Lead Youth Development Phase Coach Danny Heath saw plenty of positives as Southend United U18s completed their season with a 2-2 draw at Stevenage.
Heath helped Dave Huzzey in the dugout, as he has throughout an EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign that has seen Blues secure a top-half finish and register a record points tally, as well as maintaining a genuine title interest until the penultimate game of the season.
At Shephalbury Sports Academy two goals from Eren Kinali, on his 67th and final youth team appearance, bookended efforts from Harry Draper and a trialist to secure a share of the points: “I thought the first half was really good in possession from an attacking point of view," said Heath.
"We played through the thirds and, in the final third, created goalscoring opportunities. The only thing missing was sticking the ball in the back of the net more often. We said to the boys at half-time about maintaining their concentration and expecting Stevenage to come out of the blocks quickly.”
“We wanted to stay switched on, get a quick start and manage the game but they scored a quick goal and then went 2-1 up and I felt the boys persevered. They dug in, worked hard and got their reward with the second goal.”
Kinali, Matt Rush and Dan Humphreys returned to the starting line-up following the goalless draw with league leaders Exeter City, whilst O'Shane Stewart featured instead of Isaac Hutchinson. With Miles Mitchell-Nelson involved in the first-team squad, U15s centre back Jimmy Wallace partnered Sam Knock as well as being given the captain's armband.
“What a great experience for Jimmy. I thought he did well; it was a great learning curve for him, but he’s a great lad and he’s got a great attitude. He wants to learn and he wants to improve, and I thought he put in a good performance. You would not have guessed that he was an U15 playing in the U18s,” opined Heath.
Blues displayed a confidence in possession throughout the fixture, although there were occasions when they were caught out. In the fourth minute Knock lost the ball in the penalty area and Harry Seaden made a fine save to divert the ball into the side-netting before Draper dragged an effort wide sixty seconds later.
Blues received a massive let-off in the sixth minute when a Stevenage attacker rose unmarked at the near post to meet a corner, only to power his header wide of the upright, and the visitors then began to create opportunities of their own with Kinali forcing the goalkeeper into a mistake. The ball was cleared as far as Rush, who forced a parried stop before Terrell Egbri sent the rebound wide.
Jon Benton then drew a save from the Stevenage shotstopper before Seaden created gasps from the crowd in the eleventh minute with a spectacular intervention, reaching up towards the top left-hand corner to palm away a wickedly curling effort from 25 yards out. From the ensuing corner, Rob Howard was well-positioned to clear off the goal-line.
A sprawling save from Seaden was the pre-cursor to Southend taking the lead in the 24th minute. Egbri embarked on a left-wing run and, when he was tripped, Jon Benton's precise set-piece delivery was met by Kinali, who beat a defender to angle his header into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Blues wasted a good chance to double the lead shortly after the half-hour mark when Benton picked out Egbri's run and the winger's square pass was side-footed wide by Kinali at the far post and, after a Stevenage attempt was sent wide, Egbri then drilled the ball into the goalkeeper's gloves to finish a move started by Howard and Rush.
With five minutes remaining in the opening period Blues went close again, this time after Rush's step-over released Sewa Marah. He chipped the ball over the goalkeeper and, although it was drifting wide, Kinali retrieved and and sent a skidding shot agonisingly across the face of goal. Kinali also curled wide from the apex of the penalty area shortly afterwards, but there was still time for more drama before the break.
In the 42nd minute Seaden made another outstanding stop as he turned away a fierce left-footed strike before he later dropped on the ball as a left-wing centre was almost converted. The half finished with Howard making a well-timed challenge in the penalty area to keep the scoreline 1-0 at the interval.
Hutchinson replaced Stewart at half-time, but Blues had little opportunity to try out their attacking formation before Stevenage levelled. Draper was the scorer, gently lifting the ball over Seaden after being put clear by an intelligent flick on the edge of the penalty area.
Stevenage could have taken the lead from a corner in the 48th minute, but a header was directed off-target, whilst Southend had their own chances at the other end with Egbri firing over and Hutchinson seeing an effort partially charged down before the goalkeeper saved. On the hour leading goalscorer Emile Acquah replaced Egbri, and within seconds he had nodded a Benton corner wide.
Stevenage were thwarted by another good save by Seaden in the 63rd minute but, with 17 minutes remaining, the hosts took the lead. A free-kick was looped into the penalty area from a deep position and was knocked into the path of a trialist, who clinically dispatched the ball into the net on the turn to make it 2-1.
Seaden kept Blues in contention by denying a forward that had been put clean through, and a wonderful team goal hauled Southend level in the 83rd minute. Howard found Hutchinson on the left and he travelled in-field before passing to Marah. The powerful forward slipped the ball out to Kinali, who skilfully thrashed his 15th youth team goal into the top left-hand corner.
“The quality of the goal, with the build-up and possession and the finish was one of the best I’ve seen all year across all the age groups in the Academy, not only in our games programme but against Cat One and Cat Two clubs. I think it showed the quality the boys have got and what they can produce,” Heath claimed.
Both teams attempted to snatch a winner in the closing stages, with Acquah glancing a Benton free-kick wide and Seaden clambering across his goal to palm out a close-range finish. Then, in stoppage time, Acquah received the ball on the right bye-line and turned his marker.
A fairytale conclusion to the campaign beckoned as Marah screamed for a cut-back, but Acquah attempted to squeeze the ball past the goalkeeper at his near post and could only win a corner. By then another schoolboy had been introduced to the action in the form of Brad Green, and Heath was delighted that so many youngsters had been given an opportunity in the U18s at the end of a rewarding season.
“For Brad Green and Tommy Lambourne, being in and around it and in the squad and experiencing what it’s like in the U18s is good for them. Brad got on and he showed some good touches and discipline as a number 4 just to sit in and protect the two centre-halves,” he said.
“I’ve really enjoyed this year. I enjoy working alongside Dave; I learn off him as well, and I think we bounce off each other in terms of ideas about what things we’re going to look at and what each of us might say at half-time to the boys.”
“Dave will touch on the attacking side and I’ll look at the defending side and I think we have a really good working relationship. We’re always looking to make things better as a staff, and that will continue over the summer,” he concluded.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Rob Howard, O'Shane Stewart (Isaac Hutchinson, 46), Sam Knock, Jimmy Wallace, Eren Kinali, Jon Benton, Sewa Marah, Matt Rush (Brad Green, 90), Terrell Egbri (Emile Acquah, 59). Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Tommy Lambourne.
Goals: Kinali (24, 83).