Southend United U23s were held to a goalless draw by Luton Town at Boots & Laces in their latest Central League South Division encounter.
Central defender Rob Kiernan completed an hour alongside fellow injury returnees Harry Bunn and Luke Hyam in midfield ahead of Saturday’s League One encounter against Barnsley as Kevin Maher’s side kept their first clean sheet of the 2018/19 campaign.
Norman Wabo is another to have been involved in the first-team squad recently, and it was the exciting forward who was involved from the outset as he tested Luton goalkeeper Marek Stech inside the opening sixty seconds. The Academy product rode two challenges, including one inside the area, before forcing the custodian to make a fine stop.
The visiting shotstopper was called into action again in the ninth minute when Renei Batlokwa located Charlie Kelman with a through-ball and the 17-year-old’s left-footed effort was impressively repelled, although by that time Connor Tomlinson had also gone close with an effort for the Hatters.
A foul on Wabo presented Tom Clifford with the opportunity to showcase his set-piece prowess in the 12th minute, but his free-kick was directed straight into the defensive wall. The remainder of the opening period saw little in the way of goalmouth action, with the greatest excitement reserved for the impromptu introduction of a dog, which was eventually escorted from the field of play by Bunn.
Indeed, the next clear-cut opportunity did not arrive until the final minute of the first half, when attacker Harry Phillips fashioned an opening out of nothing, only to see his strike deflected out for a corner.
It would take ten minutes of play in the second half for either side to create a chance, but when it did Stech proved to be a magnet for Kelman’s shot. The first-year forward was picked out by Clifford’s excellent pass and took the ball in his stride before ghosting past a defender, but his well-struck attempt was impressively saved.
Three minutes later Bunn was denied by the gloveman before the action switched to the opposite end, where Smith replicated the heroics of his opposite number by making an outstanding reaction stop from Drew Richardson after Blues had failed to clear the ball.
Shortly after the hour mark Kiernan, Bunn and Hyam were withdrawn, with youth team captain Sam Knock and third-years Zak Pianim and Eren Kinali their replacements. Knock immediately forced Smith into action as he had to pick up a back-pass but, despite Tomlinson picking out Jonas Kalonda’s run with a quick-thinking free-kick, he sliced his shot wide.
The game began to open up as the fixture entered its final twenty minutes. Wabo was presented with a superb chance to break the deadlock in the 72nd minute from Kinali’s pass, but he scuffed his attempt past the left-hand upright before Rob Howard was called into action in the Blues penalty area to divert Josh Boorn’s effort away from goal and out for a corner.
With a quarter-of-an-hour remaining Kinali’s centre found Batlokwa, who miskicked and gave Stech the opportunity to save. Seconds later the Botswanan-born midfielder made a better connection at the end of a Harry Phillips run, but on this occasion he blazed high and wide.
There were still ten minutes left when Wabo was fouled out on the right flank and Phillips sent the ball into the area, with Miles Mitchell-Nelson nodding over. The second-year scholar was swiftly in position at the opposite end to clear Josh Neufville’s dangerous cross, and Luton crafted another chance in the 87th minute when Tomlinson met a Josh Peck corner but headed inches over.
However, it was the hosts that almost snatched the points in the final seconds from a pair of Phillips corners. On both occasions the aerial efforts, from Pianim and Knock, were sent over and the teams had to settle for a share of the spoils. Next week Blues U23s are scheduled to travel to Forest Green Rovers.
Southend United U23s: Ted Smith, Rob Howard, Tom Clifford, Luke Hyam (Zak Pianim, 62), Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Rob Kiernan (Sam Knock, 62), Renei Batlokwa, Harry Bunn (Eren Kinali, 62), Charlie Kelman (Amadou Ba, 70), Norman Wabo, Harry Phillips. Substitute not used: Josh Bexon.
Cautioned: Hyam (48, delaying the restart of play).