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Gillingham U18s 3-2 Southend United U18s

Gillingham U18s 3-2 Southend United U18s, EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One, Beechings Cross, Saturday 26th February, Kick-Off 10:30am

28 February 2022

Southend United U18s began their EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign with a 3-2 defeat to Gillingham on Saturday morning.

Blues were beaten for the first time in 2022 by the Gills, who are managed by Southend’s former Youth Development Phase coach Mark Moss, but it was a memorable morning for schoolboy Max Fiddes as he twice equalised for the visitors to Beechings Cross. 

Coach Danny Heath was pleased with the performances of both Fiddes and Freddie Buers up front: “Max and Freddie up top for us today were excellent,” he declared. “In the first half we didn’t really play to their strengths enough; too many times it was up in the air for their centre-halves.” 

“They had to take off their number 5 in the second half because he could’ve been sent off, and when we played to their strengths and played it on the floor, Max and Freddie caused them all sorts of problems. Freddie didn’t get as many chancers as Max, but his movement off the ball and his link-up play was very good.” 

Buers and Fiddes were joined by another U16s player, Romeo Botuci Ebondo, in the starting line-up, whist fellow schoolboys Luke Cerullo, Alfie Terry, Alfie Bangs, Ronnie Blake and Louis Bragg - an U15s player - were on the substitutes’ bench. 

“It’s about producing players for this football club and for the first-team. We’ve got second-years that have gone out on loan, which means opportunities now for first-years to step up to the plate and for U16s.” 

“Our U15s have played against Gillingham’s U16s at the same time, so long-term hopefully this will play a part in pushing these players to step up into the first-team environment,” Heath said of the decision to promote so many players for the Merit League opener. 

Blues made a bright smart in Kent with Omari Williams - who netted the opener against Sutton United six days earlier - exchanging passes with Henry Sandat and Mo Amir in the sixth minute before firing over from 25 yards out. 

However, Gillingham enjoyed the better of the early gambits, with Patrick Droney required to step across an opponent in the ninth minute and Louie Arrowsmith hooking the ball off an attacker’s toes for a corner. From the ensuing flag-kick, a Gillingham attacker nodded across the face of goal before a follow-up was deflected wide. 

Fiddes had an effort charged down from a Buers pass in the 16th minute, and Mo Amir then fizzed the ball across the face of goal with Sandat arriving marginally too late at the far post, but Blues went behind after 19 minutes when a superb free-kick was curled over the defensive wall and into the top left-hand corner of the net. 

Blues attempted to respond, and Fiddes scooped wide following a marauding run by skipper Arrowsmith down the left-hand side, but Gillingham ended the first half strongly and were denied by the crossbar on 34 minutes before Fin Purcell made a good near-post stop with his legs to keep the deficit down to one. 

Arrowsmith almost managed to haul the teenage Shrimpers level on the stroke of half-time when he was released by Buers down the left. He drilled a shot against the outside of the left-hand post with Fiddes screaming for a square pass in space at the far post. 

There was still time for Arrowsmith to enjoy another chance to deliver a telling centre in stoppage time, but he was dispossessed and Gillingham broke away with Purcell making another important stop at his near post to ensure it was only 1-0 at the interval. 

Although Purcell made a comfortable save early in the second half, Southend managed to equalise on 49 minutes through Fiddes. The young forward was picked out by Buers, who had advanced to the right-hand goal-line before cutting back for his team-mate to turn home his second youth team goal. 

Buers himself then tried his luck as Blues attacked with renewed purpose, but his 20-yard attempt was easy for the Gillingham goalkeeper to save and, instead, the hosts re-established their lead on 56 minutes when a left-wing cross was guided into the top left-hand corner of the goal by the head of a forward. 

The Gills were rampant and tried to finish the match off, with a half-volley directed over straight from the restart and Purcell then diving full-length to his right-hand side to turn a low shot around the post. 

Blues stood firm, and Williams tested the goalkeeper with a long-range strike on 64 minutes with Amir chipping the rebound over. Four minutes later Droney met an Amir free-kick and Fiddes was inches away from stabbing home with an outstretched right foot. 

Fiddes would not have to wait long for his second goal of the game, though, as he converted Amir’s delightful curling cross with an angled header into the bottom left-hand corner of the net from seven yards out. 

Again, it looked as though Southend were the stronger side after the leveller as Sandat curled over from just outside the penalty area and Amir stung the palms of the Gillingham goalkeeper with a 25-yard effort. 

Ultimately, however, parity would last just two minutes as the Kent club hit Blues with a sucker-punch. A right-wing centre in the 72nd minute wasn’t cleared by the Southend back-line and a Gillingham attacker thumped into the roof of the net from close-range. 

Fiddes went close to a sensational hat-trick a couple of moments later when he planted a header narrowly wide from a Williams cross, and Amir curled a free-kick from the edge of the ‘D’ narrowly off-target in the closing stages, but Blues couldn’t find a third goal to extend their unbeaten run. 

“It was a young team,” Heath confirmed. “We only had one second-year out there in Louie Arrowsmith and the rest were first-years and U16s, and I thought they gave a good account of themselves. If I’m being brutally honest, when we made it a football game and played on the floor, we were the better team.”  

“We look at performances, but it is about results as well at this level because the next stage is stepping into the first-team, and the key message is that the performance deserved a point. The boys feel they deserved to win, but at first-team level, when it’s their job and their livelihoods, they’ve got to make sure performances like that end in points.” 

Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Habib Bolarinwa, Louie Arrowsmith, Jacob Bland, Patrick Droney, Romeo Botuci Ebondo, Mo Amir, Henry Sandat, Freddie Buers, Max Fiddes, Omari Williams. Unused substitutes: Luke Cerullo, Alfie Terry, Alfie Bangs, Ronnie Blake, Louis Bragg. 

Goals:Fiddes (49, 70). 

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