Southend United U18s were knocked out of the EFL Youth Alliance Cup by AFC Wimbledon after a narrow 2-1 defeat at Boots & Laces on Saturday morning.
Blues fielded five schoolboys from the kick-off, with another two introduced as substitutes during the game, and in some cases members of the squad gave up over three years to their opponents. Ultimately it was a brace from Ayoub Assal during the opening 20 minutes of the tie that proved decisive in the final result, despite Bobby Unwin pulling a goal back on the stroke of half-time.
In the continued absence of regular skipper Sam Brogan, first-year scholar Jimmy Wallace wore the captain’s armband for the third consecutive match, and he felt proud to perform the role:
“Despite being a first-year, I feel that I’m more than capable of doing the job. I think I’ve done quite well so far,” he said.
“It’s good to be captain of the team for a couple of games, but it was a tough match on Saturday as we had a really young team. I thought they all did well, and we were unlucky not to get a result.”
“The youngsters that have come in have got a lot of confidence, but we’ve got to do a good job of talking to them and encouraging them during the game. They’ve played well and I think they’ve improved the squad at times.”
“I’m honoured to wear the skipper’s armband. It’s been good. I was captain throughout my U16s season, but I was with the U18s quite a lot. I feel like I’m a good leader on the pitch. I like to encourage players – especially the younger ones – and I want everyone to do the best that they can, so I will help them do that,” he added.
Youth team coach Danny Heath made just one change to the starting line-up as Louie Arrowsmith replaced first-year flanker Demaray Anyadike in the team. There were few chances in the opening exchanges, although there were signs that the Dons were concerned by Southend’s attacking prowess when captain Archie Proctor was cautioned eight minutes in for protesting about an assistant referee’s decision.
Wimbledon managed to take the lead in the 13th minute with a swift counter-attack. Dylan Adjei-Hursey burst into the penalty area and Ergis Shala was adjudged to have clipped the winger from behind. The referee pointed to the spot – before booking Blues defender Ahmet Biler for his remonstrations – and Assal slammed the penalty into the roof of Callum Taylor’s net.
The visitors sensed the opportunity to double their lead quickly, and Taylor made an impressive block with his legs to divert the ball out for a corner before Adjei-Hursey and Issac Olaniyan combined to set up Assal from the ensuing flag-kick, with the forward drilling his strike into the side-netting.
With just 18 minutes on the clock, Wimbledon extended their advantage. This time Assal found space on the left-hand side of the penalty area and his ferocious finish appeared to take a deflection off Biler as it nestled in the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
The away team had triumphed 3-0 in a league fixture between the teams just a fortnight earlier, but a young Blues line-up showed spirit as they attempted to fight their way back into the contest. Goalkeeper Matthew Cox had to sprint off his line to clear from the toecaps of Kenny Coker in the 21st minute, and shortly afterwards he was called into action to claim Coker’s cross after a neat interchange on the left with Arrowsmith.
Arrowsmith also dragged a long-range effort wide of the left-hand upright and, when Wimbledon did attack in response, they found that their efforts were directed off target. Issac Ogundere nodded wide from Huseyin Biler’s right-wing cross and Troy Chaibi stabbed off-target from another Biler delivery.
Southend managed to halve the deficit in stoppage time through Unwin. The winger had earlier curled into Cox’s gloves after Harrison Clayden had won the ball in midfield, but when Jaden Crowhurst’s stylish turn led to Biler being released, he made no mistake from the resultant left-wing cross. Unwin took a touch and then arrowed a finish inside the bottom left-hand corner of the net from an acute angle.
Wallace was impressed by the side’s determination: “We didn’t start at our best during the first fifteen minutes, but as the game went on we started to build our confidence up again and in the second half it was a battle. We tried to get through it, and the desire was there, but we couldn’t quite get the result,” he said.
“Wimbledon are a physical side. We know that, and we know they’re a good side to come up against, so to come back and get it to 2-1 isn’t too bad, but we could’ve got more from the game.”
The second period showcased that commitment; Crowhurst and Kwabena Baffour-Akoto Yeboah fought for the ball in midfield before Ergis Shala smashed over from distance, and a long-range Unwin strike cannoned into a defender after the ball had been worked into his path by Clayden and Crowhurst.
Heath made a positive substitution by introducing forward Adetayo Adedoja for Arrowsmith on the hour, but Wimbledon retained a threat and Assal drew a smart stop from Taylor, who had anticipated well to narrow the striker’s angle, and Biler also hooked a left-wing cross out of the path of Chaibi.
The match appeared to lean further in Southend’s favour with 20 minutes remaining when Assal was dismissed for obtaining a second yellow card inside an eleven-minute spell, and Heath threw on U15s midfielder Mo Amir for his debut in place of Yeboah to try and take advantage.
However, Wimbledon managed the game well, even with ten men, and stifled the Shrimpers’ intent. Indeed, Chaibi could have made the game safe when he nodded over from a free-kick, and Taylor made an outstanding save one-on-one in stoppage time to deny a substitute, but at the other end the best Blues could muster was an Amir effort that flew over from the edge of the penalty area deep into stoppage time.
It was a frustrating conclusion to the match, but Wallace managed to take some positives from the day: “Playing against more experienced players I want to learn from it. I find it good to learn and it does make it harder for me, but also it’s good because if I play well against them I know I’m doing well,” he claimed.
“I’ve played quite a lot of U18s football, and I feel comfortable at that level. I’ve got to try and help the players through it and help the players on the pitch.”
“I’m looking to push into the U23s; I’ve got to keep on pushing. I know at the start of the season I could’ve been much better, but now I’m getting back to my good ways and hopefully I’ll get my chance. To play for the first team would be more than unbelievable. When I get my chance hopefully I’ll be ready to take it.”
Southend United U18s: Callum Taylor, Harrison Clayden (Reiss Chandler, 68), Ahmet Biler, Jaden Crowhurst, Jimmy Wallace, Ergis Shala, Bobby Unwin, Kwabena Baffour-Akoto Yeboah (Mo Amir, 74), Kenny Coker, Tommy Lambourne, Louie Arrowsmith (Adetayo Adedoja, 60). Substitute not used: Jamie Grossart.
Goals: Unwin (45+1).
Cautioned: Biler (13, dissent), Lambourne (68, dissent).