Central defender Harry Lennon continued his return from a toe injury, whilst wingers Michael Kightly and Stephen McLaughlin were also named in Kevin Maher’s starting line-up, but Blues could not contain a Dons line-up featuring Southend Academy product Mitch Pinnock and towering centre-forward James Hanson after a competitive first hour.
Maher admitted it was a good experience for the youngsters in his squad: “We’ve got to learn from it, and I think it’s good for the players to be exposed to that,” he said. “It’s the real life of football and it’s what it’s like at league level. Playing in the U23s is brilliant, but sometimes it’s not 100% realistic to what they’re going to come up against and I think it was today with James Hanson up top and it was a really good test for us.”
Blues had the first chance of the game in the seventh minute after Norman Wabo had won a corner. Kightly delivered the flag-kick into the penalty area and Dons goalkeeper Tom King dropped the ball at the feet of Taylor Curran, who blasted over. Wabo then tested King after a quarter-of-an-hour, drawing a good save from the Millwall loanee after collecting a quick Kightly throw-in.
It took 25 minutes for the hosts to force a save from Nathan Bishop in the Blues goal as Pinnock half-volleyed into the 19-year-old’s gloves, and the wide-man seemed poised to test Bishop again a couple of moments later until Shrimpers skipper Rob Howard pinched the ball from his toecaps.
Howard then featured in an attacking role in the 33rd minute as he controlled a long cross-field pass by Michael Klass, touching the ball inside for McLaughlin to send a fierce strike wide. Despite that opening, Wimbledon were warming to their task and Bishop was called into action twice in quick succession as he grabbed a Terell Thomas shot before gathering Tyler Burey’s header.
With four minutes to go before the interval, Blues had a golden opportunity to score as Isaac Hutchinson seized on a misplaced pass in midfield before prodding the ball through to Kightly. He could have elected to shoot, but instead he fizzed a centre to the far post where Wabo was inches away from connecting.
It proved to be a costly moment for the visitors as the Dons went straight up the other end to take the lead. Pinnock controlled a raking pass on the left flank and crossed for Hanson, who nodded down into the path of Alfie Egan. The youngster took a touch before rifling his finish beyond Bishop.
Maher believed his team had been the better team to that point: “I was pleased with the first half and how we played. They had a lot of senior players, and we had two or three with us, but I thought we created the two best chances of the first half, so to concede when we did was disappointing,” he remarked.
Blues had a chance to equalise within two minutes of the start of the second half. McLaughlin won a header for Hutchinson, and his first-time back-heel opened up the home defence for McLaughlin. The Irishman’s composure deserted him, however, and he smashed wildly off-target.
Kightly saw an effort charged down from a Wabo lay-off shortly afterwards, but Wimbledon re-established control and Anthony Hartigan sent a searing shot inches over before Egan drilled an attempt inches wide of the left-hand post. It was at this stage that Maher withdrew Kightly, Lennon and McLaughlin, with Emile Acquah, Eren Kinali and Miles Mitchell-Nelson replacing them.
In the 64th minute, Wimbledon extended their advantage. Hartigan, who was named the EFL League One Apprentice of the Year ahead of Dru Yearwood last season, surged forward before finding Jack Rudoni, and he tracked across the face of the penalty area before steering his shot into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
Within sixty seconds it was 3-0 with Burey scoring the goal of the game. The midfielder took his opportunity to pick a spot from the right-hand apex of the penalty area and left Bishop no chance by selecting the very top left-hand corner to earn applause from the smattering of spectators present.
Wimbledon added a fourth goal with a little over a quarter-of-an-hour remaining as Pinnock delivered a right-wing corner onto the head of captain Will Nightingale, who glanced his aerial effort into the bottom left-hand corner.
Pinnock almost repeated the feat seven minutes later with a left-wing flag-kick that Nightingale planted the wrong side of the left-hand upright, and the winger nearly netted himself when Bishop pushed away his curling 22-yard free-kick. Hutchinson and Wabo went close for Blues towards the end of the encounter, but there was to be no consolation.
Maher was disappointed with the final result: “To concede four goals is always disappointing and the goals were too easy. We know the players can play football; it’s about how they can impose themselves on a game like that where it’s a physical game and their footballing ability has got to take over and dominate with the ball. They’ve got to make the ball do the work and I think we fell away from that after the first half,” he concluded.
Southend United U23s: Nathan Bishop, Rob Howard, Tom Clifford, Michael Klass (Jon Benton, 70), Harry Lennon (Miles Mitchell-Nelson, 58), Taylor Curran, Michael Kightly (Emile Acquah, 58), Renei Batlokwa, Norman Wabo, Issac Hutchinson, Stephen McLaughlin (Eren Kinali, 58).
Substitute not used: Josh Bexon.