Southend United U18s registered their biggest victory over the season, 7-0 over Milton Keynes Dons, to ensure they go into Saturday’s final EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference fixture against Luton Town full of confidence.
The destiny of Danny Heath’s side for the second portion of the campaign will be determined by the Boots & Laces clash with the Hatters, who sit one place and one point behind Blues in the table. A win or a draw for the teenage Shrimpers will earn them the chance to defend their Merit League One title, whilst a defeat would leave the squad requiring a series of unlikely results for Stevenage to finish in the top half.
Having taken almost 43 minutes to score their opening goal, a first-half brace from midfielder Oli Coker set Southend on their way on Saturday, with Freddy Eastwood, Tommy Lambourne, Jimmy Wallace, Bobby Unwin and substitute Kenny Coker adding further goals during a dominant second period.
“I’m very pleased for the lads,” beamed youth team coach Danny Heath after the match. “The three messages to the boys before the game were to work hard, earn the right to play and perform how they can do and the result would follow. I think we got all three. We just had to be patient. A couple of times we tried to force the goal, but once we got the first one I thought more would follow, which they did.”
Heath made just one enforced change to the side that had drawn 1-1 away to Peterborough United in their previous game as Charlie Kelman returned to the first-team fold and was replaced in the starting line-up by Cameron Brown.
Blues could have taken the lead inside the opening sixty seconds when Lambourne controlled a booming Callum Taylor goal-kick and fired straight at Tom Carter, but MK made the brighter start and Ahmet Biler was required to make a goal-line clearance in the third minute when James Holmes rose to meet a Finlay Brennan cross.
Tom Rowley then sent a deflected 25-yard strike narrowly over the crossbar and Ergis Shala later blocked another Rowley effort before Wallace took the pace off a Brennan attempt and Taylor was able to gather easily.
The visitors, who recorded just one win and one draw – which came in an entertaining 3-3 result in Buckinghamshire against Southend – from their 20-match campaign, came under increasing pressure as the half progressed and Wallace stooped to angle an Ahmet Biler free-kick marginally wide before Carter tipped over a well-struck Coker effort in the 19th minute.
The hosts’ play lacked fluency, although Carter did well on the half-hour mark to smother an Eastwood effort before leaping up to grab Lambourne’s headed follow-up. Twelve minutes later, Blues took the lead through Coker, who rifled the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of the net following impressive build-up play by Brown, Eastwood and Unwin.
Less than two minutes later the first-year scholar was celebrating again after seeing the ball nestle in same corner of the net. This time the finish was truly stylish as Coker collected the ball 25 yards from goal and swept it far from the reach of custodian Carter.
“At half-time we told the boys the next goal was going to be important, even though it was 2-0,” revealed Heath. “Again, we didn’t have to force things, we could afford to be patient with it. The third goal could’ve come earlier with Oli Coker having a good chance for his hat-trick, but it came quickly.”
Coker would’ve completed a five-minute hat-trick either side of the interval had Carter not dived bravely at his feet after Eastwood had touched an Unwin cross into his path but, in the 50th minute, Eastwood did make it 3-0 with an exquisite finish. Unwin picked out Coker in the penalty area with the help of Biler’s decoy run down the left flank, and he unselfishly passed to the second-year scholar, who arced a shot home from 12 yards out.
Eastwood was thwarted by Carter’s outstretched glove as he sought to make it a quickfire double, but the game had yet to reach the hour mark when striker Lambourne strode clear of the MK defence to latch onto Coker’s precise through-ball and he slipped the ball beyond the advancing gloveman.
Eastwood narrowly failed to connect with an excellent Unwin cross, and Lambourne also went close with a speculative long-range effort as Southend began to dominate possession. Further chances arrived, with Lambourne warming Carter’s gloves with a ferocious strike from the edge of the penalty area before Carter was forced to concede a corner when Unwin attempted to catch him out from an audacious angle.
That flag-kick would lead to a fifth goal arriving in the 72nd minute through the most unlikely of sources. Central defender Jimmy Wallace was making his 40th youth team appearance, having failed to score in his previous 39, but he rose imperiously to meet Lambourne’s cushioned header across goal and he powered the ball into the bottom left-hand corner from six yards out.
After Lambourne had planted a header wide at the far post and Unwin flashed an effort inches over, skipper Sam Brogan, another player searching for his first youth team goal, almost sparked scenes of wild celebration as he latched onto a through-ball and lifted it over Carter, but his shot drifted agonisingly off-target.
Eastwood dragged a shot wide of the left-hand upright after 80 minutes, but Unwin did grab a sixth goal for the Shrimpers three minutes later when substitute Demaray Anyadike progressed down the right wing and centred for his opposite wide-man to tap in from close range.
Anyadike saw a close-range header blocked, but the final goal arrived in the 90th minute when another replacement, Kenny Coker, forced home the rebound after Carter had saved Eastwood’s fierce strike. There was still time for Ahmet Biler to rattle the crossbar with a thunderous attempt from the edge of the penalty area, although Blues could be satisfied with a seven-goal success.
Heath knows that the squad will have to prepare properly now before hosting Luton: “First and foremost, before focussing on Saturday, we have to focus on our week,” he said. “The initial focus will be on Monday, then Tuesday, then Wednesday and so on, so we’ll leave no stone unturned and we’ll make sure we’ve done all that we can to make sure we’re ready physically and mentally as well as tactically and technically.”
“Short-term, because on paper you’re playing against other teams that have finished in the top half of their league, it’s good to be tested, but long-term, if we do end up in Merit League Two, it doesn’t mean we’re not producing as an Academy. Players might still come through and get a professional contract at the club, but in the short-term it is important to do all we can to get into Merit League One,” he added.
And the coach knows that, whoever he calls upon next weekend, they will be ready for the challenge: “If you look back at the season, it’s great for the U16s that have stepped up and had the experience of being involved with the U18s, whether it has been starting or coming on. It’s been great for them and they’ve stepped up to the plate. At one stage we had nine injuries, or ten if you want to include Charlie Kelman.”
“That it’s in our hands going into the last game shows the potential we’ve got long-term, and even the boys that have been out for a long time – Ben Dabbs, Issa Mpenga, who is now coming back into the fold, Tundai Quamina – have been a part of this. Even though they are not playing, they’re still a part of everything we’re achieving so far,” he concluded.
Southend United U18s: Callum Taylor (Jamie Grossart, 67), Reiss Chandler, Ahmet Biler, Sam Brogan, Jimmy Wallace (Luke Reeve, 76), Ergis Shala, Freddy Eastwood, Cameron Brown (Jaden Crowhurst, 86), Tommy Lambourne (Kenny Coker, 87), Oli Coker (Demaray Anyadike, 76), Bobby Unwin.
Goals: O Coker (42, 44), Eastwood (50), Lambourne (59), Wallace (72), Unwin (83), K Coker (90).