Southend United U18s moved up to second place in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference table with a 3-0 victory over Milton Keynes Dons at Boots & Laces.
The teenage Shrimpers are now just one point behind leaders Luton Town with two matches in hand following this success, which was earned thanks to Oli Coker’s 11th-minute penalty and second-half strikes by Damaray Anyadike and Cameron Brown.
There were two changes to the starting line-up for Danny Heath’s team as Ergis Shala and Brown missed out with Coker available again following suspension and schoolboy defender Habib Bolarinwa making his first competitive start after an impressive display last week in a friendly against Colchester United.
Central defender Tommy Davis was handed the captain’s armband for the first time, and he was involved in the first action of the match in the fifth minute when he got back to challenge a visiting forward, forcing him wide and enabling goalkeeper Jamie Grossart to make a comfortable save.
Six minutes later it was the home team on the front foot and Blues edged ahead thanks to Coker’s spot-kick. The penalty was awarded after Louie Arrowsmith was clipped by a defender as he entered the area, and second-year scholar Coker made no mistake by converting his fifth goal of the season.
The goal brought the midfielder level with Tayo Adedoja as leading scorer for the youth team this season, although the first-year forward had an opportunity to add to his own tally after a quarter-of-an-hour, only to take a heavy touch and allow a defender to make an important challenge.
The opening goal had settled Southend down and, on 20 minutes, Adedoja anticipated the bounce of a high ball to steal in ahead of a defender before firing over. From the restart Blues employed a high press and Jaden Crowhurst was the beneficiary, drawing a save from the MK goalkeeper with his 20-yard strike.
The home side did not have everything their own way, and six minutes later Davis did well to read the danger after a well-worked move on the right-hand side and flick the eventual delivery away from a waiting attacker situated behind him.
Shortly after the half-hour mark it was his rookie team-mate, Bolarinwa, who anticipated the threat when a through-ball split the skipper and his centre-half colleague Luke Reeve to step in and clear, whilst Reeve also made an important block on 34 minutes.
Seconds later the defence could not prevent a strike from being delivered towards Grossart’s goal, but the Shrimpers shotstopper parried to safety before later flinging himself to his left-hand side to tip another shot around the far post ten minutes before the break.
Having overcome that period of difficulty, Southend ended the half on top and Joe Shenouda – a second schoolboy involved in the fixture – released Adedoja on his outside with a precise pass. The striker saw his effort deflected out for a corner a couple of minutes before the half-time whistle sounded.
Blues burst out of the blocks in the second period and could have doubled their advantage within a minute of the kick-off when Bolarinwa’s right-wing cross was volleyed straight at the goalkeeper by Shenouda.
Moments later Coker’s free-kick was curled inches wide of the far post with the delivery proving to be marginally out of the reach of Crowhurst as he attempted to get in behind the MK defence and, although a 25-yard shot flew over at the opposite end, Southend continued to pile on the pressure.
On 54 minutes a delightful pass from Coker picked out the run of Shenouda down the inside-right channel but, as he entered the penalty area, he was caught in two minds between shooting and squaring to Adedoja and the ball drifted out for a goal-kick.
Two minutes later Adedoja drove into the penalty area from the left-hand side and tried to squeeze the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs from an acute angle, but his shot was blocked and bounced out of play off the forward.
Heath made a double-change just before the hour mark, introducing the experience of second-years Bobby Unwin and Brown in place of Louie Arrowsmith and Shenouda. The switch almost had an immediate effect as Brown met Anyadike’s chipped cross, but the MK goalkeeper saved above his head.
On 64 minutes Brown was involved again, forcing the goalkeeper to parry out a thunderous strike. Adedoja turned in the rebound, but the assistant referee’s flag was raised for offside. The forward then saw an attempt charged down before Callum Burkey’s follow-up shot was deflected wide.
It was one-way traffic at this stage of the match, but Blues couldn’t make their dominance count and Anyadike drew a fine save from the MK goalkeeper after exchanging passes with Coker on 68 minutes before Brown drilled an effort from 20 yards against the base of the right-hand post.
Blues had enjoyed a lot of success with lofted passes over the top for their quicker players to latch onto, and that proved to be the catalyst for a second goal with 15 minutes remaining when Anyadike brought substitute Jimmy Wallace’s pass under control and steered his shot into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Having finally doubled their advantage Southend were able to relax, and they could have added a third goal on 80 minutes when Coker’s shot was blocked by the hand of a defender. The midfielder, who has appeared twice for the first team this term, slipped as he took the penalty and directed it against the top of the crossbar.
Coker almost atoned for the miss late in the match when he received the ball after a fine passing move involving Anyadike, Brown and Reeve down the right-hand side, but he dragged his shot narrowly wide and, in stoppage time, he saw another effort blocked, with Unwin smashing the rebound over.
However, by then Southend had further extended their lead and done enough to register a 3-0 victory thanks to their final goal. Coker was involved again, breaking into the penalty area before sending a cross into the box. That was retrieved on the far side and Brown engineered some space 25 yards out before curling majestically into the top right-hand corner.
Blues U18s travel to AFC Wimbledon next Saturday looking to record a third consecutive league triumph, with the Dons having defeated Luton 2-1 on Saturday to help Southend narrow the gap at the top of the table.
Southend United U18s: Jamie Grossart, Habib Bolarinwa (Jimmy Wallace, 72), Louie Arrowsmith (Bobby Unwin, 59), Callum Burkey, Tommy Davis, Luke Reeve, Damaray Anyadike, Jaden Crowhurst (Brian Garzon, 77), Tayo Adedoja, Oli Coker, Joe Shenouda (Cameron Brown, 59). Unused substitute: Finley Purcell.
Goals: Coker (11, pen), Anyadike (75), Brown (89).
Cautioned: Coker (70, pulling an opponent).