Midfielder Lewis Gard made his return from injury as Southend United U23s completed their Central League Cup South Group 4 campaign with a 5-1 home defeat to AFC Wimbledon.
Gard completed 61 minutes of the clash after missing 16 months with medial ligament damage in his knee suffering in an EFL Trophy fixture at Colchester United. He made a number of contributions to the match and linked up well with goalscorer O’Shane Stewart in the centre of the pitch.
With a number of regular U23s players named in the first-team squad for the League One encounter against Peterborough United – including full league debutants Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Terrell Egbri and Matt Rush – the team was augmented by members of the U18s.
The only player with first-team experience was Michael Klass, and he curled a free-kick wide from 25 yards out in the third minute. Five minutes later, when winger Bobby Unwin was brought down to the left-hand side of centre, Gard whipped the dead ball narrowly wide of the right-hand post.
Blues went even closer in the tenth minute when Unwin again caused problems for the visitors down the left wing. He tormented the Dons full-back before firing his shot against the upright, with Oli Coker unable to turn home the rebound.
Wimbledon struck the woodwork themselves sixty seconds later when a left-wing cross was nodded against the crossbar, and Jamie Grossart also made a good near-post save before Stewart put Southend in front on 17 minutes. The midfielder, who is currently on loan at Merstham, dispatched a sweet 25-yard strike into the right-hand portion of the goal after collecting Coker’s pass.
Craig Fagan’s side almost doubled the lead two minutes later when Unwin saw a shot deflected wide from Gard’s pass, and Cameron Brown then set up Stewart for an opportunity to repeat his earlier finish, but this time a Wimbledon defender got across to deflect the ball out for a corner.
Blues had the benefit of a blustery wind behind them in the opening period, but they failed to take full advantage despite their excellent approach play. The hosts were almost caught out by an acrobatic overhead bicycle kick on the counter-attack, but Grossart reacted well to tip the ball over the crossbar.
The Dons began to create more opportunities, and Stewart was positioned well to head off the goal-line in the 36th minute before the equaliser arrived within seconds. A left-wing centre caught the Southend defence off-guard and an attacker was given the chance to tap home from close range.
Despite that leveller, the young Shrimpers could’ve edged ahead again before the break, with Stewart firing narrowly wide from Sam Brogan’s pass and Unwin dragging a shot across the face of goal having exchanged passes with Ahmet Biler.
The two teams traded chances at the beginning of the second half, with Grossart advancing swiftly off his goal-line to save at the feet of a forward before Klass smashed narrowly wide from distance at the other end. Unfortunately, Wimbledon delivered a telling contribution on 53 minutes when an attacker gave them the lead with a curling shot from the left-hand apex of the penalty area.
Blues responded well, and Stewart saw a shot deflected wide before Klass linked up with Gard to drill into the goalkeeper’s gloves. That was Gard’s final action of the game as he was withdrawn after an hour to be replaced by Demaray Anyadike.
Stewart smashed over from Klass’ through-ball at the mid-point of the second half, but Wimbledon stretched their lead on 68 minutes when a winger rode a couple of challenges from Ahmet Biler before setting up a team-mate to pick out the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
The scoreline was given further sheen when the visitors added two goals in the space of three minutes. The first came when Grossart failed to claim a high ball and a forward was able to nod home from close-range, and the second was a tap-in following miscommunication in the Blues back-line.
In-between Grossart had made an excellent save to turn away a low strike to his right-hand side. Blues almost had the final say when Klass set up Anyadike for a dipping strike narrowly over the crossbar, but ultimately they bowed out of the competition with the defeat.
Southend United U23s: Jamie Grossart, Sam Brogan (Freddy Eastwood, 74), Ahmet Biler, Michael Klass, Jimmy Wallace, Ide Osimeh, Oli Coker, O’Shane Stewart, Cameron Brown, Lewis Gard (Demaray Anyadike, 61), Bobby Unwin.
Goals: Stewart (17).
Cautioned: Biler (84, foul tackle).