Southend United U18s began 2021 with an impressive 3-1 victory away to Stevenage to climb into the top three in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference.
Danny Heath’s side have now lifted themselves to within two points of leaders Luton Town with two games in hand after goals by Damaray Anyadike, Cameron Brown and Oli Coker sealed their latest success on Tuesday afternoon.
“It was very pleasing,” said Heath. “We spoke to the boys about coming back strongly in the New Year and from the first minute to the last we were excellent.
“Towards the end of 2020 we were coming in at half-time regularly saying that the second half would have to be better, but there was none of that at Stevenage.
“The pitch wasn’t the best and it wasn’t conducive to keeping possession, so we had to modify our game and the performance, in and out of possession, was excellent.”
Blues took the lead early in the match through Anyadike and, once again, youth team coach Heath paid tribute to the work undertaken on set-pieces at the club’s Boots & Laces training ground.
“The first goal came after a new set-piece routine the boys had been working on the previous day,” he explained. “As coaches, it’s not about us saying it must be done this way; we give them an initial set-up and then allow them to work on it and make it better.
“There was a bit of debate about who scored the goal. We believe it was Damaray, and he was in the right place at the right time, so that was pleasing. Luke Reeve is claiming that he got the final touch, but we thought it was Damaray."
Stevenage levelled early in the second half when Finlay Johnson slipped Obi Onyeagwara in one-on-one with Jamie Grossart and he made no mistake with his finish, but Blues hit back quickly and Brown and Oli Coker both netted from distance to earn a 3-1 lead.
“The second goal was a good reaction to Stevenage scoring to equalise,” Heath revealed. “It only took five minutes and both Cameron Brown and Oli Coker’s goals came from patterns of play that we’ve been working on.
“They were similar in that they were both scored from a position on the edge of the penalty area, but Cameron’s went into the top corner and Oli’s was hit low and hard.”
Despite the two-goal advantage, the drama was far from over and, after goalkeeper Grossart had been replaced by George Murray-Jones with ten minutes remaining, the schoolboy shotstopper took centre-stage.
“George came on for the last ten minutes and he made a great one-on-one save within a minute of coming on,” said Heath. “If it had gone 3-2 at that stage, that would’ve represented a change in momentum, but he stopped it by making himself big.
“Stevenage were then awarded a penalty, but George got down to his right-hand side and pushed it wide of the goal. A Stevenage player got to the rebound first, but he had to take an extra touch because he was at an acute angle, and Jimmy Wallace came out of nowhere to clear off the line.
“Jimmy got up and celebrated, even though he had collided with the post, and it’s great to see all the players celebrate together, not just when they score, but when they don’t concede. They recognise the defensive end of the pitch can win you games,” he added.
Another U16s player, James Taylor, was brought on for his competitive debut in the closing stages, and Heath was full of praise for everyone involved in the game before looking ahead to the season run-in.
“All of the boys played well, and if we were awarding marks they’d all get seven out of ten or above. It was a solid performance,” he stated.
“The target the boys set themselves was to have 20-plus points at Christmas and to be in the top three in the table. We were fifth, but we had 20 points, so they achieved that target.
“Ultimately the boys want to win the league and, starting at Stevenage, they’ve set themselves a target of getting 17-plus points from the final seven games of the season, so this was a good start.
“Our target as staff is to develop players for the first-team and players that are ready to play professional football, but it’s good that the players themselves have set their own targets as to what they want to achieve as a group.” he declared.
Southend United U18s: Jamie Grossart (George Murray-Jones, 80), Luke Reeve (James Taylor, 83), Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace, Damaray Anyadike, Jaden Crowhurst (Callum Burkey, 75), Cameron Brown, Oli Coker (Brian Garzon, 75), Louie Arrowsmith, Kenny Coker (Joe Shenouda, 83), Tayo Adedoja.