Southend United U23s completed an unbeaten Central League Cup Southern Group A campaign with a 1-1 draw against Milton Keynes Dons at Boots & Laces.
Amadou Ba's 28th minute finish cancelled out an MK opener by Brandon Thomas-Asante barely sixty seconds earlier, although the result means that Kevin Maher’s side will have to await the result of their opponents’ final fixture before knowing if they top the group table. A match against either Bristol City or Bristol Rovers will follow in the semi-finals.
Blues were without in-form forward Norman Wabo, who was unwell, but they were able to call upon Harry Kyprianou, Jermaine McGlashan and Ba, all of whom have recently tasted first-team experience. The trio were watched by new manager Chris Powell at the club’s training ground.
Southend made a bright start with Emile Acquah deployed up front for his first competitive U23s start. The tall centre-forward was out-jumped by Finn Tapp as he attempted to meet a McGlashan cross in the second minute, with Renei Batlokwa firing narrowly wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Batlokwa then drilled a mid-range effort into the gloves of visiting goalkeeper Wieger Sietsma before defender Kyprianou collected a clearance 20 yards out and smashed narrowly over. Ba then created his own opportunity by robbing Gio Rasulo on the edge of his own penalty area before seeing his strike deflected off-target.
Blues were to go even closer in the 12th minute when McGlashan was denied by a combination of Sietsma and the woodwork. The flying winger was sent tumbling over on the right-hand edge of the box and curled a wicked free-kick into the area, with the custodian managing to tip the ball against the crossbar.
MK had to wait until the 17th minute before threatening Josh Bexon’s goal, although Aiden Nesbitt’s strike was deflected wide before reaching the custodian. At the other end Ba attempted an acrobatic bicycle kick from Acquah’s knock-down, only to send the ball over, and Gard was denied by Sietsma’s outstretched glove following a clever pass from Acquah.
Gard also drew a more routine save from Sietsma with a 30-yard strike a couple of moments later, and such was Southend’s dominance that it came as a surprise when the away team took the lead in the 27th minute. Thomas-Asante collected the ball around 30 yards from goal and advanced one-on-one with Bexon before angling his finish into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
The response from the Shrimpers was swift and clinical. Skipper Elvis Bwomono delivered the ball into the centre of the pitch for Michael Klass and he curled a 25-yard attempt against the left-hand upright. The ball rebounded out to Ba, who made no mistake by placing his shot past Sietsma to register his fifth goal in five U23s starts.
Klass, who was impressive throughout, could have put Blues in front shortly before half-time, but his deflected strike was brilliantly turned around the right-hand post by shotstopper Sietsma. MK also had an opportunity to take the lead before the interval, but Robbie Muirhead side-footed the wrong side of the left-hand upright from a Nesbitt pass.
Southend began the second period in similar vein to the first, and Klass fired narrowly over from a Gard pass before Acquah was presented with an opening from McGlashan’s right-wing centre in the 50th minute. His close-range finish was repelled by Sietsma.
Having seen out the initial exchanges, MK sought to build their own momentum as they attempted to record a third consecutive League Cup victory. Muirhead drilled into Bexon’s gloves just before the hour mark, and the young gloveman also did well to push out Hugo Logan’s free-kick in the 64th minute.
As the second half progressed the match became more stretched, although Southend had a monopoly on the clear-cut chances created. MK captain Oran Jackson did well to head a curling Nico Cotton cross off Ba’s head. Miles Mitchell-Nelson then nodded over from a Batlokwa free-kick before another set-piece was swung into the side-netting.
Kyprianou did well to apprehend Thomas-Asante in the penalty area with eight minutes remaining, but Blues ended strongly and Klass was unfortunate not to be presented with a tap-in when Acquah’s return pass was cut out before the midfielder’s effort on the stretch was deflected out for a corner.
However, the closest Southend came to a winner was in stoppage time when Batlokwa advanced through midfield and smashed a vicious shot towards goal. Sietsma palmed the ball upwards and it appeared to be spiralling over the goal-line, but the spin sent it away and Acquah couldn’t force the ball in as he collided with the left-hand post.
“I thought it was a good, enjoyable game,” said Maher. “We restricted them, we pressed the ball high and maybe with a bit more quality we could have had a few more goals. I’m disappointed we didn’t go on to win it in the end because I thought we had the opportunities to do so.”
Southend United U23s: Josh Bexon, Elvis Bwomono, Nico Cotton, Michael Klass, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Harry Kyprianou, Renei Batlokwa, Lewis Gard, Emile Acquah, Amadou Ba, Jermaine McGlashan. Substitutes not used: Eren Kinali, Harry Seaden, Zak Pianim, Rob Howard, Sewa Marah.
Cautioned: Klass (65, foul tackle).