Southend United U18s returned to winning ways with a 2-1 success at Stevenage in EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One on Saturday morning.
Brian Garzon scored for the second consecutive game since returning from his work experience loan at East Thurrock United to set the teenage Shrimpers on their way after a quarter-of-an-hour before Mo Amir’s unstoppable free-kick secured the triumph nine minutes later.
Garzon was joined in the starting line-up by Tayo Adedoja, who scored two goals in five matches in his own loan spell at Isthmian League Premier Division club Bowers & Pitsea. He replaced Freddie Buers in the only change to the team that lost 3-2 at home to AFC Wimbledon a week earlier.
Conditions were perfect at a sunny Shephalbury Sports Academy in Stevenage and Blues started on the front foot by playing in the home side’s half, but they were unable to craft any openings in the first nine minutes.
The home goalkeeper had claimed a couple of early set-pieces before he was called into action for the first time, making an outstanding one-handed save to claw away Henry Sandat’s header, although the effort would not have counted as the assistant referee’s flag was raised for offside.
In the tenth minute, pressure from Jacob Bland led to a misplaced pass in midfield and Adedoja almost took advantage, drawing another confident save from the goalkeeper with a rasping 25-yard strike before Garzon curled over from the edge of the penalty area with a right-footed set-piece.
From the ensuing goal-kick, a tactical tweak proved to be the catalyst for Southend to edge ahead. Bland was pushed forwards, and the midfielder’s role in the high press led to him winning possession on the edge of the penalty area. He quickly passed to Garzon, who impudently curled a first-time finish into the top right-hand corner of the net.
There was no let-up in the pressure from Blues, and they hungrily stole the ball immediately from the restart with skipper Harrison Clayden picking out Adedoja’s run. He danced around four defenders, but the goalkeeper did well to prevent him getting past him and the second-year forward got the ball tangled in his feet and failed to get a shot away.
Fin Purcell was called upon for the first time in the 17th minute to easily clutch a headed attempt, but play immediately switched to the opposite end where Sandat was brought down and Amir fired a free-kick inches over the crossbar.
That dead-ball effort proved to be a sighter for the midfielder as his next shot, in the 24th minute, would leave the goalkeeper with no chance. Amir brought the ball out of his own half, travelling over 50 yards before being tripped on the edge of the ‘D’. He then stepped up himself to strike the ball cleanly into the right-hand portion of the net to make it 2-0.
At this stage it looked as though the scoring might turn into a procession, but Stevenage stuck to their own task and there was a concerning moment on 26 minutes when Purcell was caught out of position as an attempted clearance was charged down and Ibrahim Kamara had to hook a shot off the line.
Shortly after the half-hour mark, the home side had cut their arrears. A right-wing corner was delivered to the near post, where an attacker had got in front of his marker to thump the ball on the half-volley into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal.
Purcell made a fine save in the final minute of the first half, diving to his right-hand side to keep out a Finlay Johnson strike, but Blues could have added to their own tally late on with Clayden seeing a header ruled out for offside and Amir’s 15-yard attempt blocked by a defender after good work by Adedoja.
There were no changes at the interval for Southend, and they almost benefitted again from their high press three minutes after the restart when Bland picked up possession and fed Adedoja. His fierce shot was parried out to Fiddes, who netted on the rebound but turned away with his head in his hands when he saw the offside flag raised again.
Fiddes then saw a free-kick charged down by the defensive wall before his 56th-minute shot lacked the power to test the goalkeeper. From the ensuing goal-kick, the schoolboy striker turned provider, delivering a left-wing cross that Adedoja glanced wide of the far post.
Garzon also drew a low save from the Stevenage goalkeeper during this passage of play but, as the match entered the final half-an-hour, the hosts began to believe they might be able to steal something from the game.
On 68 minutes Patrick Droney did well to step in and dispossess an attacker in the penalty area, and two minutes later Clayden was relieved that loud appeals for a penalty were waved away by the referee.
With a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, Danny Heath introduced schoolboys Smai Norman and Alfie Terry - the latter for his competitive youth team debut - for Clayden and Fiddes, and six minutes later Ronnie Blake replaced Adedoja, who had just fired narrowly over after holding off a defender.
The team had a particularly youthful complexion for the closing stages, and with a couple of injuries late in proceedings, they had to hold off their opponents for over seven minutes of stoppage time. The last of those injuries meant Stevenage finished with ten men, but that didn’t stop them troubling the Blues defence.
The key moment came three minutes after the regulation ninety when Purcell dived at full-stretch to his left-hand side to turn a precise finish around the right-hand post. Another attempt flew narrowly wide, but Southend did manage to end strongly and only another superb stop from the Stevenage goalkeeper prevented Amir from adding a third goal before the final whistle arrived.
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Ibrahim Kamara, Habib Bolarinwa, Jacob Bland, Harrison Clayden (Smai Norman, 75), Patrick Droney, Mo Amir, Henry Sandat, Tayo Adedoja (Ronnie Blake, 81), Max Fiddes (Alfie Terry, 75), Brian Garzon. Unused substitutes: Alfie Bangs, Romeo Ebondo.
Goals: Garzon (15), Amir (24).
Cautioned: Bolarinwa (55, foul tackle).