Southend United’s involvement in the Premier League Cup was curtailed by a 5-1 Group H defeat to Stoke City U23s on Monday evening.
Blues needed to beat the visitors at Roots Hall and hope that Colchester United couldn’t defeat Fulham at Motspur Park in order to progress and, although the Lilywhites kept their part of the bargain with a 3-1 triumph, Danny Heath’s side were unable to stop the Potters.
Douglas James-Taylor was the tormentor-in-chief as he contributed a second hat-trick of the season against the teenage Shrimpers, with William Goodwin netting with a first-half volley and D’Margio Wright-Phillips adding a fifth in stoppage time. Bobby Unwin was on target for Blues.
“I think those that were here watching would say that it wasn’t a 5-1 game,” said Professional Development Phase Coach Heath. “There wasn’t a four-goal difference between the two teams. I’m proud of the boys’ efforts. I thought they showed glimpses of good play throughout the game against good quality opposition.”
“The frustrating thing is that, when we watch the game back, all five Stoke goals were avoidable, and we’ll think that they could’ve been prevented by better defending and by making it more difficult for them to score.”
With a more experienced team taking on Premier League Brentford in a behind-closed-doors friendly earlier in the day, the fixture represented an opportunity for the club’s second- and third-year scholars to catch the eye against Category One Academy opposition under the floodlights.
Within the first three minutes, forward Tayo Adedoja could have scored twice for the hosts. First, he picked up possession after Jon Benton had advanced through midfield, only to see his shot diverted wide, and then he almost benefitted from Southend’s high press as goalkeeper Blondy Nna Noukeu just managed to clear in time.
Unfortunately, Stoke then took the lead with their first attack of the match in the eighth minute. Wright-Phillips’ right-wing cross was deflected high into the air and James-Taylor, who netted all three goals in the reverse fixture in November, forced a close-range finish past Fin Purcell.
Cameron Brown warmed the gloves of Nna Noukeu in the 12th minute, but James-Taylor was celebrating again a couple of minutes later when he thumped home from six yards out after the ball had been squared to him at the far post.
Southend continued to push forwards, and Unwin drew a parried stop from Nna Noukeu that could have dropped more kindly for the onrushing Adedoja. Instead, a Stoke defender cleared, and in the 18th minute Oli Coker fired narrowly wide of the right-hand post from Adedoja’s lay-off.
Unwin then drew a routine save from the City custodian with a drilled effort from 20 yards out before Stoke extended their lead still further on the half-hour mark. Ibrahim Sy’s cross was deflected out for a corner, and the flag-kick was met at the back post by Goodwin, who had wriggled free of Harrison Clayden to hook into the roof of the net on the volley.
Adedoja was thwarted by Nna Noukeu’s legs and, after Sy had seen his attempt diverted wide in the 42nd minute, the first half closed with Demaray Anyadike cutting inside from the left to control a cross-field pass and curling against the top of the crossbar.
Callum Burkey replaced Coker, who has recently returned from a back injury, at half-time, and his thunderous effort from a Benton free-kick was charged down five minutes into the second period.
However, Stoke were not content to sit back on their three-goal cushion and Purcell had to make a low save to deny David Okagbue after he had progressed through midfield, and Goodwin and Thomas Sparrow both went close with off-target headers in the 53rd minute.
First-year gloveman Purcell stood up well to prevent James-Taylor from converting a precise through-ball two minutes later, and Blues came back into the game with Benton and Brown both forcing Nna Noukeu into fingertip saves as the hour mark approached.
Brown also dragged an effort wide of the left-hand upright midway through the second half, but James-Taylor finally completed his hat-trick on 71 minutes when he beat Purcell to Nna Noukeu’s booming goal-kick and nodded it over the stranded shotstopper before thrashing the ball gleefully into the empty net.
Nna Noukeu was intent on trying to maintain his clean sheet and, when Sandat’s skidding strike was palmed into the path of Brown, he did brilliantly to get up quickly and smother the midfielder’s well-struck follow-up from eight yards out on 78 minutes.
There was no jeopardy in the group stage situation for Stoke, who knew that victory would earn them a place in the last sixteen, but Purcell was still required to grab hold of Goodwin’s first-time effort at the near post on 81 minutes before pawing substitute Jack Griffiths’ arcing attempt wide.
Nna Noukeu then made a tremendous full-length save to turn Benton’s curling left-footed strike around the post before he was finally beaten by Unwin, who pirouetted on the spot before firing clinically into the net from eight yards out with five minutes remaining.
Unfortunately, there was still time for Stoke to restore their four-goal advantage in additional time as Wright-Phillips collected the ball on the right touchline and cut inside before steering his finish across Purcell and into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
“I’ve told the boys they’ve got to be proud of their achievement,” Heath remarked afterwards as he looked back on the Premier League Cup campaign. “They are the first group of players to qualify for the group stages of this competition, and that’s something they should be proud of. We’re proud of them as staff.”
“The culture and environment that is being created at the club is about doing your best for the badge, having that pride and passion to play for Southend United. I felt for every minute of the game tonight they didn’t give up and they kept fighting for the cause.”
Southend United U23s: Fin Purcell, Jaden Crowhurst, Louie Arrowsmith, Cameron Brown, Harrison Clayden, Luke Reeve, Demaray Anyadike (Habib Bolarinwa, 87), Jon Benton, Tayo Adedoja (Henry Sandat, 70), Oli Coker (Callum Burkey, 46), Bobby Unwin. Unused substitutes: Luke Cerullo, Patrick Droney.
Goal: Unwin (85).