Southend United U18s warmed up for their FA Youth Cup First Round tie against Cambridge United on Thursday with a 2-1 league victory over Northampton Town at Moulton Agricultural College.
Mo Amir fired Blues in front in the tenth minute but an own goal on the stroke of half-time levelled the scores. However, Jaden Crowhurst’s superb free-kick thirteen minutes from time ensured Danny Heath’s side claimed a third consecutive EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference win.
"The boys can’t remember the last time they came here and won," said Heath. "It’s a tough place to come and they make things difficult for you, so sometimes it’s not just about performing to the best of your ability but finding a way to win against tough opposition."
Heath made two changes from the team that had beaten Leyton Orient 5-2 at Boots & Laces seven days earlier with injured central defender Patrick Droney replaced by Habib Bolarinwa and third-year goalkeeper Jamie Grossart coming in for Fin Purcell between the sticks.
Blues had been knocked out of the EFL Youth Alliance Cup at the same venue three weeks earlier, but they started this fixture on the front foot and went close for the first time in the eighth minute when Henry Sandat was brought down and Crowhurst’s 25-yard free-kick was deflected wide.
Two minutes later Southend took the lead. Crowhurst was involved again, forcing the ball beyond Courtney Lashley for Tayo Adedoja down the right flank. The forward cut the ball back for Amir, who scored his third goal in the last four games by steering into the bottom left-hand corner.
It was deserved reward for an impressive start as the teenage Shrimpers suffocated their opponents, swarming them whilst out of possession and then building up with intricate play on the edge of the penalty area when they did earn the ball.
Northampton had dominated spells of the previous meeting between the teams, and although Rico Duggan dragged an effort across the face of goal midway through the first half, they were not allowed to impose their style on the opening half-an-hour of the encounter.
Indeed, Amir could have doubled his own tally for the morning on 29 minutes when Adedoja poked the ball into his path, but this time he failed to get enough purchase on his shot and James Dadge was able to make a tumbling save to his left-hand side.
However, as the opening period drew towards a close, Blues began to become sloppier in possession and every time they cleared the ball, they were unable to hold it up in opposition territory, inviting more pressure onto themselves.
Brian Garzon made a good block to prevent Jack Connor’s curling strike from testing Grossart following a Miguel Ngwa counter-attack in the 31st minute before Grossart made a fine save at full-stretch to his left-hand side to deny Ngwa five minutes later.
Grossart performed more heroics in the final minute of the first half when Ngwa again tried his luck with his right foot after cutting inside from the left flank. Unfortunately, on this occasion, Kai O’Keeffe retrieved the parried stop and his cross was deflected in for an own goal.
Blues needed to get back to what they had been doing in the initial stages of the match, and Amir saw an early strike deflected wide after exchanging passes with Louie Arrowsmith on the left-hand side. Cobblers captain Peter Abimbola then volleyed wide in response for the hosts.
The game was evenly-poised, although Adedoja’ high press almost created a chance for Sandat in the 63rd minute. Dadge’s clearance dropped invitingly for the forward, but he failed to get any loft on his long-range attempt and the goalkeeper made a comfortable save.
Amir drove inside after winning the ball on 69 minutes before curling wide, but Southend finally edged ahead eight minutes later when Sandat was brought down 25 yards out. Crowhurst curled the ball delightfully over the defensive wall and into the top left-hand corner of the net to score his fifth goal of the campaign.
“It was a real moment of quality for Jaden to score with the free-kick, and I’m pleased for him because he works hard at that part of his game. He does lots of extras on set-pieces at the end of training,” Heath revealed.
Sandat and Crowhurst were immediately replaced with Joe Shenouda and Omari Williams as Heath sought to freshen up his attacking options, and Blues could have extended their lead on 81 minutes when Amir saw another effort deflected wide following good build-up by Garzon and Williams.
Shenouda then stabbed over from the resultant corner after Amir had flicked on Williams’ flag-kick, but Northampton weren’t prepared to lie down and Grossart gathered from Tom Curry as he attempted to turn home a Ngwa centre on 82 minutes.
As the clock ticked down, the hosts earned a series of set-pieces in dangerous positions. Josh Brown nodded over from Brad Smith-Howes’ first delivery before Grossart claimed a looping header from the next.
With the game entering injury time, Jacob Bland came on in place of Brian Garzon, and Blues saw the game out to keep pace with AFC Wimbledon and Thursday’s opponents, Cambridge United, at the top of the table.
"The half-time interval gave us a chance to get in and regroup because they were on top at that stage,” said Heath. “We had an opportunity to catch our breath and the challenge for the boys was to start the second half like we had started the first half."
"I thought in the first 20-25 minutes the boys had played really well in terms of their quality with the ball and their work-rate out of possession and defending against their shape, but then we began to be sloppy too often and our clearances gave them a chance to sustain the attack and sustain the pressure on us."
"Jamie did not have a save to make in the second half so, from a defensive point-of-view, we restricted them to nothing in terms of shots on our goal, but I felt a draw would probably have been a fair result, even though we created more opportunities in dangerous areas," he concluded.
Southend United U18s: Jamie Grossart, Ibrahim Kamara, Louie Arrowsmith, Callum Burkey, Luke Reeve, Habib Bolarinwa, Jaden Crowhurst (Omari Williams, 78), Mo Amir, Tayo Adedoja, Brian Garzon (Jacob Bland, 90), Henry Sandat (Joe Shenouda, 78). Unused substitutes: Mitch Fallows, James Taylor.
Goals: Amir (10), Crowhurst (77).