“We want to develop winners,” declared youth team coach Dave Huzzey after Southend United U18s were crowned EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One champions with a superb 4-1 victory away to Portsmouth.
The result, coupled with Swindon Town’s 3-0 reverse at Oxford United, meant Blues claimed the title by three points from those two teams and AFC Wimbledon after a composed display which included a brace for Freddy Eastwood and clinical strikes by Charlie Kelman and Matt Rush.
“We speak a lot in the Academy about developing winners,” explained Huzzey. “You only develop winners by winning and by showing the players how much you enjoy winning and dislike losing. We’ve put that into this group of players in training every day, and that’s not just myself but Cat and Amy and Ella and Danny Heath and everyone that comes in to help us.”
“We want to ensure they’ve got that winning mentality and this goes hand-in-hand with the process and with the progression of the players because we want to develop winners. I think when you look at the pitch in this game there were more winners out there than wasn’t, and most of them were in our team,” he added.
Huzzey made one change to the starting line-up as Kelman was not named in the first-team squad for their crucial League One fixture against Sunderland, allowing him to travel in place of Emile Acquah. Swindon’s clash at Oxford kicked off half-an-hour before Southend, but it was still goalless when Eastwood gave the Shrimpers a sixth-minute lead.
Kelman had been placed in a similar position in the second minute, but he saw his effort smothered by Pompey goalkeeper Petar Durin. Four minutes later the first-year scholar was involved in the move for the opening goal by picking out Rush with a pass. He slid the ball wide to Eastwood, who slipped a beautiful finish beyond Durin and into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
“It was a great finish with his weaker foot,” revealed Huzzey. “The boy is one of the best finishers I’ve seen at this level and the calmness he has got is excellent. Whether it’s that he doesn’t feel pressure or doesn’t care, I don’t know, but whatever it is, it works. When it fell to his feet, I said he was going to score, and he did.”
“That goal set us up, but what was brilliant was the reaction afterwards. The boys ran and got the ball, put it back on the centre-spot and said, ‘Let’s go again, we want to do it,’ and that showed we weren’t relying on other people. We weren’t relying on Swindon losing the game or drawing, we were going to make sure we were going to score more goals than them and deal with the goal difference.”
At the opposite end Seaden made a crucial intervention to turn a header onto the roof of the net after a quarter-of-an-hour, and midway through the first half he was forced to get down to his right to claim a skidding strike. Southend’s front four were energetic, employing a high press, but they were restricted to a long-range Terrell Egbri effort that flew inches over.
Pompey, too, were frustrated, sending a couple of attempts over from distance, whilst the referee waved away appeals for a penalty when Miles Mitchell-Nelson tried to win the ball in the area. The move developed and a forward side-footed wide from ten yards out.
Despite their bright start, Southend had spent some time on the back foot but, with Kelman in the team, they possessed a confident young forward and he grabbed his 19th goal in 23 youth team appearances this season in the 29th minute. He was slipped clear by O’Shane Stewart’s pass, gently lifting the ball past Durin and arcing it into the right-hand portion of the goal.
“The goal was excellent,” beamed Huzzey. “The best thing about Charlie today was his attitude, his desire and his work-rate. It has been tough for him, starting with us, then going into the first-team and coming out, and at Swindon he wasn’t good enough. He didn’t train with us on Friday, he trained with the first-team, and I thought that was important, but I had 10 minutes with him before the game and he got it within seconds. That shows the intelligence of the lad.”
Kelman could have made it 3-0 from an excellent Ahmet Biler pass down the left wing, but a Pompey defender recovered to concede a throw, and instead the hosts halved their deficit seven minutes before the break as Leon Maloney’s floated left-wing cross was wonderfully nodded home by Josh Flint at the far post.
If there were any nerves in the Southend camp, they didn’t show as they restored their two-goal cushion in the final moments of the opening period. Again Kelman and Eastwood were involved, the former stroking the ball into the path of the latter on the goal-line, and he centred for leading goalscorer Rush to side-foot home his 23rd of the campaign from close-range.
“Matt has had it tough because he has seen players around him and above him in the U23s and the first-team, and he has been constantly and consistently an excellent performer. For me, Matt Rush has got longevity in the game; he’s just got to stick with it. He has consistently performed in games and in training, and he deserved that goal, as well as all the second-years. They have been a brilliant group,” said Huzzey.
Half-time presented Huzzey with a quandary. News has filtered across from Abingdon that Oxford had taken the lead against Swindon, who had just missed a penalty early in the second half. By the time the interval had been concluded on the south coast, the U’s had doubled their lead. With half-an-hour remaining in that game, Swindon required three goals to put Blues under pressure.
“For a week I was wondering whether to tell the players or keep the score from them,” Huzzey mused. “I came up with the idea to be honest with them and tell them because, if it worked in a negative way they would learn from it and if it worked in a positive way they’d learn from it.”
“From the minute that Swindon had a penalty and it was saved we knew what was happening in the other game and, when the players asked me, I told them the truth. If I was in a first-team situation, maybe that would be different, but for this group and their development and the way they deal with pressure, it was important.”
“I questioned myself at half-time when we knew Swindon were 2-0 down and we were winning the game, but it was important that we knew as staff because we didn’t have to keep going for it and score so many goals. We let them know everything,” he stated.
Portsmouth drew an early save from Seaden after the break, but Blues grew into the game again and Eastwood tormented a defender before forcing an unorthodox near-post stop from Durin, who blocked with his head. Egbri then burst into the box and brought the best from custodian Durin before Miles Mitchell-Nelson nodded wide as news arrived from Oxford that Swindon had lost 3-0.
Seconds later, Southend had made it 4-1. First-year scholar Eastwood has been one of the stand-out performers during the Merit League One campaign and, after firing into the goalkeeper’s gloves, he scored his second of the game, and 17th of his debut season as scholar, when he pounced on the rebound after Stewart’s 25-yard drive had been pushed into his path.
From that moment, Blues knew they were champions. Only the concession of three goals could thwart them and open the door for AFC Wimbledon, who were playing on Sunday evening, but the teenage Shrimpers remained calm. Reiss Chandler was called upon to nod off the goal-line with three minutes left, but Southend were comfortable.
Indeed, Huzzey’s side could have added a fifth late on had Haji Mnoga not brought down Egbri as he bore down on the goal, bringing him a second yellow card. That was the final meaningful action of the match, and Blues were finally able to celebrate a third successive victory, a run of results that brought them the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One title for the first time.
“It’s a brilliant way to sign off. This group have deserved something. It was important to me that they got a reward for all the hard work they have put in. All the chats I’ve had with them, and all the times I’ve told them exactly what I think and what they’ve got to do better and how they can improve their standards, hopefully they understand why. It’s because I want to make champions and I want to make winners,” Huzzey concluded.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Reiss Chandler, Ahmet Biler (Ide Osimeh, 89), Sam Brogan (Issa Mpenga, 90+2), Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Richard Taylor, Terrell Egbri, O’Shane Stewart, Charlie Kelman (Bobby Unwin, 89), Matt Rush, Freddy Eastwood (Bobby Unwin, 88). Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Sam Knock.
Goals: Eastwood (6, 67), Kelman (29), Rush (44).
Cautioned: Biler (76, unsporting behaviour).