Southend United U18s maintained their unbeaten start to the 2018/19 EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign with a 1-1 draw against Exeter City on Saturday...
Skipper Sam Knock gave Blues the lead midway through the opening period before Nelson Iseguan levelled shortly after the half-hour mark. Southend goalkeeper Harry Seaden made a string of fine saves to maintain parity leading up to half-time, but it was the Shrimpers that enjoyed the better chances after the interval, including a penalty that Freddy Eastwood sent over the crossbar.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey made two changes to the team that had defeated Peterborough United 2-1 the previous weekend as Knock moved back into defence in place of Jimmy Wallace and schoolboy Oli Coker took his midfield berth. Goalscorer Bobby Unwin was replaced by trialist Johnny Black in the starting line-up.
The teams had met a month previously in the area final of the EFL Youth Alliance Cup, with Exeter winning 2-1 on that occasion. Whilst that meeting exhibited many of the frenetic elements of knockout football, there was a more sedate opening to this encounter with the sides weighing up their options early on.
Despite that, Blues almost took the lead when Eastwood’s corner was nodded goalwards by Ide Osimeh. His aerial effort was parried out by custodian Felix Norman on the goal-line, and the grateful gloveman then clutched Black’s follow-up at his near post.
Three minutes later Osimeh worked hard alongside Eastwood to win possession in midfield, with the first-year scholar dragging a 20-yard attempt narrowly wide of the right-hand post. After 16 minutes Issa Mpenga saw his long-range effort deflected wide and, from the ensuing Eastwood corner, Miles Mitchell-Nelson planted a header into Norman’s gloves.
There was a warning for Blues in the 19th minute when Charlie Lawrence nodded an Iseguan cross wide at the far post, but the hosts were celebrating shortly afterwards when Knock opening the scoring. A driven Terrell Egbri free-kick was nodded back across goal by Mitchell-Nelson and Knock arrived with a diving header from five yards out to put the teenage Shrimpers in front.
It could have been 2-0 just seconds later when Mpenga warmed Norman’s gloves with a rasping 25-yard attempt that the shotstopper grasped at the second attempt, but instead the Grecians began to work their way back into the encounter and only good tracking by Egrbi meant than an Iseguan cross was cut out in the 29th minute.
Two minutes later Exeter had equalised. Theo Simpson had scored at the near post in the cup tie, and he ran across his marker again to flick Lawrence’s centre across the face of goal. Instead of finding the goal on this occasion, his touch was met by Iseguan at the far post, and he rifled the ball into the opposite corner to leave Seaden with no chance.
The goal clearly buoyed the visitors, who almost edged ahead in the 35th minute when a left-wing corner eluded everybody and travelled inches wide of the right-hand post. Seconds later Seaden made a superb save from Simpson, who had curled his shot around Ben Dabbs, palming the ball away from the right-hand corner of the net.
Less than a minute had passed when Seaden thwarted Simpson again, flinging himself to his left to turn a well-struck effort around the right-hand upright, and the goalkeeper continued his imperious form in the37th minute when he managed to change direction to push out a close-range finish from a corner.
Blues looked susceptible at this stage, and with seven minutes remaining before the break Seaden was forced to showcase his talent yet again as Simpson bore down on goal. The former England U17s custodian stood tall in the one-on-one situation before sticking out his left glove to make a fine save.
That was enough to maintain parity up to half-time, and Southend came out in the second half with renewed purpose. Mpenga tracked across the edge of the penalty area within seconds of the restart before firing over, whilst Eastwood’s fierce effort in the 50th minute required Norman’s full attention.
Eastwood’s endeavour in midfield after losing the ball almost led to a chance for the willing Mpenga, who chased down Norman and was unlucky not to charge the ball down in a goalbound direction in the 52nd minute. However, Simpson got in behind the Blues back-line on the hour mark and Southend were relieved to see the forward clip the ball over the crossbar.
Mpenga was unlucky again in the 65th minute when he stole the ball from a City defender on the edge of the penalty area but his touch took him away from goal, rather than towards it. An Exeter free-kick was headed over by an attacker at the other end, but Blues looked more likely to score and Eastwood almost caught out Norman with an audacious 30-yard attempt that the shotstopper scrambled back to save.
Eastwood’s set-piece delivery was almost causing anxiety for the visitors and, after a right-wing free-kick looped over Norman and found no-one attacking the ball at the back post, a corner was flicked on by Mitchell-Nelson for Mpenga. His thunderous strike was charged down and Coker fired the follow-up over.
With eleven minutes left, Southend were handed an excellent chance to grab their third consecutive Merit League victory when Mitchell-Nelson was hauled down in the penalty area as he tried to connect with a free-kick. Eastwood, who had scored a spot-kick seven days previously at Peterborough, stepped up, but he sent his penalty over on this occasion and the scores remained locked at 1-1.
Within two minutes another good chance had presented itself as substitute Alex Bragg crossed for Mpenga. He knocked the ball down to Knock, but his couldn’t get over the ball and he half-volleyed over. There was still time for one last chance as Knock’s raking pass to Dabbs on the right touchline was fizzed into the area first-time, but Mpenga volleyed over and the teams had to be content with a share of the spoils.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Ben Dabbs, Ide Osimeh, Sam Brogan, Sam Knock, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Terrell Egbri, Oli Coker (Alex Bragg, 78), Issa Mpenga, Johnny Black (Benas Vaivada, 60), Freddy Eastwood. Substitutes not used: Jamie Grossart, Tommy Lambourne, Jimmy Wallace.
Goal: Knock (23).
Cautioned: Mitchell-Nelson (57, foul tackle), Brogan (71, foul tackle).