Blues Youth see off Seagulls to go top

Southend United's Under-18 side moved to the top of the Puma Youth Alliance South-East Conference with a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion at Boots & Laces.


The Seagulls had headed Ricky Duncan's team on goal difference going into the clash, but saw their previously unblemished League record tarnished by two efforts from Blues midfielder Justin Hazell, who netted either side of the half-time break.


Head of Youth Duncan made just one change to the starting line-up that surrendered the Shrimpers' unbeaten run at home to Millwall as Callum Whittaker replaced Ade Osifuwa alongside Ronnie Jones in the centre of defence with the team desperate to atone for last weekend's disappointment.


Brighton were the last team to defeat United in a League fixture with a 4-1 success in Sussex at the start of March and, after Hazell had curled a 20-yard shot into the goalkeeper's gloves in the third minute, appeared the more likely to open the scoring.


A left-wing corner was headed powerfully over the crossbar as Blues weathered an early storm with a mixture of excellent last-ditch defending and a little good fortune. One wriggly run ended with Jones extending his leg to clear and Nathan McDonald saving the follow-up, whilst another fierce shot from the edge of the penalty area was deflected over.


Jones was unfortunate when he scuffed straight at the 'keeper from Whittaker's knock-down at the other end and Hazell fired over the crossbar when presented with the ball on the 'D'. Meanwhile, McDonald made another stop from a tame strike after a neat move down the left-hand side.

One key difference to the performance against Millwall came as Southend managed to launch a series of counter-attacks that helped to nullify the pressing game that their visitors employed. Craig Calver dropped deep on a number of occasions, just failing to thread the ball through to Hazell and Harry Crawford.


At the third attempt, the former Ipswich Town scholar managed to flick the ball over the defence to set Hazell clear forty yards out. The Leigh-on-Sea-born youngster retained his composure as he approached the goal to cut inside a defender before caressing the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of the net seven minutes from the break.


A Brighton defender went close with a fierce shot that flew inches over the bar and Whittaker was called upon to make a fine sliding tackle inside his own penalty area late in the first half, with Jack Morris repeating the trick soon afterwards to protect the Shrimpers' half-time advantage.


The Seagulls had a good opportunity to level seconds into the second period when a midfielder slashed over from five yards out after a corner was glanced into his path, but thereafter Southend dominated possession to create chances at regular intervals.


Just after the hour mark, Calver saw a low shot blocked after Merrick James-Lewis had squared into his path and the second-year scholar almost latched onto Hazell's slide-rule pass minutes later, the goalkeeper rushing off of his line to collect the ball.


However, it was only a matter of time before Blues added to their advantage, which they did with 68 minutes on the clock. Crawford rose to win an aerial challenge, allowing James-Lewis to swing a cross to the right-hand side. Calver's first-time effort was drilled into the path of Hazell, who managed to poke the ball into the roof of the net despite the close attentions of a defender.


Southend closed out the game comfortably, introducing Marcus Milner and Medi Abalimba during the final 20 minutes. The only sour point came when Ricky Byrne felt a twinge in his hamstring, John Owinja coming on to replace him at right-back.


Hazell had a couple of chances to complete a hat-trick; first a crisp shot looped over the bar after a deflection, then the first-year held onto possession too long after darting into the penalty box. The result, and the immediate response to the Millwall defeat, will have given the squad a massive boost ahead of a month of important fixtures, starting against Aldershot Town next Saturday.


Southend United U18s:
Nathan McDonald; Ricky Byrne (John Owinja 79), Ronnie Jones, Callum Whittaker, Jack Morris; Davis Abbey; Jamie Dennis, Merrick James-Lewis; Justin Hazell (Medi Abalimba 85); Harry Crawford (Marcus Milner 71), Craig Calver. Subs not used: Duran Reynolds, Ade Osifuwa.


Goals:
Hazell (38, 69).