Emile Acquah scored for the sixth game in succession to help Southend United U18s defeat EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference champions Milton Keynes Dons U18s...
Acquah scored with a superb solo strike to contribute his 15th goal of the season and help Blues win 1-0 at Woughton Playing Fields against the team that had knocked them out of The FA Youth Cup at Stadium MK in the autumn. Lead Development Phase Coach Danny Heath was pleased with the way that the squad had dealt with the situation at the club after taking the team for the first time.
“With what has gone on at the football club this week, with the change in first-team management and Ricky Duncan and Kevin Maher stepping up to take the first-team, the boys have shown great maturity not only today, but throughout the week to deal with it,” declared Heath as the squad qualified for the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One.
“We spoke to the boys all through the week, and especially on Friday, about putting in a performance that showed they could compete with the best team in the league in terms of the league position. We truly believe that we are the best team in the league and we wanted to put in a performance that showed that because we felt everything else would take care of itself after that.”
Heath took charge of the squad with regular coach Dave Huzzey enjoying a watching brief, and there were a couple of tweaks to the starting eleven that had lost narrowly to Gillingham seven days previously. Rob Howard returned at right-back, with Sam Knock moving to centre-half in place of the injured Taylor Curran, whilst Dan Humphreys returned from a concussion injury at left-back.
O’Shane Stewart replaced Zak Pianim in midfield, and he was part of a unit that pressed MK backwards in their own half during the early stages. Southend did not want to let their hosts threaten Harry Seaden’s goal in difficult positions, and they created their first chance in the sixth minute when Miles Mitchell-Nelson planted a header wide from Jon Benton’s free-kick.
There was persistent drizzle in Buckinghamshire, and the pitch was becoming soggier by the moment, putting decisive play at a premium. Benton was fortunate in the 17th minute not to be punished when he lost the ball in the centre circle and an MK attacker angled his finish across the face of goal.
The home side, who defeated rivals AFC Wimbledon last weekend to ensure that they claimed the title, could have snatched the lead two minutes later, but after seizing a Seaden goal-kick the shot was dragged wide of the left-hand upright.
Blues responded and Howard sent Benton clear on the right flank in the 24th minute. The playmaker chipped the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper, but the centre skipped across the edge of the six-yard box ahead of Acquah, who was trying to slide in to score.
Three minutes later, the tall centre-forward was on target to put Southend in front. Having latched onto a pass around 30 yards from goal, he stabbed the ball away from one defender before turning beyond another and then brilliantly firing into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. His current scoring streak of half-a-dozen consecutive games is the best by a Blues U18s forward this decade.
The team held firm when MK sought to get back on level terms quickly. Knock did well to read the situation and time a challenge down the inside-left channel before Mitchell-Nelson slid in to divert a dangerous right-wing centre out for a corner. Then, in first-half stoppage time, Seaden made a splendid save, palming the ball away from the bottom left-hand corner.
“I thought in the first half we were dogged in terms of how we defended. We were really committed and resilient in terms of defending our box, not just as a back four and the goalkeeper but the whole eleven all over the pitch. I felt we needed a bit more quality in terms of going forwards with the ball, and that was one thing we asked for at half-time,” revealed Heath.
Blues could have proved their coach right within six minutes of the restart when Benton found Eren Kinali and he rounded the MK goalkeeper. Having been sent to an acute angle, Kinali couldn’t find a clinical finish and the custodian clambered back to turn the shot wide.
Benton then fired wide from a Howard pass before MK tried to restore parity. They had the ball in the back of Seaden’s net in the 65th minute, but the curling finish was ruled out for offside and, midway through the second half, an effort delivered with the outside of the left foot by a forward was directed inches wide of the right-hand post.
In response substitute Matt Rush almost pushed Blues further in front in audacious fashion. Harry Cuthbert’s lofted pass encouraged Acquah to chase, and the goalkeeper had to come out of his area to head clear. The ball dropped to Rush, 35 yards out, and his lob bounced agonisingly over.
Rush was then denied by the goalkeeper’s outstretched left glove as he glanced on a Benton free-kick but, having failed to make the result safe, Southend had to summon up another huge effort to see out the win. A free-kick was curled over but Seaden, who kept a clean sheet on loan for Colchester United in The FA Youth Cup against the same opponents in midweek, repeated the achievement as Blues registered a fine win.
“We wanted the same performance from a defending point of view in the second half and more quality with the ball going forwards, which I think we had. In truth I think we could have made it 3-0 or 4-0 in the second half.”
“I always felt the boys were in control. They showed good game management and they managed the conditions really well as the pitch cut up. That’s something they can be pleased with in terms of their performance,” added Heath, who explained that the step up was not something entirely out of the usual for him.
“I get out with Dave Huzzey and the U18s two or three times a week normally, and that’s something I enjoy doing from a coaching point of view. Dave gives the boys great support and he works his socks off to give the boys the best opportunity to progress at the club, so I asked the boys to firstly put in a performance which showed they are the best in the league, but also a display which would put a smile on Dave’s face.”
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Rob Howard, Dan Humphreys, O’Shane Stewart (Zak Pianim, 81), Sam Knock, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Eren Kinali, Harry Cuthbert, Emile Acquah, Jon Benton, Sewa Marah (Matt Rush, 65). Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Terrell Egbri, Dan Rogers.
Goals: Acquah (27).
Cautioned: Mitchell-Nelson (82, foul tackle).