Southend United U18s kicked off the 2021/22 EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference season with a 2-1 defeat at home to Gillingham.
Gillingham took the lead in just the fourth minute and added a second goal three minutes before the end to virtually seal their success. An own goal sixty seconds later gave Blues belated hope, but it was too late to affect the result of the game.
The hosts were without some key personnel, but youth team coach Danny Heath refused to make any excuses for the display: “It’s tough for the first-years because, for the first three or four months they need to find their feet, but it’s the same for Gillingham,” he said.
"They were a young team, but I thought they showed a bit more nous and game-management than we did. I thought we deserved something from the game for the second half performance, but you only get what you deserve if you have that bit of quality at the end of it.”
Full-back Harrison Clayden, who was injured in the final pre-season friendly against Millwall, and vice-captain Callum Burkey were both missing, whilst Southend were dealt a further blow when Tayo Adedoja went off following a blow to the face in the tenth minute.
By then Blues were already behind amid heavy rainfall at Boots & Laces. In just the fourth minute of the game Southend didn’t take enough care of the ball in midfield, surrendering possession so a shot could be squeezed into the bottom right-hand corner by a Gillingham forward.
Further chances came for the visitors inside the first quarter-of-an-hour as a deflected effort flew over in the tenth minute and then an attacker got between defenders Mitch Fallows and Patrick Droney but could only shoot straight at Fin Purcell in goal.
Southend were beginning to establish a territorial foothold in the game, but their chances were restricted to set-pieces, with skipper Jaden Crowhurst curling over following a foul on Louie Arrowsmith and then forcing the goalkeeper to palm away another shot just after the half-hour mark.
Gillingham retained a threat whenever they got forwards, and an attacker was inches away from converting a right-wing centre from close-range at the far post midway through the first half, although their opportunities began to become more sporadic.
Then, with two minutes remaining of the opening period, Blues were handed a lifeline. Arrowsmith, playing in a more advanced role on the left-wing, was brought down in the penalty area and the referee pointed to the spot, only for Crowhurst’s effort to be pushed out before Sam Ratcliff’s follow-up was deflected over.
"If we had scored that goal it could have completely changed the complexion of the game,” Heath lamented. “You could see at the end we were trying to get the equaliser and we were a bit too open. One ball has done for us and they’ve got in and finished the game off.
"It was a massive learning curve for the players today. John White was watching, Jack Bridge was watching, Sam Dalby was watching, and John White made a very important point for the players to learn.
"He watched for three or four minutes and he said there was no communication. That’s a massive part of the game. When you are communicating and talking to each other and getting people doing what they should be doing like marking positions and tracking runners, it makes you a lot more difficult to play against.
"Another thing they said was that football’s a simple game. Don’t over-complicate it. Do what you need to do, keep the balls simple and do the right things. It’s massive for the boys to learn,” Heath added.
In the second half, Southend did heed some of that advice. Ratcliff hugged the right touchline in the 50th minute and burst clear of the defence before drilling his shot into the side-netting before Crowhurst steered a 25-yard attempt narrowly over after the goalkeeper had dropped a Fallows cross a quarter-of-an-hour later.
Blues were employing a high press and forcing mistakes from the Gillingham defence, and the chances started to arrive. Arrowsmith saw a shot blocked in the penalty area after Crowhurst had been tackled and, on 68 minutes, Brian Garzon’s fierce strike was brilliantly turned around the post.
Crowhurst smashed a free-kick over from 25 yards out and Garzon was muscled off the ball at the near post as he tried to get on the end of a Ratcliff centre, but there was a warning on 82 minutes when a forward rounded Purcell and the covering Arrowsmith made a superb challenge to block.
At the other end Mo Amir blasted over from 15 yards out when team-mates were screaming for a square pass, and Blues were punished for their profligacy with three minutes remaining when a Gillingham forward beat Droney and slotted his finish underneath Purcell.
Within seconds Southend had halved their deficit as Ratcliff’s inswinging cross from the right-hand side was nodded past the goalkeeper for an own goal, but the home side couldn’t find a leveller, with the goalkeeper just managing to claim a Buers cross ahead of Ratcliff in the most anxious moment for the visitors.
"I was very disappointed with the first half," said Heath. "I thought probably only three or four players came out of that half with any credit. When you’re not playing well in terms of your footballing performance, you’ve still got to work and put a shift in.
"The second half was better. We got into some good areas and created some good chances, but either the final cross or the final pass or the final shot wasn’t good enough. To give credit to Gillingham, they did everything they could to stop the ball from going into the back of the net."
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Ibrahim Kamara, Mitchell Fallows (Freddie Buers, 78), Jaden Crowhurst, Luke Reeve, Patrick Droney, Tayo Adedoja (Sam Ratcliff, 10), Mo Amir, Louie Rodmell (Henry Sandat, 69), Brian Garzon, Louie Arrowsmith. Unused substitute: Habib Bolarinwa.
Goal: own goal (88).
Cautioned: Reeve (65, unsporting behaviour).