Southend United U23s suffered a 3-1 defeat to Fulham at Roots Hall in their inaugural group stage fixture in the Premier League Cup.
O’Shane Stewart thumped home in superb fashion from the edge of the penalty area midway through the first half to give Blues the lead, but second-half finishes from Sonny Hilton, Ollie O’Neil and Charlie Robinson saw the Lilywhites claim the three points on offer in Group H.
“The boys have put in a shift,” reported joint U23s coach Danny Heath after the match. “We asked them to come in after the 90 minutes, whatever the result, with no regrets, knowing they couldn’t have given more, and I think they did that.”
Lewis Gard and Will Atkinson were handed starts as they continued their quest to build-up match fitness, with Atkinson named as one of three permitted over-age players in the competition.
Backed by over 200 spectators at Roots Hall, Blues made a promising start and, after Louis Walsh had seen appeals for a penalty waved away by the referee in the eighth minute, Tommy Davis’ header was tipped around the post by Taye Ashby-Hammond.
With Matt Rush proving to be a nuisance to the visiting defence with his tenacity, Southend remained in the ascendancy and Stewart showed his prowess from distance with a well-struck half-volley that flew narrowly wide from Gard’s ensuing corner.
Hilton scuffed a shot wide for Fulham shortly after that but, with Jimmy Wallace having also nodded off-target from a set-piece, Blues took the lead on 22 minutes when another free-kick led to Stewart lining up a stunning strike from the ‘D’ through a crowded penalty area and into the net.
“It was one hell of a finish from O’Shane,” Heath confirmed. “He has the ability, but it’s having the confidence just to give it a go. He has got it in his locker. He puts in so much effort out of possession, but in possession he’s got the quality to play the passes and he’s now adding goals to his game.”
“We put a lot of time and effort into set-plays. We’ve got a number that we go through for corners and wide free-kicks, central free-kicks and, like the youth team on Saturday, it’s pleasing to see it when it comes off on the pitch,” he added.
Devan Tanton drew a low stop from Collin Andeng Ndi as Fulham sought to respond, but that was a rare moment of anxiety for the hosts before the break as they continued to control the tempo of the match without creating any further clear-cut chances.
Blues would have been confident of starting their Group H campaign with a victory at the break, and Jon Benton dragged a shot wide early in the second half, but their hopes took a knock in the 51st minute when they failed to clear a high cross and Hilton’s deflected finish nestled into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Charlie Sayers did well to clear a Kieron Bowie centre off the line on the hour, but Southend still retained a threat going forwards and neat interchange between Gard, Rush and Walsh ended with the winger’s cross being cut out at the near post.
However, with the 20-year-old Hilton pulling the strings for Fulham, they looked dangerous and he was thwarted by Andeng Ndi, who then pulled off a brilliant double-save to deny O’Neill and Luke Harris.
Heath reflected that a difference in approach at this stage may have seen his side prevail: “We felt maybe we could’ve changed the shape earlier in the second half,”he said.
“For 60 minutes the boys put so much effort into the press from the front, starting with Rushy, so we could’ve gone two up front earlier to keep an extra body up top.”
“That would’ve maintained the press because I felt when they broke it Will Atkinson, Lewis Gard, O’Shane Stewart were all coming from behind, and maybe with an extra man up front we could’ve saved their legs a little bit more and picked up more second balls in midfield.”
Another dominant Wallace header dropped wide, with Rush unable to acrobatically turn home from the edge of the six-yard box, on 71 minutes, at which stage Cameron Brown replaced Gard in the centre of the midfield.
Three minutes later, Fulham edged in front for the first time. Connor McAvoy found Hilton advancing through midfield and he split the Blues centre-backs with a pass for O’Neill, who made no mistake in slotting beyond Andeng Ndi.
The Shrimpers shotstopper made a good save to keep out a driven Hilton effort within a few moments of the go-ahead goal, but he was powerless to prevent substitute Robinson’s header from an O’Neill cross flying into the net in the 86th minute.
Bobby Unwin had just come on to replace Atkinson at that stage but, despite their best efforts to try and grab something from the game, Blues were unable to test Ashby-Hammond. Heath was disappointed with the result but believes the squad will have gained valuable experience.
“Fulham are a good side,” he declared. “After the first half, they could have no complaints going in with us leading the game but, with a side of their quality, you can’t give them a chance because they’ll punish you.”
“We’ll have to watch the goals back, but we’re not sure they’ve gone bang-bang-bang and opened us up. I think we could’ve done something earlier with each of the goals to prevent them happening, so that’s something we’ve got to learn from.
“Hopefully the fans have walked away tonight and they’ve enjoyed the game. It’s good because the boys have had the chance to play under the lights and under that little bit of pressure,” he concluded.
Southend’s next Group H fixture is away to Colchester United on Friday 8th October, with the U’s also the next visitors to Roots Hall in the competition on Tuesday 11th January.
Southend United U23s: Collin Andeng Ndi, Rob Howard, Charlie Sayers, O’Shane Stewart, Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace, Jon Benton, Lewis Gard (Cameron Brown, 71), Matt Rush, Will Atkinson (Bobby Unwin, 85), Louis Walsh. Unused substitutes: Fin Purcell, Reiss Chandler, Demaray Anyadike.
Goal: Stewart (22).