Southend United U18s ended AFC Wimbledon’s unbeaten start to the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign to return to the top of the table.
Bobby Unwin scored his fourth goal of the season with a sumptuous free-kick shortly before half-time and, after Ayoub Assal had equalised for the Dons early in the second half, Freddy Eastwood netted the winner with a little over 20 minutes remaining to hoist Blues above their opponents and Oxford United.
There were three changes to the team that had lost 3-2 at Swindon Town in midweek as Ide Osimeh, O’Shane Stewart and Charlie Kelman dropped out of the squad. Trialist Richard Taylor moved into midfield, with Miles Mitchell-Nelson partnering Sam Knock in defence and Ahmet Biler coming into the side at full-back. Unwin replaced Kelman in an attacking role.
The hosts made the more imposing start, and David Fisher found the gloves of Harry Seaden inside three minutes before Assal nodded wide of the left-hand upright from a left-wing cross. Blues created their first opening in the ninth minute when leading goalscorer Matt Rush robbed a defender and darted into the penalty area before firing narrowly over.
Eastwood also prodded wide of the left-hand post from the edge of the penalty area after a good high press from the visitors, but the Dons retained a threat on the break and, just moments after Seaden had gathered a Zach Robinson strike, the same player fired into the side-netting on the quarter-of-an-hour mark.
At the other end Mitchell-Nelson rose highest to nod a header into the goalkeeper’s gloves from Eastwood’s free-kick but Blues were increasingly being forced onto the back foot and, in the 24th minute, Robinson combined with Assal, who swept his shot inches over the crossbar.
Seaden did well to claim a couple of crosses before Biler and Knock were both called upon to head out deliveries into the Blues penalty area. In the 35th minute Southend weren’t able to deal with a Wimbledon corner, but Jack Madelin’s header bounced across the face of goal and out of the reach of an outstretched boot.
Despite having to weather that storm, the visitors began to impose themselves in the closing stages of the opening period and Dons goalkeeper Cox did well to palm out a 38th minute Eastwood strike before Terrell Egbri fired the follow-up over. Seconds later Unwin delivered a dangerous left-wing centre that Madelin sliced out for a corner under pressure.
Finally that pressure told. Eastwood’s skilful run was ended with a foul just outside the penalty area and the free-kick was located perfectly for the left-foot of Unwin. The schoolboy picked his spot and curled the dead ball around the defensive wall and into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
The half ended with Egbri drawing a fine save from Cox, who managed to turn his stinging 25-yard drive over the bar, but the second period saw Southend make the worst possible start. Three minutes after the restart miscommunication between Knock and Seaden allowed a long ball to be looped in by Assal.
Unwin smashed over in response, but Southend were temporarily rocked and a Fisher cross narrowly eluded Robinson before Assal angled a finish across the face of goal. Benas Vaivada was brought on in midfield, with Taylor moving back into a central defensive role.
The switch reaped dividends. Sam Brogan was pulled back, giving Eastwood an opportunity to line-up a free-kick, which was deflected into the gloves of Cox. Shortly afterwards a flowing move involved Biler, Unwin, Egbri and Brogan to Rush. His strike was charged down and Egbri sent a cross inches out of the reach of Eastwood.
The winning goal then arrived in the 68th minute. The goal was created by Rush, who used his body brilliantly to roll the ball into the path of Eastwood. The first-year scholar rode one challenge before steadying himself and slotting past Cox to make it 2-1.
Wimbledon immediately sought a second equaliser but, despite two attackers getting into space, the eventual shot was directed over. Then, just seconds later, Brogan read play brilliantly to spot a player over at the far post and clear out for a corner whilst facing his own goal.
Rush dragged a 25-yard strike wide of the goal with a little over a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, and Blues briefly enjoyed a spell of possession deep in the Dons half. However, with time running out, Osew shot wide after Wimbledon became encamped in Southend territory.
Blues were throwing themselves into every challenge to retain their lead, although a left-wing centre was almost converted in stoppage time. However, the back-line stood firm and Southend were able to celebrate a fifth victory from nine Merit League One fixtures. There is no fixture over the Easter weekend, but second-placed Oxford United are the visitors to Boots & Laces on Saturday 27th April.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Reiss Chandler, Ahmet Biler, Richard Taylor, Sam Knock (Benas Vaivada, 59), Miles Mitchell-Nelson (Jimmy Wallace, 90+2), Terrell Egbri, Sam Brogan, Matt Rush, Freddy Eastwood, Bobby Unwin. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Issa Mpenga.
Goals: Unwin (41), Eastwood (68).
Cautioned: Taylor (56, foul tackle).