Southend United U18s started the new season with a 4-2 defeat against Luton Town, despite first-half goals by Freddy Eastwood and Cameron Brown having given them the advantage after 17 minutes.
Ultimately defensive shortcomings proved decisive for the teenage Shrimpers as they conceded three times from set-pieces in Danny Heath’s first game in full-time charge of the youth team, but there was enough in the performance to suggest that Blues will be competitive in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference this term.
Blues were led for the first time by Sam Brogan, one of only five second-year scholars in the starting line-up. Although that might hint at a lack of experience, only midfielder Cameron Brown and centre-back Ergis Shala had not previously started a game for the young Shrimpers.
It was Brown that had the honour of getting the 2019/20 season underway, and within seconds of the kick-off Southend had launched into their first attack as Alex Bragg’s throw was flicked into the path of Issa Mpenga. He squared for Brown eight yards out, but he failed to find the adequate connection to test to Luton defence.
The portents were good in the opening stages, with Reiss Chandler’s hanging right-wing cross knocked down by Bobby Unwin at the far post and the Hatters goalkeeper having to save at the feet of Brown, but Blues were rocked in the seventh minute when Chandler conceded a left-wing corner and the ball was directed to the back post. Tra Lucas was then on hand to fire a close-range finish beyond Callum Taylor.
Despite that setback, Southend continued to press on and the visitors responded within sixty seconds with a moment of solo magic from Freddy Eastwood. The second-year scholar, who notched 17 goals in his first full campaign with the youth team, tormented a defender before cutting back onto his left foot and drilling the ball into the opposite corner of the net from an almost impossible angle.
Corey Wilson combined with Lucas on the counter-attack at the other end in the 16th minute, but on this occasion the goalscorer lacked composure and smashed his finish over. That allowed Southend to establish an advantage for the first time just a minute later as Brown picked up possession on the right flank and floated the ball over the goalkeeper and into the far corner.
There may have been an element of fortune about the Shrimpers goal, but that lead was soon wiped out as Corey Wilson brought Luton level in the 21st minute. On the occasion a left-sided free-kick caused the danger, with another back-post delivery knocked down for the forward to rifle home from a few yards out.
Taylor did well to grab hold of a fierce strike midway through the opening period, but Blues looked to have moved into the ascendancy again when the Hatters took the lead for the second time. The goal came in the aftermath of a couple of openings at the opposite end as Unwin failed to test the goalkeeper with a header from an Eastwood cross and the winger then slid the ball into the custodian’s gloves after good work by Brown.
The go-ahead goal arrived in the 34th minute, and again it was Wilson that worked his way onto the scoresheet. On this occasion it was a long ball that caught the Blues back-line out. There was hesitancy between centre-backs Shala and Jimmy Wallace and goalkeeper Taylor and Wilson pounced, knocking the ball beyond the teenage gloveman before rolling it into an empty net.
Again Heath’s side responded well, and there were big shouts for a penalty to be awarded when Brown entered the penalty area and appeared to be shoved. He lost his balance and the goalkeeper was able to scoop up the loose ball. However, the half ended with Taylor sprinting off his line to save at the feet of Wilson.
First-year defender Tommy Davis replaced Shala at the interval, and Luton almost extended their advantage four minutes after the break when Taylor again burst off his goal-line and his attempted clearance ricocheted to a forward. Blues managed to get numbers back in defence and scramble the ball to safety.
For the next quarter-of-an-hour Southend put pressure on their hosts in search of a leveller. Mpenga tried his luck from 25 yards out, with the shot dribbling wide, and the powerful forward then held off a defender to drill the ball into the goalkeeper’s gloves at the near post in the 50th minute.
Excellent combination play by Alex Bragg, Oli Coker and Unwin then led to the winger crossing for Mpenga, who failed to get a meaningful shot away, allowing a Luton defender to clear. Unwin followed that up by going it alone, collecting a cross-field pass before cutting back onto his right foot and shooting over.
There was more impressive play from the away team in the 57th minute as Eastwood led a breakaway by searching out Mpenga. He offloaded to Brogan, who moved the ball on quickly to Unwin. By the time he centred into the penalty area Mpenga had arrived, but he narrowly failed to make contact with an aerial effort.
Then, when Mpenga was fouled 25 yards out, Unwin had an opportunity to conjure up some dead-ball magic, but his curling set-piece was easily gathered by the Luton goalkeeper. Those chances then came back to haunt Blues as Wilson completed his hat-trick midway through the second period, bundling home after a left-wing free-kick had been nodded into his path.
The introduction of first-years Tommy Lambourne and Damari Anyidike gave Southend some impetus again, but there were few opportunities after Wallace had failed to turn in Unwin’s knock-down from an Eastwood free-kick.
Lambourne attempted to head home an Unwin cross in the 84th minute, but he had too much to do from 15 yards out and the aerial attempt drifted wide. Unwin then crossed for Anyidike with four minutes remaining and he picked out Eastwood, who fired over on the turn, and the match ended with Chandler steering an effort wide after advancing through midfield.
Blues are next in action this Saturday when they host Peterborough United at Boots & Laces. Kick-off is at 11:00am.
Southend United U18s: Callum Taylor, Reiss Chandler, Alex Bragg, Sam Brogan, Ergis Shala (Tommy Davis, 46), Jimmy Wallace, Freddy Eastwood, Oli Coker, Issa Mpenga (Damari Anyidike, 81), Cameron Brown (Tommy Lambourne, 71), Bobby Unwin. Substitutes not used: Jamie Grossart, Ben Dabbs.
Goals: Freddy Eastwood (8), Cameron Brown (17).