Southend United U23s defeated Isthmian League North Division club Soham Town Rangers 2-0 in their latest friendly fixture on Saturday afternoon.
Two goals inside two first-half minutes by Jimmy Wallace and Issa Mpenga were enough to earn the young Shrimpers a hard-fought victory at Julius Martin Lane, but Head of Academy Coaching Ian Hart was measured in his appraisal of the performance.
“I thought it was a comfortable game in how we had possession,” he said. “Soham didn’t really trouble us; they looked good from set-pieces and they were quite direct in how they played, but we dealt with that quite well. I’m happy with a 2-0 win and a clean sheet but, for the standards we set as a group of players and as an Academy, there were things we could improve upon.”
Goalkeeper Jamie Grossart was fit enough to return to the starting line-up after almost four months out through injury, with full-back Reiss Chandler the only other change from the win against Luton Town seven days earlier. Collin Andeng Ndi and O’Shane Stewart were the two players to make way.
Southend made a good start to the game, and Jon Benton curled over from 16 yards out from Freddy Eastwood’s lay-off in just the second minute of the match. Sixty seconds later Soham goalkeeper Josh Pope was called into action for the first time as he parried out a stinging Eren Kinali strike and the ball was cleared before Mpenga could pounce on the follow-up.
Pope - who is the older brother of England international gloveman Nick - was beaten in the eleventh minute when Mpenga prodded Kinali’s flick-on past him, but the former Mildenhall Town custodian recovered to push the ball out of Kinali’s path as he shaped to side-foot the ball into the empty net.
There was a rare moment of anxiety at the back for Blues in the 18th minute when Grossart was required to grab a header from a right-wing corner and, six minutes later, the shotstopper produced a fine save to turn a ten-yard snapshot around the right-hand post.
The second Soham opportunity arrived just seconds after Oli Coker had curled into Pope’s gloves having linking up with Kinali on the left-hand side of the penalty area, but chances for either side remained a rare commodity as possession was squandered too easily.
Both defences were organised well from open play, and so it was no surprise when the opening goal arrived in the 38th minute following a set-piece. Benton sent a telling right-wing delivery into the Rangers penalty area and centre-back Wallace steered a deflected half-volley into the bottom left-hand corner of the net to edge the visitors ahead.
Two minutes later that advantage was doubled following another dead-ball situation. Benton and Eastwood stood over a corner from the opposite left flank and the former’s inswinging delivery to the near post was this time met by Mpenga, who leapt highest to angle the ball inside the right-hand corner of the goal.
“We’ve concentrated on set-pieces, both defending and attacking, because I know how much teams can hurt you,” confirmed Hart. “In the EFL, you see a lot of goals scored from set-pieces, so if you get them right - if you get your runs right and get the delivery right - it can cause teams problems.”
Southend could have added a third goal before the break after more good build-up play by Kinali and Coker, but Benton’s thumping effort was cleared by the thigh of defender Sam Kelly on the goal-line and the away team had to satisfied with a two-goal lead.
Cameron Brown and Bobby Unwin replaced Coker and Sam Brogan at the interval, and within eight minutes of the second period starting Ergis Shala had come on for Wallace, who had picked up a knock. By that time Unwin had set up Benton, who saw his shot blocked, whilst captain Miles Mitchell-Nelson nodded a corner onto the roof of the net at the near post.
Southend were in control of the game, but sights of the Soham goal remained sporadic, and it was not until midway through the second half that the next opportunity arose as Kinali drifted inside from the right touchline and forced Pope into a good save from a left-footed strike.
Andeng Ndi replaced Grossart with 20 minutes remaining but, like his predecessor, he was rarely tested. Instead, the action was centred at the other end where Brown saw a 25-yard free-kick deflected wide and Benton set up Kinali for a half-volley that was dragged across the face of goal.
Perhaps the closest Blues would come to extending their lead was in the 87th minute when Kinali’s ball over the top was controlled by Eastwood, who chipped Pope delightfully but saw full-back Kelly on the goal-line again to nod clear. Then, in the final minute, Kinali fired wide as he came under challenge from a defender.
“I’ve just spoken to the lads about the sloppiness when we gave them possession, considering how much we like to play football, letting us down,” added Hart. “We didn’t create enough opportunities from open play, and that wasn’t good enough, considering the players we had out there and how creative they are.”
The U23s squad complete their season next Saturday when they make the short trip to Billericay Town to take on the National League South outfit in another friendly.
Southend United U23s: Jamie Grossart (Collin Andeng Ndi, 70), Reiss Chandler, Ide Osimeh, Sam Brogan (Cameron Brown, 46), Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Jimmy Wallace (Ergis Shala, 53), Eren Kinali, Oli Coker (Bobby Unwin, 46), Issa Mpenga, Jon Benton, Freddy Eastwood.
Goals: Wallace (38), Mpenga (40).