Three goals inside seven second-half minutes by Stoke City attacker Douglas James-Taylor proved to be the difference between the teams as the Potters defeated Southend United U23s 3-0 at the Lyme Valley Stadium on Monday night.
James-Taylor showed excellent anticipation and awareness to net all three goals from close range between the 61st and 68th minutes of the Premier League Cup Group H clash to consign the young Shrimpers to a second defeat in three matches in the competition.
“Realistically now we know we’ve got to win all three games,” said joint U23s coach Mark Moss after the match. “It’s going to be tough, but you can’t just give up and lay down and die. We’ve got to come back stronger and learn the lessons from tonight.”
“It was a young team and there are a lot of lessons to be learnt, and we’ve got to try to win the next game and see where that takes us,” he added ahead of next month’s trip to Fulham.
There was limited first-team experience in the Blues side, whilst a number of regular U23s players were missing through injury or due to being out on loan. Five second-year scholars started the match as Southend sought to build on an impressive away draw at Colchester United.
Stoke almost made the perfect start when William Goodwin advanced down the right flank and squared for James-Taylor in just the second minute, but Reiss Chandler got across the forward to clear the ball out for a corner.
At the other end, good pressure by Brian Garzon almost presented Eren Kinali with a sight of goal, but City custodian Robbie Hemfrey managed to smash away the loose ball before the forward could pounce.
A frenetic start continued as Stoke piled on the pressure again in the third minute with Max McCarthy going around Grossart, but the goalkeeper managed to force the forward wide and, when the ball was delivered into the penalty area, the defence scrambled it to safety.
There was an anxious moment for Chandler when his attempted clearance from a right-wing cross was miscued, but fortunately Grossart was in position to gather the ball in the six-yard box and, with the game still less than five minutes old, Bobby Unwin nodded over a Garzon cross at the opposite end.
The pace of play did begin to subside thereafter, although not before Goodwin had cut inside from his station on the right flank and fired over from the edge of the penalty area. On 14 minutes, a Goodwin delivery from the right-hand side was cut out by Callum Burkey, who had an impressive match just in front of the back four.
Two minutes later full-back Chandler did well to cut out a Kieran Coates centre at the near post and thump the ball to safety, with the Stoke defender following that up by curling narrowly over from 25 yards out with his right foot in the 17th minute.
Stoke continued to push forwards, and Goodwin was inches away from connecting with Patrick Jarrett’s swirling cross in the 19th minute, but Blues began to find their feet and they stemmed the flow of attacks on their goal as the first half progressed.
Indeed, on 27 minutes Kinali almost benefitted from a misplaced pass, but he couldn’t get the ball out of his feet and eventually the opportunity passed. The half ended with Unwin - who scored against Colchester in the previous match - curling a free-kick wide, although in-between Burkey had done well to step in and tackle Goodwin in the penalty area.
Blues started the second half on the front foot, and they pushed their opponents back by holding a high line. This had built on their resolute and organised defence in the second half of the opening period.
However, Stoke eventually managed to get out and Miles Mitchell-Nelson was forced to track back to stab the ball off the toes of Thomas Sparrow at the expense of a corner in the 51st minute, and arguably the key moment in the match arrived five minutes later when Tom Curl replaced David Okagbue at right-back for the hosts.
Within a few moments he had put Jarrett clear with a through-ball down the right, with Grossart saving with his left foot, but his next two contributions would lead to goals. First he drove forwards and found McCarthy in space just outside the penalty area in the 61st minute.
His strike was repelled by Grossart, but he could only push the ball into the path of James-Taylor, who forced it underneath the goalkeeper’s body to open the scoring. Three minutes later, he had doubled his personal tally and his team’s advantage with a second.
Again James-Taylor showed excellent awareness after McCarthy’s initial attempt from, a Curl pass, had been partially stopped by Grossart, as he galloped in to turn home from close-range before the goalkeeper could gather the loose ball.
A devastating seven-minute spell was completed shortly afterwards when McCarthy’s shot was cleared off the goal-line by Mitchell-Nelson and James-Taylor was on hand to sweep the rebound into the roof of the net.
“That’s the difference when you come up against these sides; they punish you when they get a chance, and when you get chances or you get half-chances, you’ve got to take them early because you’re not going to get time for that extra touch or to get your head up,” said Moss.
“You’ve got to know where the goal is and you’ve got to finish. We got into some really good areas, but we lacked that final bit of quality at times to put the last touch on it.”
McCarthy dragged a shot wide after bursting clear of Louie Arrowsmith in the 71st minute, and skipper Mitchell-Nelson then got back to tackle Jarrett as he prepared to unfurl another effort before Goodwin drilled the wrong side of the left-hand upright for a buoyant home side.
Blues did have a final sight of goal when substitute Tommy Lambourne linked up with fellow replacement Tendi Quamina, but a combination of Hemfrey and centre-back Matthew Baker got back to deny the third-year scholar a late consolation.
“I thought we were really good for 60 minutes, and I think the first goal in these games is always important. If we’d have got it, it would’ve been a completely different game, but they got it and they smelt blood after that, and it became really hard chasing the game.”
“When you are chasing the game against Category One, Championship opposition, you’re chasing against one of the top sides in the country, so it was a good learning experience but ultimately we’ve fallen short and we’re disappointed,” Moss concluded.
Southend United U23s: Jamie Grossart, Reiss Chandler, Louie Arrowsmith, Callum Burkey, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Luke Reeve (Ergis Shala, 78), Jaden Crowhurst (Tendi Quamina, 78), Brian Garzon (Tommy Lambourne, 78), Eren Kinali, Cameron Brown, Bobby Unwin. Unused substitutes: Fin Purcell, Tayo Adedoja.
Cautioned: Chandler (44, unsporting behaviour).