Southend United U18s returned to competitive action with a 2-0 victory over Leyton Orient as they kicked off the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference season in style.
A team featuring six of the club’s new first-year scholars in the starting line-up earned their triumph thanks to direct free-kicks from Oli Coker and Cameron Brown either side of the half-time interval. Kenny Coker could have added a third late on, but his penalty was repelled by Orient goalkeeper Sean Campbell.
Full-backs Harrison Clayden and Louie Arrowmith lined up either side of experienced duo Tommy Davis and Jimmy Wallace in defence and in front of Jamie Grossart in goal. Wallace, who has been installed as youth team captain this season, was making his 45th U18s appearance of his career.
First-years Jaden Crowhurst and Brian Garzon augmented goalscorers Oli Coker - who was named as substitute for the first team’s EFL Trophy tie against West Ham United U21s last Tuesday - and Brown in midfield, whilst Kenny Coker and Adetayo Adedoja comprised a youthful front-line.
Blues were out of the blocks quickest with Arrowsmith slicing narrowly wide from the edge of the penalty area in the third minute, but they began to come under pressure and Wallace had to step across a forward to break up one attack before Arrowsmith cleared a cross that Grossart had failed to grab in the tenth minute.
Adedoja, who had earned an early corner with his strength, held off a defender to create a one-on-one opportunity with Campbell as play switched immediately to the other end, but his angled finish was superbly held at full-stretch by the custodian.
An entertaining start to the game continued with Adedoja’s appeals for a penalty waved away in the 13th minute before Orient spurned a good chance to take the lead when a right-wing corner was volleyed over at the far post. From their next attack, the home club tried to lob Grossart, who made a comfortable save to keep the scoreline goalless.
Clayden, who was formerly part of the O’s Academy, conceded a free-kick in a dangerous position after a quarter-of-an-hour, but Blues were fortunate as the ensuing driven dead ball was scooped over at the near post.
Adedoja’s determined style continued to pose problems for Orient. He held up play to release Brown down the right flank in the 21st minute, with his cross – intended for Oli Coker – over-hit, before Adedoja used his own pace to sprint past a defender and centre for Kenny Coker, who was closed down quickly and saw his snapshot saved.
An Orient forward fired wide shortly afterwards, but Blues took the lead in the 28th minute when Oli Coker drew a foul from an opponent. Adedoja was involved again in the build-up, snatching the ball from a defender to earn possession before the midfielder was brought down, and the second-year scholar then benefitted from a fortunate bounce as his 25-yard set-piece deceived the diving Campbell.
Blues had to remain alert to maintain their lead, with Grossart brilliantly turning a fine strike away from goal on the half-hour mark before leaping up to cover a close-range header that was directed narrowly over the crossbar.
When Grossart was finally beaten in the 35th minute, he turned round to see a shot bounce back off the right-hand post, and that seemed to spark Southend back into life with Oli Coker forcing Campbell to palm his fierce attempt from a narrow angle around the left-hand upright before a side-footed effort from namesake Kenny’s cut-back was easily gathered by Campbell.
Blues took a narrow lead into the interval, and they were indebted to Clayden for protecting their goal eight minutes after half-time when he executed two superb tackles deep in his own half to break up an Orient attack.
The advantage was subsequently doubled on the hour mark when Garzon was shoved on the edge of the penalty area. The position may have been considered ideal for Oli Coker again, but this time he feigned to shoot and instead Brown curled majestically into the top left-hand corner of the net.
The visitors should have added to their advantage in the 73rd minute when Kenny Coker’s persistent run down the inside-left channel ended with him being bundled over in the penalty area. The forward – who featured twice for the first-team last season – stepped up himself to take the spot-kick, but Campbell guessed correctly to push the ball to safety.
Forward Coker immediately attempted to atone for the saved penalty by chasing down a long ball, but an O’s defender raced back to deflect his shot away and, in the 80th minute, substitute Demaray Anyadike had an opportunity to net, only to scuff his half-volley wide from Wallace’s raking cross-field pass.
Kenny Coker slid another shot narrowly wide from Callum Burkey’s through-ball five minutes later and Adedoja was also unable to finish from Clayden’s long pass, but the major celebrations were reserved for stoppage time, when an Orent attacker failed to convert with just Grossart to beat to preserve a clean sheet.
“We told the boys that when you deny a goal being scored, that should feel as good as a goal being scored. It meant a lot to them to keep a clean sheet,” said youth team coach Danny Heath after the game.
“I’m over the moon for the boys. in terms of the league campaign it’s pleasing because they’ve got the three points and they produced the performance to go with it as well.”
Southend United U18s: Jamie Grossart, Harrison Clayden, Louie Arrowsmith, Jaden Crowhurst (Callum Burkey, 84), Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace, Cameron Brown, Brian Garzon (Demaray Anyadike, 75), Kenny Coker, Oli Coker, Adetayo Adedoja. Substitutes not used: Luke Reeve, Ergis Shala.
Goals: O Coker (28), Brown (60).
Cautioned: Arrowsmith (63, foul tackle).
Supporters are reminded that all U18s games are currently behind-closed-doors and not open to the public for the foreseeable future.