“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited going into the new season with this group of players,” declared youth team coach Dave Huzzey after Blues U18s rounded off their pre-season campaign with a 4-4 draw against Brighton & Hove Albion.
Huzzey’s side almost pulled off a Premier League scalp in the thrilling encounter, which represented the centrepiece of the club’s Meet The Blues Day event at Boots & Laces on Sunday. Two goals by Charlie Kelman sandwiched a header by schoolboy Jimmy Wallace to put Southend 3-1 up, and Freddy Eastwood later scored a screamer to make it 4-3, but the Seagulls equalised in the last minute to claim a share of the spoils.
“It was a bit like the weather; it was up and down but there were loads of positives for us playing against a Premier League side. Really and truthfully we should’ve won the game, but we conceded in the 90th minute and we’ve got to make sure we stay focussed all the way through to the end of the game,” reported Huzzey.
Up against another Category One Academy following fixtures against Fulham, Reading and West Ham United earlier in the month, Blues started well and Terrell Egbri warmed the palms of the visiting goalkeeper in the fifth minute when he latched onto a pass from Matt Rush. The hard-working Rush then benefitted from Jon Benton’s persistence to work the custodian from 20 yards out in the 13th minute.
After a quarter-of-an-hour right-back Ben Dabbs refused to be drawn away from a Brighton forward, eventually earning the ball for his team and Harry Seaden was able to find Egbri with a long goal-kick. The winger flicked the ball into the path of O’Shane Stewart, but he dragged his shot wide of the left-hand upright.
Despite Blues look bright in the opening exchanges, Albion took the lead in the 21st minute. Dabbs was adjudged to have committed a foul in the penalty area and Seaden was sent the wrong way from the penalty spot as the away team moved ahead.
The advantage lasted just five minutes before Kelman, who spent part of the summer with the USA U18s squad, levelled for the Shrimpers. Miles Mitchell-Nelson could have scored himself after retrieving a dead-ball delivery, but his effort was blocked and Kelman was on hand to slot home the rebound.
England U17 goalkeeper Seaden was soon showcasing his talent as he dived full-length to his right to turn away a strong Brighton shot in the 28th minute and he then followed that up by making an impressive near-post stop shortly after the half-hour mark.
A good move by the visitors almost led to a second goal but, having prized open the Blues backline, a shot was angled past the left-hand upright. Within seconds another quick move led to a shot on target, but Seaden was able to gather the ball besides his toecaps.
First-year midfielder Sam Brogan began to impose his presence on the game as Southend responded to that spell of pressure by moving onto the front foot themselves. Brogan first combined with Kelman in the 36th minute to set up Stewart, who drew a save from the goalkeeper with a skidding strike, before laying the ball off to Benton a minute later for a driven finish that was against impressively held by the gloveman.
Two minutes before the break Blues went ahead. Rush’s drilled attempt was initially parried before his follow-up was scrambled out for a corner. That flag-kick was cleared, but Benton and Stewart worked the ensuing short corner routine well to give the former space to deliver a swinging cross that Wallace powered down into the turf and up into the top right-hand corner.
It remained 2-1 at the break and, although Brighton saw an early effort deflected wide in the second period, Mitchell-Nelson tested the goalkeeper at the opposite end with a header from Benton’s inswinging delivery. Seaden was then called upon to stand tall at his near post to block a shot before Blues pulled further clear of their opponents in the 63rd minute.
Wallace had just nodded wide from an Osimeh corner when the ball was worked to Kelman just inside the Brighton penalty area. The 16-year-old forward, who scored for the U23s on their pre-season trip to the Netherlands, swivelled to dispatch his shot into the roof of the net and make it 3-1.
Southend sensed that they might be on the verge of an impressive victory and could have further extended their lead in the next five minutes. Kelman’s left-wing centre was only cleared as far as Benton, who smashed over from the edge of the penalty area, before substitute Freddy Eastwood was gifted the ball following indecision in the Albion defence, only for the first-year to stab inches wide.
When Benton steered a shot wide midway through the second half, Kelman was almost on hand to guide the ball home, but instead Brighton reduced their arrears with a fine finish of their own as the ball was smashed past Seaden into the top right-hand corner of the net in the 69th minute.
The Seagulls had gained the ascendency on the pitch, even if the scoreline did not reflect this, and Seaden made a good save before the follow-up in the 78th minute was directed over. Four minutes later Seaden made an outstanding stop, diving to his left to turn a goalbound attempt around the post.
With six minutes remaining, Brighton hauled themselves back on terms. Blues were partially the architects of their own downfall as skipper Stewart gave the ball away in the Albion half and the visitors attacked swiftly down the right-hand side before the ball was swept home from inside the penalty area to make it 3-3.
Parity lasted a matter of seconds as Southend restored their advantage straight from the restart. Eastwood picked up the ball on the edge of the ‘D’ and picked out the top left-hand corner of the net with an unstoppable strike before racing off to be mobbed by his team-mates in celebration.
Seaden made another fine save to maintain the lead when he beat away a wicked strike at his near post, but Brighton equalised for a second time in the closing stages as a right-wing corner was volleyed home by an attacker at the back post. Even then the drama was not concluded, and Benton almost stole the victory for Southend with a long-range effort that the Albion goalkeeper held above his head.
The large crowd had been royally entertained, and Huzzey was delighted his squad had played a part in Meet The Blues Day: “When we found out about the game here we were all really excited about it, and none more so than the players because they all want to play in front of fans and show what they have got. They certainly did that today and some of the goals were outstanding; Freddy’s was brilliant and fair play to him,” he said.
“It’s good as well because it’s preparation for The FA Youth Cup when they have to play in front of a few fans and we don’t often do that. Today is going to be a massive help for The FA Youth Cup. The boys didn’t freeze; it didn’t seem to faze them and I was pleased with that,” he concluded.