Southend United U18s claimed the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League title for the second time in three seasons after a dramatic final day of the season ended with a 2-1 victory over Peterborough United.
The destination of the silverware was out of the hands of Danny Heath’s squad at the start of the day as a draw or victory for Northampton Town - the only team to defeat Blues in Merit League Two - in their penultimate fixture of the campaign would have extended the excitement for another week.
However, by the time the squad pulled into the car park at the Idverde Training Ground in Orton Longueville the teenage Cobblers were trailing 4-0 at Stevenage and, although they staged a remarkable recovery to narrow the deficit to one, a 5-3 defeat was confirmed less than 20 minutes into the fixture.
By that point winger Bobby Unwin had given Blues an early lead, and when Tendi Quamina added a second four minutes into the second period it looked as though Southend might seal the championship with some comfort. However, a Posh substitute halved the deficit midway through the second half and that led to a tense conclusion.
Heath named his strongest available side, with the exception of the two Cokers. Second-year scholar Oli would cap a good day for the Academy by making his EFL debut for the first team as a late substitute for another youth team graduate, Terrell Egbri, in the 1-1 League Two draw with Newport County.
The match was preceded by an impeccably-observed minute’s silence for former Republic of Ireland international and Swindon Town Academy Manager, Alan McLoughlin, who passed away last week at the age of 54.
When the game did get underway, Southend were quickly onto the front foot, with Callum Burkey slicing a shot over following an early corner and Unwin curling a 25-yard free-kick inches wide of the left-hand post after Cameron Brown had been brought down in the fourth minute.
Two minutes later Unwin, who has been restricted to just 15 appearances this season due to injury, netted his third goal of the campaign to put Blues in front. The winger received the ball on the left-hand side of the pitch following good work by Demaray Anyadike, and he darted inside before firing a clinical finish into the left-hand portion of the net from 15 yards out.
It was the perfect start from the visitors, although Peterborough sought to respond five minutes later with their first attempt towards goal being dragged wide of the left-hand upright from the edge of the penalty area.
On 21 minutes Southend thought they might have doubled their advantage through Brown, who turned home a Tommy Davis half-volley, only to see the assistant referee’s flag raised for offside. Six minutes later Brown angled a shot across the face of goal after receiving Quamina’s flick-on in the penalty area, but there was no-one arriving at the far post for a simple tap-in.
Blues were dictating the play at this stage, coping with Posh’s unorthodox 3-4-2-1 formation, and they regained the ball immediately from the goal-kick with Jaden Crowhurst shooting straight at the goalkeeper. When Peterborough went more direct from the next restart, skipper Jimmy Wallace did well to race back and dispossess an attacker with a perfectly-executed sliding tackle.
Those anxious moments were few and far between as Wallace and Davis organised the back four with the assistance of Jamie Grossart behind them. At the other end, Southend ended the opening period strongly, with Crowhurst again shooting straight at the goalkeeper from 25 yards out and Unwin seeing a driven attempt deflected into the side-netting in the final minute of the half.
Youth team coach Heath thought Blues could maintain their lead if they continued to do the simple things right, and they began impressively as Anyadike’s right-wing cross appeared to hit the hand of a defender. The referee turned down appeals for a penalty, but the Posh goalkeeper did well to brilliantly push the ball out for a corner as it appeared set to drop inside his near post.
The definitive moment of the match arrived shortly afterwards. Quamina, who made his first-ever competitive youth team start after two years out through injury in the first Merit League match of the campaign, gave his side breathing space with a goal of the highest quality, driving the ball unstoppably into the top left-hand corner of the net from distance.
The reaction of all the players, engulfing the forward as he slid to his knees on a greasy surface enlivened by persistent rain, spoke volumes about the spirit in the squad as they sought to share in his belated success.
Such was their desperation to see things through that the Shrimpers lost their way a little thereafter and failed to protect the two-goal advantage, surrendering possession too easily in midfield and inviting pressure on themselves.
Once Quamina and Anyadike had been unable to meet an inviting Unwin centre and Quamina had drilled a shot towards the goalkeeper in the 58th minute, the chances began to dry up, and Peterborough took advantage by reducing the arrears midway through the second period.
A substitute had just been introduced, and he raced clear to latch onto a through-ball delivered around the outside of the Blues back-line. Wallace couldn’t catch up with the attacker, and Grossart crucially slipped as he advanced to try and clear, and that allowed the Peterborough player to roll the ball underneath the gloveman as he attempted to recover.
It was a fleeting moment of real concern. Heath introduced Tayo Adedoja and Brian Garzon to replace Quamina and Crowhurst as Southend tried to take the sting out of the encounter, although the visitors continued to drop deeper as time ticked on and Grossart was called upon to claim a hanging cross before Harrison Clayden twice dealt with dangerous deliveries into the penalty area.
Grossart’s goal remained unthreatened during that period, though, and Blues finally managed to break out of their own half. On one occasion Adedoja did well to earn a couple of throws deep in enemy territory and then, in stoppage time, he burst clear of the Posh defence but could only steer his shot into the goalkeeper’s midriff from 20 yards out.
Despite that, the drama in the season denouement had already taken place, and the final whistle sounded amid cries of delight from the hardworking Southend squad. They had clinched the championship after winning four and drawing one of their six matches, proving themselves capable of following up the club’s success in 2019 with another triumph at the end of a difficult 2020/21 campaign.
Southend United U18s: Jamie Grossart, Harrison Clayden, Charlie Sayers, Callum Burkey, Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace, Demaray Anyadike, Jaden Crowhurst (Brian Garzon, 76), Tendi Quamina (Tayo Adedoja, 70), Cameron Brown, Bobby Unwin. Unused substitutes: Fin Purcell, Luke Reeve.
Goals: Unwin (6), Quamina (47).