Southend United U18s maintained their unbeaten start to the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League Two season with a goalless draw at home to Milton Keynes Dons on Saturday.
Blues have taken seven points from a maximum of nine in the first half of their Merit League campaign and kept a ninth clean sheet of 2020/21 - and a third consecutive shut-out at home - in the process, a factor that pleased youth team coach Danny Heath.
“I thought the boys played well,” he said. “They performed well, with the pitch being quite hard and bobbly like it is at this time of year. Their game-management and understanding in terms of when to play in the defensive third and when to play into the final third was very good.
“It was a positive that we kept a clean sheet. MK Dons are a good side and they will create chances, but when they did that Collin made one or two good saves and the players on the pitch put their tackles in and got their blocks in.”
Collin Andeng Ndi made his competitive youth team debut in goal, behind a defence that contained another debutant in the shape of left-back Mitchell Fallows, who became the 14th schoolboy to appear for the U18s this term. At the other end of the experience spectrum, Bobby Unwin’s return from injury as a substitute represented a half-century of youth team appearances for the winger.
Perhaps the closest Southend would come to scoring was Oli Coker’s free-kick in the ninth minute of the match. The playmaker, who had been brought down on the left-hand apex of the penalty area, sent a viciously curling set-piece against the underside of the crossbar, with the assistant referee deeming the ball not to have bounced over the goal-line.
Tendi Quamina couldn’t turn home the rebound as the MK goalkeeper pushed out his follow-up from close-range and, in the 18th minute, it was the visitors’ turn to rattle the frame of the goal as an impressive half-volley from the right-hand side of the penalty area cannoned back into play off the inside of the left-hand upright.
That was a rare foray forwards for Milton Keynes at that stage as they found it difficult to get out of their own half such was the intensity in Southend’s high press. Coker chipped over from the edge of the ‘D’ early on and, midway through the first-half, Damaray Anyadike failed to pick out a team-mate with his right-wing centre.
Harrison Clayden also couldn’t locate a colleague after fizzing the ball across the six-yard box in the 29th minute, by which time Coker had flashed a 25-yard effort narrowly over the crossbar after receiving Cameron Brown’s pass 25 yards from goal.
After 37 minutes another tricky Anyadike run ended with his cross being retrieved by Tayo Adedoja at the far post. He used his strength to hold off an opponent and set up Brown, who warmed the gloves of the visiting custodian with a stinging drive from 25 yards out.
If Blues had enjoyed the majority of the chances up to that point, the final five minutes of the first half saw the hosts’ defensive qualities come to the fore. Andeng Ndi rushed out to clear the ball from the toes of an attacker twice, bravely diving at the forward’s feet on both occasions, before saving a low strike low to his right-hand side in the 43rd minute.
That meant there was a stalemate at the interval and, although Brown saw a long-range attempt deflected wide early in the second period, Heath identified a change in personnel might bring about the breakthough just before the hour mark, with Unwin and Callum Burkey replacing Quamina and midfielder Jaden Crowhurst.
Brown saw another attempt diverted wide in the 62nd minute from Anyadike’s right-wing cross before Unwin tried his luck from range five minutes later and steered a shot inches over from the edge of the penalty area.
The match was opening up and, although Coker’s long-range effort tested the MK goalkeeper in the 71st minute, Andeng Ndi was soon required to stand tall at his near post to make a stop before a brilliant intervention from the trialist shotstopper preserved his clean sheet as he palmed a close-range volley over despite having very little time to react.
The end-to-end action continued, and in the 77th minute Blues managed to scramble a corner away to safety after the ball had ricocheted around in the penalty area. That allowed Adedoja to break away on the counter-attack; he picked out Brown with his pass but the midfielder smashed over with time and space available.
Blues continued to press deep into the 90 minutes, with the MK goalkeeper doing well to turn an Unwin centre into the side-netting and Anyadike then guiding his right-wing cross too close to the gloveman, but there was to be no winning goal.
“I felt we created enough opportunities in the second half to win the game, but it was just a lack of quality in the execution whether that was when we were looking to hit the target and hitting the spaces in the goal to make it difficult for the goalkeeper to save or, when we weren’t shooting, the quality of the pass to create a chance for somebody to finish,” said Heath.
“The target as a group now is to win the league. It had been to get six wins from six, but winning the league is still achievable. Their target is to make sure this point is a big one and, come the end of the season, this could be an important result depending on how the other games go.”
Southend United U18s: Collin Andeng Ndi, Harrison Clayden, Mitchell Fallows, Jaden Crowhurst (Callum Burkey, 58), Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace, Demaray Anyadike, Cameron Brown, Tendi Quamina (Bobby Unwin, 58), Oli Coker, Tayo Adedoja. Unused substitutes: Brian Garzon, Luke Reeve.
Cautioned: Anyadike (50, unsporting behaviour).