Southend United U18s exited The FA Youth Cup at the First Round stage after losing 2-1 to Cambridge United at Roots Hall.
Blues fell behind three minutes before half-time when Jake Battersby fired beyond Callum Taylor, but a fine solo goal from Bobby Unwin levelled the scores shortly after the interval. Despite creating the better opportunities during he second period, Battersby’s second of the game with 13 minutes remaining sent the U’s into the Second Round.
"It was a game of two halves,” remarked youth team coach Danny Heath. “In the first half we weren’t our usual selves in terms of the tempo of our play and the way we want to play from an attacking point of view. I thought we still looked fairly comfortable, and in the second half I thought we were excellent.”
“The tempo of our play went up, which we asked for at half-time, we got more men forward in terms of off-the-ball runners, and if I’m honest I think we should’ve walked off having won the game based on the second half performance,” he added.
Heath made one change to the starting line-up from Saturday’s defeat to Stevenage with Freddy Eastwood replacing Demaray Anyadike in midfield. Four schoolboys were named on the substitutes’ bench, including Brian Garzon, who was named in a matchday squad for the first time.
The encounter got off to a slow start. Cambridge’s Joe Dearman delivered the first shot of the game in the fourth minute when he thumped wide from 20 yards out, but Blues dealt with a couple of corners easily. At the other end of the pitch, the treble threat of Eastwood, Unwin and Tommy Lambourne was contained by the visitors.
Eastwood was the first to try and get a shot away as he benefitted from good build-up play by Unwin and Oli Coker, but the second-year scholar saw his fierce attempt charged down on the edge of the penalty area by Harvey Steel. In the 18th minute Eastwood returned the favour, but Coker’s 25-yard strike was wildly off-target.
Callum Taylor made a comfortable save above his head when Joe Rider met a Lewis Simper free-kick with a back-post header, but Blues began to establish more of a foothold in the match when Unwin and Eastwood switched flanks midway through the opening period.
Unwin delivered a couple of crosses, both of which were cut out by the Cambridge defence, but the best opportunity of the match to that point arrived in the 33rd minute when Eastwood was tugged back as he drifted inside from the right flank. Unwin lined up the set-piece but curled the dead ball onto the roof of the net.
The U’s were controlling the pace of the match, maintaining possession and attempting to hit Southend on the break. However, the hosts defended well and Cameron Brown did well to track Dearman’s run and effect an impressive tackle before Chandler read a hanging centre by the Cambridge winner and conceded a corner.
Simper wasted a good opportunity in the 39th minute when he fired over having been located in space 25 yards out, but Battersby was not in such a generous mood shortly afterwards. Ahmet Biler slipped as he attempted to clear and Dearman’s cross was flicked into the path of the striker at the far post. He drilled the ball between Taylor’s legs as he delivered a clinical finish.
Southend’s play had been somewhat disjointed in the first half – an Eastwood centre that flew behind Lambourne and Unwin when both were stationed on the edge of the penalty area was symptomatic of their approach – but Heath maintained his faith at the interval.
“These boys have been knocked down before and we’ve been losing games at half-time. The message was that we were still in the game. They were still in the game and not playing as well as they can do, so what we said was that they had to start the second half fast and do what you can do well and you’ll get chances,” he said.
Before Blues got a chance, Cambridge could have doubled their advantage in the 48th minute when Dearman’s cross found Rider and his volleyed attempt from seven yards out was brilliantly palmed around the left-hand post by Taylor.
That reaction stop would take on even greater significance within sixty seconds when Unwin’s fifth goal of the current campaign equalised for the teenage Shrimpers. The winger received the ball on the left touchline and he raced clear of his marker before steering a superb strike into the bottom right-hand corner from 18 yards out.
Heath was delighted: “I know Callum has made a point-blank save at 1-0 in the second half, but with our first chance we’ve broken and scored a great goal. Bobby is a great runner with the ball and he’s a player that can score individually. It was a fine finish; he can run with the ball and beat men, and we’ve asked him to get better at his finishing. He is showing that, and it’s a massive positive,” he declared.
Unwin almost created another opening as Blues began to attack with greater purpose, and for a quarter-of-an-hour period the home side controlled the tempo of the game. Southend had confidence in their passing and they started to move the ball around their opponents. One such motion, involving Biler, Tommy Davis and Sam Brogan, ended with Eastwood flashing a shot wide of the left-hand post from 25 yards out.
A couple of minutes later – just after Adetayo Adedoja had been introduced in place of Lambourne – Eastwood went even closer to a go-ahead goal as his ferocious hit from a similar range required Louis Chadwick in the Cambridge goal to make a fine parried save.
However, Blues lost their way slightly during the final 15 minutes of the match and, just after Jimmy Wallace had made a final tackle in the penalty area to dispossess Dearman, the dangerous winger delivered another inviting centre to the back post where Battersby angled his finish into the bottom right-hand corner.
To their credit, Southend reacted well. Adedoja was brought down on the left and Coker’s viciously swinging free-kick was punched out by Chadwick as Wallace arrived at the near post to try and head home before Unwin smashed a set-piece over from 30 yards out in the 83rd minute.
Demaray Anyadike was brought on for Brown, and he almost immediately curled a superb cross to the far post. Unwin got the slightest of touches, but he couldn’t direct the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of the net. The game entered stoppage time and another Anyadike cross was met by Eastwood. His header was goal-bound but took a touch off a defender before going wide.
Blues appealed vociferously for handball, but the referee only awarded a corner. Coker’s flag-kick had to be tipped onto the crossbar by Chadwick, and another corner ended with chaos in the Cambridge penalty area. Brogan’s attempts to score his first youth team on his 50th appearance were charged down, and when Chadwick dropped onto the ball, that signalled the end of Southend’s FA Youth Cup journey.
“The message to the boys is that they have got to learn from this,” claimed Heath. “With the second half performance, they should’ve walked off the pitch with a win, and that’s what it’s about long-term, when they get into the first-team. It’s about performing and also winning.”
“They’ve got to keep their heads up. They’ve been knocked down many times before this season and they get up and keep going forward, and they’ve got to do the same now. We’ll have a cool-down session and go through the video from tonight and prepare for Saturday against Northampton, who are top of the league. The games come quick and fast, and they’ve got to bounce back quickly.”
Southend United U18s: Callum Taylor, Reiss Chandler, Ahmet Biler, Sam Brogan, Jimmy Wallace, Tommy Davis, Bobby Unwin, Cameron Brown (Demaray Anyadike, 84), Tommy Lambourne (Adetayo Adedoja, 65), Oli Coker, Freddy Eastwood. Substitutes not used: Jamie Grossart, Ergis Shala, Claydon Harrison, Kenny Coker, Brian Garzon.
Goal: Unwin (49).
Cautioned: Coker (85, foul tackle).