Southend United’s youth team coach, Dave Huzzey, was “immensely proud” of his squad after they lost narrowly to Exeter City in the area final of the EFL Youth Alliance Cup.
Blues equalled their best-ever run in the competition by reaching the Southern Section Final against the Grecians, and they took the lead in the contest five minutes into the second half when Miles Mitchell-Nelson nodded home Ide Osimeh’s free-kick.
However, Exeter levelled within two minutes through forward Theo Simpson, and they claimed victory in the tie when James Dodd converted a 78th-minute penalty. Southend threw everything at their opponents in a bid to try and force a shoot-out, but the visitors to Boots & Laces held on for a 2-1 win.
“It was like a final with two good teams cancelling each other out and not giving each other a yard,” said Huzzey afterwards. “The game was very quick and the wind made it a spectacle in terms of the speed of the game. I feel it may be a bit of a learning curve for us in making sure that we do the basics right because you almost can’t affect anything else in the wind.”
“We had to make sure we got goal-side of our men, make sure we won the second ball and time our movement right. All of those things were important, and in the end that’s what undone us. It’s a shame because I’m immensely proud, and I wasn’t negative towards the boys at the end,” he added.
Huzzey was able to recall Harry Seaden and Matt Rush from their work experience loans at Great Wakering Rovers for the game, with Callum Taylor and Ahmet Biler dropping to the substitutes’ bench. Charlie Kelman’s continued involvement with the first-team, and a fractured foot for Jon Benton, meant that Mekhi Hyde was drafted in as a trialist in an attacking role.
On a bitterly cold morning at the club’s training ground, there was an even opening to the contest as the teams adapted to windy conditions. Exeter fashioned the first chance when Sam Knock lost out to Reiss Taylor-Randle in midfield and the winger advanced to the edge of the penalty area before shooting straight at Seaden.
Six minutes later City went close again when Jack Stafford fired over following a right-wing corner, but Southend responded through Rush, who beat goalkeeper Felix Norman to Freddy Eastwood’s free-kick and glanced a header narrowly wide of the right-hand post.
Eastwood, who had put Blues ahead against Cambridge United in the Southern Section Semi-Final, then saw an effort deflected wide from Terrell Egbri’s right-wing cross after a quarter-of-an-hour, before the balance of play shifted again towards the away side.
A marginal decision went against Seaden when he was penalised for carrying the ball outside his penalty area, but the second-year shotstopper redeemed himself by brilliantly tipping Dodd’s free-kick against the left-hand upright.
Within sixty seconds the gloveman was at it again, stretching to his left to keep out Simpson’s skidding strike from the left-hand edge of the penalty area. And, in the 35th minute, Seaden made another important intervention as he gathered a curling Taylor-Randle attempt after the winger had been held up by Ben Dabbs.
Rush and Eastwood struggled to impose their attacking play on three tall and strong central defenders for the Devonian outfit, although a clever pass by Rush almost engineered an opening for Egbri in the 41st minute. Norman read the situation and cleared the ball ahead of the winger, who went to ground but saw his appeals for a penalty waved away.
“I thought it was a good game for the boys to be involved in. It was a good occasion and the first-half performance was good. I thought we needed to be a little bit braver in terms of trying to get the ball down and play, but with the wind as it was and the opponents as they were, the game was very quick,” claimed Huzzey.
Blues certainly started the second period at pace, and they earned the lead in the 50th minute through Mitchell-Nelson’s fourth goal of the season. Osimeh delivered the ball, driving it over the Exeter defence, and the second-year centre-half timed his run to perfection to head beyond Norman.
Unfortunately the hosts were immediately pegged back as Exeter responded quickly. A left-wing run ended with a superb cross to the near post and Simpson got in front of his marker to divert the ball into the top right-hand corner of the net.
“When we went ahead, I felt we deserved it and we started the second half quite well,” Huzzey remarked. “We had long periods of pinning them into their own half, but they quickly got a goal back to make it 1-1 and then they got the penalty, and I think we’ve been undone by the fine lines of football. Unfortunately, we’ve come off losing, but I’m so proud that we got this far.”
Having seen their momentum immediately stalled, Southend had to build again, and it looked like their best chance of success would come from set-pieces. Osimeh curled over in the 54th minute and then delivered a 71st-minute corner for Mitchell-Nelson. He glanced it into the path of skipper Knock, who was inches away from connecting with a spectacular diving header.
By that point Issa Mpenga had been introduced in place of Hyde, but Blues then struggled to get the ball forward for the striker, and instead Seaden had to be at his best to palm away Charlie Lawrence’s 25-yard exocet.
Mitchell-Nelson then cleared the ball off the line when it appeared as though a looping right-wing cross might drop in, but Blues were finally undone twelve minutes from time when Eastwood fouled Joe Belsten as he attempted to win the ball in the penalty area. Seaden guessed correctly as he tried to save Dodd’s spot-kick, but he couldn’t prevent it from finding the bottom right-hand corner.
Exeter’s Simpson then cushioned a header wide as the Grecians almost wrapped up the win, but instead they had to weather a late flurry from the teenage Shrimpers, who sent Knock up front in a desperate attempt to force penalties. Unfortunately there was no late drama, and City go on to face Bury or Wigan Athletic in the national final.
“Exeter are a very good side and, to be fair to Chad [Gribble] who I know quite well, he’s got them really well-drilled. We knew they were going to be as good as they were. They were very, very professional and I think that’s a credit to the coaching staff at Exeter. They were good, but so were we, and the fine lines in football proved crucial,” said Huzzey.
“If we could’ve held out for a bit longer than two minutes after we went ahead, we could’ve got back into the swing of things and dominated the game. Another thing would’ve been taking some chances when we were on top. I thought we had long spells where we were on top of the game without really threatening their goal and that was key.”
“I’m disappointed, I’m frustrated and I’m upset, but more than anything I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, both with players playing for the first-team and also putting in a performance like that in the area final. It’s a credit to the football club,” he concluded.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Ben Dabbs, Ide Osimeh, Sam Brogan, Sam Knock, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Terrell Egbri, O’Shane Stewart, Mekhi Hyde (Issa Mpenga, 71), Matt Rush, Freddy Eastwood. Substitute not used: Callum Taylor, Ahmet Biler, Bobby Unwin, Jimmy Wallace.
Goal: Mitchell-Nelson (50).
Cautioned: Hyde (32, foul tackle), Egbri (67, foul tackle), Seaden (90+1, adopting an aggressive attitude).