Southend United U18s qualified for EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One by defeating Luton Town, 2-1, in their final South East Conference fixture of the season at Boots & Laces on Saturday.
Danny Heath’s squad required at least a draw from the match against the Hatters but, thanks to an early own goal by Luton defender Avan Jones, which was subsequently cancelled out by a penalty converted by the same player, and Tommy Lambourne’s header five minutes before half-time, they did so with a modicum of comfort.
Blues will now have the opportunity to defend the Merit League One title they claimed on the final day of the 2018/19 season with a superb win away to Portsmouth. Also providing the opposition from the south-west will be AFC Bournemouth, Oxford United, Swindon Town, Yeovil Town and Exeter City, whilst south-east champions Peterborough United are joined by Northampton Town, Cambridge United, AFC Wimbledon and Stevenage.
Heath was able to name an unchanged starting line-up from the team that had disposed of Milton Keynes Dons, 7-0, in their previous fixture, and they started the fixture on the front foot with Freddy Eastwood warming the gloves of goalkeeper Tiernan Parker after being teed up on the edge of the penalty area by Lambourne.
Luton responded with Callum Taylor making a good stop to deny Callum Nicolson after he had been picked out by Coree Wilson’s pass, but Blues were being driven forwards by Eastwood and he exchanged passes with Oli Coker before sending a shot over from 25 yards out in the seventh minute.
Sixty seconds later, Southend were ahead. Again, Eastwood was the instigator, pushing the ball down the left wing for Bobby Unwin to run onto. The wide-man galloped clear of the defence and sent a dangerous ball into the penalty area. Neither Lambourne nor Parker could get a touch at the near post, but Jones slid in ahead of Coker to put the ball into his own goal.
The hosts gained confidence after edging in front, and Eastwood could have doubled the advantage when he volleyed Ahmet Biler’s cross over at the far post. Much of Southend’s danger came down the left-hand side and another teasing Unwin centre was directed inches out of the reach of Coker’s diving header after Lambourne had done well to hold the ball up and feed the winger.
An injury to a Luton player in the 24th minute halted the momentum Blues had built up, although a lapse in concentration by custodian Parker, who gifted possession to Lambourne just outside the penalty area, almost proved costly. Lambourne slipped the ball into the path of Coker, who was closed down by the goalkeeper. He moved play on to Biler, who slashed wide of the open goal from the left-hand edge of the area.
The visitors began to enjoy more possession, and they hauled themselves level in the 34th minute when a Jimmy Wallace clearance was charged down and Casey Pettit latched onto the loose ball. As the midfielder bore down on goal, Reiss Chandler was adjudged to have brought him down and Jones atoned for his own goal by drilling the penalty kick into the bottom left-hand corner of Taylor’s goal.
Blues were still in a qualification position if the scoreline remained as it was, but they did not take any risks and, after Unwin had forced Parker into a tumbling save from a free-kick, they restored their lead. Biler received the ball back from Eastwood during a short corner routine and the full-back’s inswinging cross was met by Lambourne, who powered his header into the net from six yards out.
Unfortunately, any hopes the forward had of adding to his tally were thwarted in stoppage time when he went to ground in the penalty area following an aerial challenge. Lambourne was treated after rolling his ankle, but he was unable to continue, and schoolboy Kenny Coker took his place just before half-time.
The Hatters came out fired up for the second period, but Blues kept their shape and, with captain Sam Brogan and Cameron Brown shielding the defence, there was a strong element of organisation amongst the squad. Everyone stuck to their individual tasks, and Luton became increasingly frustrated, especially with Unwin when he delayed the restart of play on the hour mark by kicking the ball away.
Southend were managing the game, although they did lack composure in front of goal. Eastwood snatched at a shot on 61 minutes and sent it off-target from the edge of the penalty area, whilst Kenny Coker was caught marginally offside on a couple of occasions.
Brown forced Parker into a good parried stop in the 63rd minute, with the goalkeeper managing to recover in time to grab the ball ahead of the onrushing Kenny Coker. Ergis Shala then met another Biler corner at the far post, directing his header inches wide of the goal.
Taylor made a good save above his head from a floating header, but generally Southend worked hard to restrict sights at the Northern Ireland youth international’s goal. Shala gave away possession with 20 minutes remaining, but Wallace stepped in with a perfectly-timed challenge in the area to concede a corner, and two minutes later, when Wallace misplaced a pass, Brown was in position to break up the attack.
A goal for the visitors would have made Blues anxious but, as Luton committed more and more bodies to the attack, spaces began to open up in behind for Southend to exploit. Chandler crossed for Eastwood, who saw a shot blocked, and Kenny Coker then fired wide, before Unwin received the ball following a clever dummy by Oli Coker. Unfortunately, the winger angled his finish narrowly wide of the right-hand post.
Oli Coker twice went close from dead-ball situations, swinging the first attempt inches over before then seeing Parker make a comfortable save. In-between, namesake Kenny went close, driving an effort straight at Parker. The schoolboy then dragged an effort wide as the match moved into stoppage time.
With Luton requiring two goals in additional time to thwart the teenage Shrimpers, Southend could afford to relax a little, although Heath’s charges took it upon themselves to qualify for Merit League One in style with a victory. That success was assured, two minutes past the regulation ninety, when Brown again stepped in to clear the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and the referee blew the final whistle.
Southend United U18s: Callum Taylor, Reiss Chandler, Ahmet Biler, Sam Brogan, Jimmy Wallace, Ergis Shala, Freddy Eastwood, Cameron Brown, Tommy Lambourne (Kenny Coker, 45+1), Oli Coker, Bobby Unwin. Substitutes not used: Jamie Grossart, Demaray Anyadike, Jaden Crowhurst, Luke Reeve.
Goals: Avan Jones (own goal, 8), Lambourne (40).
Cautioned: Unwin (59, delaying the restart of play), Biler (74, delaying the restart of play).