Jon Benton marked his return from injury with a superb 82nd-minute strike to help Southend United U18s register their first victory of the season, 2-1, against Stevenage at Boots & Laces.
Benton struck with eight minutes remaining to secure all three points in the clash after missing the past eight months with a fractured foot. Oli Coker’s first goal of the season on 20 minutes had earlier been cancelled out by Stevenage’s Finlay Johnson.
“I’m feeling very good. It’s been a long while since I’ve played a game,” claimed Benton afterwards. “It was good to be back on the pitch and it was a touch to get a goal in the first game back. When it fell to me on the edge of the box it was like it was too good to be true, but it was a good finish to find the bottom corner. It was good for me and it was good for the team as well.”
“It’s been tough for the U18s,” he added. “They work hard every day and I know the coaches work their hardest as well. It was a touch to get on the pitch and to help them get the result that they needed, not just for myself but for the team as well.”
“It was good to be part of the team again, playing in a match and everything you go through getting ready for a game. They were all very happy for themselves, getting their first three points for the season,” the 18-year-old midfielder added.
Benton suffered the injury ten months ago, but it was not until after he had helped the Shrimpers reach the area final of the EFL Youth Alliance Cup that he was diagnosed with a fractured foot, and he was forced to sit out the Merit League One championship campaign in its entirety.
“I was in good form and it was a shame to get the injury,” he revealed. “It set me back a bit, but it’s good that it’s led me to be 100% fit at the start of the season and it’s good to take off where I left off. I’m hoping to get many more goals throughout the season as well.”
“I got injured in November in The FA Youth Cup. I had a few hospital appointments and they couldn’t really figure out what I’d done. I wanted to play, but it was a bit painful. The last game I played was the Cambridge game in the semi-final and I managed to score with my fractured foot!”
“I was diagnosed and had surgery and spent six weeks in a cast and six weeks in a boot. It wasn’t the nicest of times watching everyone else train when you know you could’ve been out there. It was a bit of a setback, but that’s what happens; it’s part of football. I felt like I dealt with it well and worked very hard to get myself back into shape and building everything that goes into recovering from an injury,” said Benton.
Benton wasn’t introduced to Southend’s most recent fixture until midway through the second half, by which time the side’s fortunes had fluctuated. Coach Danny Heath had made two changes to the starting line-up following the narrow 2-1 defeat to Cambridge United as Sam Brogan and Freddy Eastwood were restored to the team following their exploits with the U23s.
Eastwood was involved heavily in the early stages as he first set up Bobby Unwin in the fourth minute, with the winger firing into the side-netting, and then earned possession in midfield for Reiss Chandler a couple of moments later, only for the full-back’s right-wing cross to be directed marginally over Unwin’s head.
Blues were in danger of squandering their dominant start when midfielder Coker opened his account for the campaign in the 20th minute. The first-year scholar collected the ball onto the edge of the penalty area after Ahmet Biler’s cross had been blocked and he caressed his shot into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
Southend were unable to build on that positive start and, shortly after Unwin’s free-kick had been tipped over by visiting custodian Jack Berman, Stevenage levelled. Alfie Williams provided the assist with a well-weighted pass in behind the Blues back-line and Johnson steered his shot underneath Jamie Grossart to equalise.
The away team now appeared to be in the ascendancy and, either side of a hurried and wayward strike by Eastwood at the opposite end, Andrew Bennett saw an effort charged down before Grossart got a crucial touch to another Johnson shot to divert it beyond the right-hand post.
Stevenage skipper Jack Smith also fired over from a good position in the closing stages of the first half, but there was a sign that Blues would be able to recover from losing their early advantage when Unwin’s header bounced back off the right-hand upright following a hanging Chandler cross.
The visitors started the second period on top, with Grossart diving at the feet of Smith from Liam Smyth’s through-ball within sixty seconds of the restart and the referee waving away appeals for a penalty when Johnson went down under a challenge from Coker in the area.
Substitute Lewis Lynn also stung the palms of Grossart with a 30-yard drive just before the hour mark, but before that Eastwood had wasted a good chance at the far post when he hooked over from Unwin’s left-wing delivery.
Damari Anyadike was introduced in place of Cameron Brown and he almost contributed with his first touch as he directed a Mpenga pass into Berman’s gloves. Eastwood also set up Unwin in the 64th minute for a blocked attempt before Benton was introduced to the action.
The midfielder’s first involvement was to be cautioned for a foul, and he was swiftly followed into the referee’s notebook by Chandler. He was to have a more positive influence on the game a little later, but before that intervention Southend had further opportunities to take the lead.
Mpenga could have scored when he was picked out by Unwin’s superb left-wing cross in the 78th minute, but he chipped over from close-range, and within seconds Eastwood opened up his body and tried to curl the ball into the bottom right-hand corner, only for Berman to tip wide.
At the other end, Grossart repelled a fierce Lynn strike before Benton scored the winner. Biler’s delivery from the left-hand side was cleared and Benton was perfectly-placed to control the ball and then arrow it into the bottom left-hand corner of the net from distance.
Blues rode out the remainder of the match, with another substitute, Lambourne, nodding wide in stoppage time. It was the perfect way for Benton to continue his recovery: “I feel like I’ve given myself the best chance I can for this season as well. It’s been a good start. It was a worry being injured because, as a second-year scholar, anything can happen,” he opined.
“There could’ve been an injury in the first team, and that was what I was most worried about. If someone in the first team had been injured and I wasn’t in a position to step up, I could’ve missed out on my breakthrough. Sometimes in football you’ve just got to wait your turn, and when you do get your opportunity, you’ve got to take it.”
“I would like to get some games in the U23s under my belt and then it depends on whether we get through in the Premier League Cup and get some extra games. If not, I might go out on loan, but you can’t really say because I’ve only just come back. I’d like to get a chance in the first team, and if I do get a chance to train with them then I want to show them what I can do, and that’s all I can do,” he concluded.
Southend United U18s: Jamie Grossart, Reiss Chandler, Ahmet Biler, Sam Brogan, Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace (Ergis Shala, 90), Oli Coker (Jon Benton, 68), Cameron Brown (Damari Anyadike, 60), Alex Bragg, Issa Mpenga, Freddy Eastwood (Tommy Lambourne, 88), Bobby Unwin. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor.
Goals: Coker (20), Benton (82).
Cautioned: Benton (73, foul tackle), Chandler (74, foul tackle).