Southend United U18s reached the area semi-finals of the EFL Youth Alliance Cup for the first time since the 2010/11 season with a superb 3-1 victory over AFC Bournemouth on Saturday.
Blues had won six of their last seven matches going into the south coast encounter, but they faced a difficult proposition in the form of Alan Connell’s Cherries, who were unbeaten in ten competitive games themselves having enjoyed eight victories in that sequence.
Their task was made all the more difficult by Jake Scrimshaw’s second-minute finish, but Blues stuck to their game-plan well and two second-half goals by Charlie Kelman sandwiched a sublime Terrell Egbri volley to earn the squad a place in the last four of the southern section of the competition alongside Cambridge United, Exeter City and Northampton Town.
“It was very good,” said Lead Youth Development Phase coach Danny Heath after the match. “In the first ten minutes or so we didn’t play as well as we could and our passing was sloppy. We misplaced too many passes and we were too open and they got a quick goal, but full credit to the boys because they stuck at it and kept working hard.”
“When you keep working hard and trying to do the right things, which we did, you will grow into the game. We started to play how we can and that was pleasing,” added Heath, who took charge of the team for the fixture. He awarded a first start to goalkeeper Callum Taylor in place of Harry Seaden, with schoolboy centre-half Jimmy Wallace stepping in for Miles Mitchell-Nelson at the back.
The home side flew out the blocks in the opening stages, and they took the lead inside the opening 120 seconds of the tie. A left-sided through-ball was controlled by in-form forward Scrimshaw, and he held off the attentions of Wallace to guide his shot beyond Taylor.
A couple of minutes later Scrimshaw was found by Christian Saydee, but he failed to steady himself in front of goal and slashed wide. With the match remaining in its infancy, Taylor was then forced to grab a 20-yard strike from a Cherries midfielder as Blues struggled to get out of their own half.
Slowly but surely, on a crisp afternoon at the Canford Park Arena in Dorset, Southend began to impose themselves on the match. O’Shane Stewart strode through midfield to deliver the visitors’ first attempt on goal in the seventh minute, and shortly afterwards skipper Sam Knock hooked over from Ide Osimeh’s right-wing corner.
Kelman volleyed into the gloves of Callum Ward in the 13th minute and, although Reiss Chandler did well to crowd out an attacker from a Scrimshaw centre, Blues were back on the attack again four minutes later when Kelman laid the ball off to Rush and his right-footed shot lacked the purchase to trouble Ward.
The Cherries custodian after grasped an effort from Freddy Eastwood Jnr as Osimeh and Stewart proved that Blues could compete against their opponents with some good link-up play on the left-hand side, but the teenage Shrimpers were indebted to Knock in the 21st minute for keeping them in touch when he cleared the ball off the goal-line after Scrimshaw had chipped it over Taylor.
Heath believed the contribution of the defence in the opening period was crucial to the result: “When you are down in the game and you are losing, I think the most important thing is that you stay in the game, and again all credit to the boys because they definitely did that. I think it was a bit unjust not to come in at half-time at least drawing the game and with a goal on the scoresheet.”
Taylor held a fierce Scrimshaw strike five minutes after the striker’s previous attempt, and Knock and Rush both made important blocks before a shot was dragged wide, but Heath was able to boast of his team’s attacking prowess as they posed a constant threat to their hosts during the final quarter-of-an-hour of the first half.
Rush – who has contributed 13 goals for the U18s and U23s combined this term – was denied another in the 31st minute after meeting Egbri’s right-wing cross at the near-post and seeing his point-blank side-footed shot repelled by Ward, and within seconds Kelman had curled inches over from an Osimeh pass.
The excitement continued with Rush sending Ward scrambling in the 34th minute after another strong run from Stewart and Bournemouth captain Brennan Camp then made a vital intervention besides the right-hand post to cut out another Egbri centre ahead of the expectant Rush.
Heath rallied the troops at the interval: “We gave the boys credit and praise for persevering and believing in the game-plan which we had worked on during the week, and the message was to be a little bit calmer and get some quality with our passing. We spoke about areas that we could exploit Bournemouth on the regain to hurt them and moving the ball quicker into those areas to get the chances to score, which we did,” he revealed.
Whereas the hosts had been quick to attack in the first half, it was Southend who dominated from the outset in the second period. Jon Benton curled over immediately after the restart, then Osimeh pulled his shot wide from distance before crossing towards Rush, who headed off-target when unmarked in the 49th minute.
Two minutes later, Blues were level. Egbri had led an attack down the right-hand side, but he was upended just inside the Bournemouth half and the free-kick was floated into the chest of Rush. He controlled the ball before passing to Kelman, who clinically fired into the bottom left-hand corner from around ten yards out.
The sides traded shots as Taylor saved from Saydee and Benton drew another stop from Ward on the hour, but the frenetic pace of the action meant another goal was likely, and it arrived courtesy of Egbri, who netted for the fourth consecutive game. He benefitted from Eastwood’s dazzling wing play, with the first-year scholar crossing to the far post for the wide man to shape his body and send a controlled volley into the opposite corner.
Four minutes later Blues had made it 3-1 with Kelman scoring his tenth youth team goal in just his eleventh start. The United States youth international persevered to twice win the ball in midfield before beating the advancing Ward to the loose ball and sending a delightful lob over the goalkeeper from just outside the penalty area.
From that point it was a case of Southend trying to manage the game and prevent Bournemouth gaining any opportunities to exert pressure on them. The Cherries had twice knocked Blues out of this competition in the past three seasons, but if anything it appeared that the away side might extend their lead as Knock narrowly failed to steer home a deep free-kick.
Taylor made another smart stop from Saydee, but he saved his best moment for the 83rd minute when his outstretched right foot managed to divert Scrimshaw’s goal-bound effort past the left-hand upright. The Northern Ireland U16s international shotstopper had stood tall to impose himself on the forward, and it maintained Southend’s two-goal cushion.
Egbri hit the outside of the right post with an effort from an acute angle shortly afterwards, but in the final minute of the regulation ninety Knock emulated centre-back partner Wallace earlier in the match by stealing the ball from Scrimshaw’s toecaps as he moved towards the penalty area. Kelman was denied a hat-trick in stoppage time when his shot was charged down, but Blues had already done enough to please their coach.
“The boys showed great understanding of that; it’s nice to win the game, but the pleasing thing for their development long-term, to push onto the next level, whether that’s with the U23s or with the first-team, is to show an understanding tactically of how to play against your opponents in and out of possession, which they did.”
“The message to the boys is to enjoy it, but they should now be focussing on Leyton Orient. They have set their standard in this match, and they now have to show that consistency in their performance and do everything they can away from the club to get themselves ready to start training again and preparing for Thursday.”
Southend United U18s: Callum Taylor, Reiss Chandler, Ide Osimeh, O’Shane Stewart (Ben Dabbs, 84), Sam Knock, Jimmy Wallace, Terrell Egbri, Jon Benton, Charlie Kelman, Matt Rush, Freddy Eastwood Jnr (Sam Brogan, 78). Substitutes not used: Jamie George, Issa Mpangea, Ergys Shala.
Goals: Kelman (51, 66), Egbri (62).
Cautioned: Osimeh (82, foul tackle).