Norman Wabo scored early in each half to help Southend United U23s win the Central League Cup Southern Section Final for the second time in three seasons with a 2-0 victory over Milton Keynes Dons at Stadium MK.
Kevin Maher’s side reclaimed the trophy that they last won in 2016 against Swindon Town with an impressive triumph over MK and, although Wabo’s goals will deservedly grab the headlines, this was a fine all-round performance epitomised by a clean sheet for Nathan Bishop and his defence.
Blues had earned their spot in the final with a penalty shoot-out success against Bristol Rovers, but they were bolstered by the return of striker Wabo, who had been a substitute for Ebbsfleet United as they lost their National League play-off semi-final to Tranmere Rovers in extra time on Saturday. Lewis Gard skippered the side after making his first-team debut a fortnight ago.
Wabo was lively from the outset, and he almost gave Southend the lead in just the second minute when he shifted the ball out of his feet on the edge of the penalty area and skimmed the crossbar with his fierce attempt. His energy was matched by MK front-man Giorgio Rasulo, who saw his own fifth-minute effort diverted out for a corner.
A couple of minutes later Rasulo linked up with strike partner Sam Nombe but, after getting in behind the Blues back-line, Nombe found himself surprised when Sonny Coutts effected a perfect challenge from behind to steal the ball. Play switched swiftly to the opposite end again, but this time Wabo’s pass for Renei Batlokwa was over-hit and MK’s trialist goalkeeper was able to collect.
If Wabo was the fulcrum of the Shrimpers attack his foil was Frenchman Ba, who almost set-up Gard in the 12th minute following a patient build-up. Ba injected some pace and picked out the midfielder, who sent a sweet right-footed strike whistling past the left-hand upright. In the 14th minute, an MK trialist was well-positioned to steal Wabo’s reverse pass as it looked set to release Ba.
However, with only a quarter-of-an-hour played, Southend took the lead. This time Ba was the creator, outpacing his marker down the right wing before centring the ball for Wabo. The young striker made no mistake as he slid onto the ball to divert it into the roof of the net.
Five minutes later he almost turned provider, but Batlokwa smashed narrowly wide after galloping onto a pinpoint pass. Blues were enjoying their best spell of the match, but midway through the opening period they had a narrow escape when Rasulo’s free-kick from the edge of the ‘D’ was swept into the side-netting. Even the stadium’s goal celebration music had started to sound, although MK’s delight was short-lived.
The hosts suddenly grew in belief, and Bishop did well to remain alert and save from Rasulo after Nombe had nodded the ball into his path at the far post. On the half-hour, Harry Kyprianou was beaten in the air by Nombe, but he recovered quickly and apprehended his opponent before shepherding him away from goal.
Blues responded by going on the attack themselves, and a confident Gard strode past two tackles undeterred in the 34th minute before slipping the ball into the path of Ba down the inside-left channel. He cut back onto his right foot before seeing his well-struck-shot parried out by the goalkeeper.
Tom Clifford then sent a 30-yard free-kick over the crossbar before Nico Cotton’s side-footed finish from eight yards out was blocked by a defender. Blues were dealt another warning that the tie was not settled, however, on the stroke of half-time when a booming goal-kick was sent inches over by Rasulo with a dipping half-volley.
Wabo again went close early in the second half when he twisted and turned in the penalty area to engineer some space, but he found his shot charged down at close-quarters. Thereafter MK enjoyed perhaps their best period of the match, during which they went perilously close to equalising.
On 52 minutes the homesters struck the woodwork through the dangerous Rasulo. There appeared to be little threat when he picked up the ball a little way in from the right touchline, but his effort was arrowed against the base of the left-hand post with Bishop beaten, Three minutes later full-back Joe Evans sent an attempt from a similar distance screaming across the six-yard box,
Any anxiety was swiftly snuffed out by Wabo, who contributed his 12th competitive U23s goal of the campaign to double Southend’s advantage. Again he linked up well with Ba, exchanging passes as he entered the penalty area before assessing his options and electing to steer his shot into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
That sumptuous finish was almost followed by a third goal on the hour when he latched onto a Ba through-ball and lashed a shot marginally over before he again went close on 77 minutes when his glancing header from a Batlokwa corner bounced inches wide of the far post.
Blues were in control of the match by that stage, although Clifford did have to make a good challenge on the edge of the penalty area to stop Nombe from getting a shot away. Michael Klass, returning from injury, Emile Acquah and Eren Kinali were brought on, with Wabo – to warm applause – one of those withdrawn as Blues ran down the clock.
There were to be no late scares in the three additional minutes at the end of the match, and Gard stepped up to receive the trophy in front of his exuberant squad to crown a fine season for the club’s Academy.
Southend United U23s: Nathan Bishop, Rob Howard, Tom Clifford, Joe Bedford, Sonny Coutts, Harry Kyprianou, Renei Batlokwa, Lewis Gard (Eren Kinali, 88), Amadou Ba, Norman Wabo (Emile Acquahm 85), Nico Cotton (Michael Klass, 66). Substitutes not used: Josh Bexon, Miles Mitchell-Nelson.
Goals: Wabo (15, 57).
Cautioned: Bedford (33, foul tackle).