Southend United U18s claimed their first EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One victory of the 2017/18 season with a 3-1 triumph away to league leaders Swindon Town at Stanley Park.
Following a draw at home to Oxford United and a defeat against Gillingham, Blues had to wait three weeks for their next fixture after games against Bristol Rovers and Cambridge United were postponed. However, Dave Huzzey’s side bounced back from that Gills reverse in style with a comprehensive success at Swindon to ignite their Merit League One campaign.
Eren Kinali’s cross was deflected into his own net by a Swindon defender in the 13th minute to give Southend the lead, and Kinali himself doubled the advantage midway through the first half with a clinical finish. Sewa Marah nodded home the third eight minutes into the second period and, despite a late consolation for the hosts, Blues had done enough to win.
Huzzey kept faith with the outfield ten that had lost against Gillingham, although that may not have been the case had Emile Acquah not failed a fitness test on Friday. Harry Seaden returned from illness – and a loan appearance for Colchester United in The FA Youth Cup Quarter-Finals – to replace Callum Hazeltine in goal.
Blues had the advantage of kicking with an icy wind in the opening period and, after taking a few moments to acclimatise, they soon found their stride. In the seventh minute Jon Benton rolled the ball into the feet of Marah, but his curling effort was gathered by Archie Matthews in the Swindon goal.
Two minutes later Matthews made a fine parried save to deny Benton, who had unfurled a 20-yard strike following Kinali’s square pass, and the shotstopper was even more impressive seconds later when he denied skipper Zak Pianim. Benton’s corner was nodded on by Sam Knock on his 17th birthday and Pianim flicked the ball on, only for Matthews to tip the effort over.
Southend’s probing was rewarded just three minutes later when they took the lead. The ever-willing Kinali chased down a right-wing pass and managed to cut the ball back from the byeline with the intention of picking out either Marah or Matt Rush. A Swindon defender sensed the danger, but he could only guide the ball inside the far post of his own goal.
Marah then had a chance to make it 2-0 in swift fashion after Pianim stepped into possession in the 15th minute and found Terrell Egbri. He moved the ball on to Marah down the left-hand side and the forward tried to find the bottom right-hand corner with his slide-rule finish, only to witness Matthews come off the line to smother the shot with his legs.
Blues may have been a little frustrated as they struggled to judge the correct distance with some of their through-balls, but Egbri had no such problem in the 23rd minute as he linked up with Kinali. The second-year scholar strode confidently onto the ball and dispatched his shot into the bottom left-hand corner of the net from around twelve yards out to notch his seventh goal of the season.
Swindon were struggling at that stage to get out of their own half, such were the ferocity of the Siberian gusts across the Wiltshire countryside and, even if they did earn a couple of set-pieces as the first half progressed, they could not test Seaden.
Instead, the opening period finished with Southend creating a couple more opportunities of their own as they sought to make their dominance count. In the 39th minute Rush nodded a right-wing Humphreys cross into the gloves of Matthews before Miles Mitchell-Nelson glanced a Benton free-kick wide of the upright.
In the conditions a 2-0 lead may not have been adequate, but Southend’s second-half performance was perhaps even more impressive than the first. They came out on the front foot, and could have extended their advantage within two minutes of the restart when Benton curled against the crossbar from 25 yards out and Marah fired the rebound wide.
There was a scare when Swindon rattled the frame of the goal themselves in the 50th minute as a free-kick was nodded down and then a close-range attempt was directed against the bar, but Blues made it 3-0 three minutes later. Kinali flicked on a Mitchell-Nelson free-kick from inside his own half and Egbri contributed another assist as his right-wing centre was forced home by Marah.
The Robins responded, with Dan Humphreys required to make a brave block at close quarters to deny an attacker almost directly from the kick-off, but Blues possessed confidence and Marah’s tenacity earned an opening for Kinali, who curled inches over. Marah should then have doubled his personal tally, but he failed to connect with Kinali’s cross with the goal gaping.
As the match approached the final fifteen minutes, schoolboy Charlie Kelman replaced the industrious Rush, with O’Shane Stewart providing fresh legs in midfield instead of Benton. In between, Swindon reduced their arrears in the 80th minute when a left-wing centre was drilled home by Toby Holland.
There may still have been time for a comeback, but Blues were resolute, allowing a substitute to curl narrowly wide and affording another attacker barely a sight of goal with a strong defensive line. When he did get his shot away, Seaden was able to save comfortably and, although Egbri fired into the side-netting deep into stoppage time, Southend had, by then, made sure of the three points.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Rob Howard, Zak Pianim, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Sam Knock, Eren Kinali, Jon Benton (O’Shane Stewart, 86), Matt Rush (Charlie Kelman, 75), Sewa Marah, Terrell Egbri. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Sam Brogan, Ide Osimeh.
Goals: own goal (13), Kinali (23), Marah (53).