Southend United U18s suffered a disappointing defeat to Cambridge United as they returned to EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference action at Boots & Laces on Saturday.
Blues went into the match having netted four goals in each of their previous two outings - both away from home - against Milton Keynes Dons and Stevenage, but they were unable to transport that form to south-east Essex, where they had been defeated by Gillingham on the opening day.
A lethargic start to the game ended up costing Southend dearly as they failed to get their foot on the ball in the opening period and goals by Dan Barton and Kai Yearn saw the U’s go in 2-0 up at half-time.
Young forward Louie Rodmell’s first competitive youth team goal halved the deficit eight minutes after the interval, but a Glen McConnell penalty midway through the second half made it 3-1 and late contributions by Yearn and substitute Brandon Njoku - also from the spot - made it a comfortable morning for the visitors.
Coach Danny Heath was forced into one change as skipper Jaden Crowhurst was injured and could not take his place in the team and vice-captain Callum Burkey made his first start of the campaign in his place. Omari Williams, who limped off in the 4-2 win at Stevenage, was passed fit.
Cambridge, who had drawn all three of their league games going into the fixture, had the first sight of goal in the fifth minute, but full-back Louie Arrowsmith tracked the run of Nathan Brathwaite into the penalty area and Fin Purcell came off his line to clear at the expense of a corner.
Six minutes later Brathwaite was involved again as his right-wing centre was helped into the path of Saleem Akanbi by Barton, but the attacker’s fierce shot was charged down by central defender Luke Reeve in the six-yard box.
Southend started to gain a little possession as the opening period progressed, but Mamadou Jobe stepped in to challenge Brian Garzon in the 13th minute and, from the ensuing flag-kick, Reeve nodded powerfully wide of the far post.
Ibrahim Kamara did well to read a chipped McConnell pass in the 19th minute and cut the ball out, but Blues were fortunate seven minutes later when McConnell’s short corner was collected by Yearn on the apex of the penalty area and his shot was swept against the top of the crossbar.
Tayo Adedoja, playing in a central role, and Garzon, who netted a hat-trick seven days earlier, were struggling to get involved in the game, with Adedoja firing well wide in the 21st minute. Garzon almost got lucky a few moments later when his free-kick caught a gust of wind and U’s goalkeeper Jonah Gill had to twist acrobatically to grab the ball above his head.
Reeve headed wide from a Mo Amir cross just before the half-hour and Adedoja was unfortunate when he chased down an under-hit Harvey Beckett back-pass but Gill’s clearance, which was smashed into the second-year scholar, ricocheted off-target.
It looked as though Southend might get out of the first half on level terms, but Cambridge took the lead in the 35th minute. Akanbi held off the attention of Patrick Droney to release Barton in the penalty area, and he got around Reeve to angle a finish into the bottom left-hand corner.
Southend responded with Reeve’s side-footed shot deflected wide from Adedoja’s lay-off and Adedoja himself failing to get a shot away from a Williams pass, but they were hit by a second U’s goal on 43 minutes when Brathwaite’s through-ball allowed Yearn to steer past Purcell.
Heath made a double substitution at half-time with Williams and Ratcliff withdrawn and Rodmell and Henry Sandat coming on. Rodmell played through the middle, with Sandat in support, and Adedoja and Garzon were pushed into wider positions.
The changes had an immediate effect, with Heath imploring his side to raise the tempo. Garzon found Rodmell on the edge of the penalty area on 50 minutes for a scuffed shot at Gill before the custodian got a crucial touch to Arrowsmith’s left-wing cross to take it away from Adedoja.
On 53 minutes the positive intent reaped its rewards for the hosts as they hauled themselves to within a goal of parity. Amir instigated the move in midfield, pushing the ball out to Adedoja on the right, and he timed his pass to perfection for Rodmell to roll a left-footed finish in off the base of the right-hand post.
Further opportunities arrived as Blues pinned the visitors back in their own half. Arrowsmith’s free-kick was glanced wide by Reeve before the left-back fizzed a teasing centre into the six-yard box on the hour that was inches away from Rodmell’s outstretched right foot.
Amir saw a strike from the ‘D’ deflected inches wide of the left-hand upright two minutes later and, within seconds, the all-action midfielder had grazed the woodwork with a 25-yard drive that Gill brilliantly touched onto the outside of the same post.
Against that backdrop, Cambridge’s third goal came completely against the tun of play. With the two teams battling for the ball in the penalty area, the referee spotted a foul by a Southend defender and McConnell stepped up to coolly slot home the spot-kick.
Blues refused to let the setback halt their forward momentum and Burkey was unlucky when his half-volley from the edge of the area was superbly tipped around the post by Gill, who performed more heroics to deny Adedoja on 79 minutes.
Sandat also snatched at a good chance from 15 yards out and smashed over, whilst Garzon saw a 20-yard effort deflected wide, and Sandat then fired wide after good work by Rodmell as the game moved into the final ten minutes.
But, with Blues unable to find a second goal, Cambridge eased clear in the final couple of moments as McConnell set up Yearn to curl home and complete his brace before Njoku sent Purcell the wrong way from the penalty spot after being brought down by Kamara. Southend will be looking to bounce back next Saturday when they make their first-ever trip to Sutton United.
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Ibrahim Kamara, Louie Arrowsmith, Callum Burkey, Luke Reeve, Patrick Droney, Sam Ratcliff (Louie Rodmell, 46), Mo Amir, Tayo Adedoja, Brian Garzon, Omari Williams (Henry Sandat, 46). Unused substitutes: Max Spence, Jacob Bland, Mitch Fallows.
Goal: Rodmell (53).