followed by a second-half double from defender Miles Mitchell-Nelson to lift Blues level with Exeter City at the top of the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One table.
Humphreys returned from a loan spell with Bostik League Premier Division outfit Lowestoft Town earlier in the season in order to try and extend his spell with the club beyond the decade that he has already spent in south-east Essex, and he paid tribute to the attitude of the squad as they claimed a fifth victory in the past six matches.
“We needed a big performance because Luton was a very disappointing result for us,” he revealed. The league was there for us, and we felt really disappointed that we couldn’t capitalise on that opportunity, but today I felt we put it right, from set-pieces and little things like that.”
“We did the basics right and ultimately that got us the win. We rode our luck a bit at times, but I definitely think we make our own luck because every day we’re working hard, and I think that showed in the final result,” he added.
Blues made one change to the team that had lost by the same scoreline to the Hatters with Jon Benton returning to the starting eleven at the expense of Zak Pianim, and the playmaker was immediately involved in the action as his third-minute pass released Sewa Marah. The forward cut inside his marker and thumped an effort into the side-netting.
Shortly afterwards Acquah released Eren Kinali on the right-hand side, only for his shot to be sliced and fly inches wide of the right-hand post before Matt Rush’s cross to the far post narrowly eluded Kinali. It was an impressive reaction to defeat in their previous encounter, but Cambridge began to find their feet and a tenth-minute attempt was dragged wide by a forward.
In the 16th minute Southend shotstopper Harry Seaden made a superb double-save to keep the scoreline goalless. If his initial full-length stop to palm away a close-range effort wasn’t impressive enough, the former Fitzwimarc pupil managed to remain alert in order to divert the follow-up off-target as well.
The match was beginning to become stretched and, after Marah and Benton had combined well to set-up Rush for a 25-yard strike that was defected wide, the visitors were thwarted again by Seaden, who made a smart near-post save.
In the 24th minute, Southend’s persistence was rewarded with the opening goal. Sam Knock fought hard for the ball in midfield and found Rush, who in turn picked out Acquah on the edge of the ‘D’. As Rush screamed for a return pass, the tall front-man decided to shoot left-footed, and he benefited from a sizeable deflection as the ball ballooned over the goalkeeper and into the net.
Within two minutes Acquah should have made it 2-0. He found himself clear of the U’s defence but, as he bore down on goal, he angled his finish wide of the left-hand post and instead he had to wait until the 39th minute to net his 22nd goal of an incredible campaign.
Humphreys claimed that Acquah’s penchant for scoring certainly aids the defence after he seized on a heavy touch by the goalkeeper to steal the ball and slot into an unguarded net: “Somehow he always scores; I’m not sure how he does it but he’s always in the right place at the right time and that makes him a quality striker. It definitely helps us out, so it’s brilliant for us,” said the 17-year-old.
Just before the goal, Knock had made a vital contribution by partially charging down a 20-yard shot, and soon after the second strike Humphreys held up an attacker before Mitchell-Nelson deflected an effort wide. When a Cambridge player fired inches over from the ensuing corner it ensured Blues would lead by two at half-time.
Just as Dave Huzzey’s side had attempted to fight back on Saturday, Cambridge sought an early goal in the second period to bring them back into the game, but Mitchell-Nelson made a good block within two minutes of the restart and instead Southend were able to concentrate on attacking.
Acquah saw an effort deflected wide and Humphreys sent a strike over from the edge of the penalty area before Mitchell-Nelson finally found the target in the 64th minute. The central defender netted his first goal since October with a back-post header from a hanging Benton corner to make it 3-0.
All of the Blues team were working hard, and Marah – who had played a part in both of the previous two goals by pressurising the Cambridge defence – almost scored for himself after he and Benton had scrapped for the ball on the edge of the penalty area. His left-footed strike was sent inches over.
The visitors pulled a goal back with 13 minutes remaining when, after working the ball patiently from one side to the other, an attacker cut inside from the right to send a curling shot into the bottom left-hand corner of Seaden’s net.
Mitchell-Nelson immediately went close to restoring the three-goal advantage with another header from a Benton set-piece in the 80th minute but, this time, his aerial attempt was skewed wide and, a couple of minutes later, substitute Terrell Egbri sent a 28-yard effort over. However, Blues would soon make it 4-1 as Mitchell-Nelson scored his second of the afternoon.
Benton was again the provider as his left-wing flag-kick was nodded beyond the goalkeeper, although Humphreys wasn’t entirely happy that his team-mate had found the net: “We won’t hear the end of it, so I can’t wait for that! The boys did well and we’ve just got to take this momentum into Saturday’s game at Bournemouth,” he said.
There was a six-minute cameo for Freddy Eastwood Jnr as Blues saw out a victory that Humphreys hopes will lead to a concerted title push: “It would be amazing if we could win the title,” he said. “At the beginning of the year we set ourselves some goals that we haven’t really hit.”
“The FA Youth Cup was disappointing, and the first part of the league was as well because we came second, so we haven’t achieved what we set out to yet. If we can end the season on a high by winning the league that would be a massive thing for us because the boys deserve it and so do the coaching staff because it’s been a really good year.”
Humphreys also hopes his return to Boots & Laces can earn him a contract with the club: “It would mean everything; it’s everyone’s dream as a youngster to be a professional footballer. That would be amazing and would mean the world to me, but all I can do right now is focus on the next game; I’ve got to look to perform in that and then the one after that and, at the end of the season, I can reflect. It’s a goal I would like to achieve eventually.”
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Rob Howard (Ide Osimeh, 84), Sam Knock, Taylor Curran, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Eren Kinali, Jon Benton (Freddy Eastwood Jnr, 84), Emile Acquah (Terrell Egbri, 72), Matt Rush (O’Shane Stewart, 78), Sewa Marah. Substitute not used: Callum Taylor.
Goals: Acquah (24, 39), Mitchell-Nelson (64, 84).