Jake Flannigan’s second-half strike was enough to earn Saints’ Development Squad a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Stoke City on Friday.
After helping Southampton to a stunning seven-nil victory over Portsmouth on Tuesday night, the midfielder was reinstated to the Under-21s and repeated his impressive form by calmly controlling Omar Rowe’s cross and sweeping the ball into the far corner.
Coach Martin Hunter was delighted with the manner in which the U21s carved out the Barclays Under-21 Premier League win against tough opposition at Nantwich’s Weaver Stadium and said it’s sent the side into the Christmas break in high spirits.
Despite earning a victory and a clean sheet on Friday afternoon, the U21s could have found themselves behind on a number of occasions in the opening stages.
Matthew Etherington was making good use of his experience as he broke into space down the left flank for a shot from the edge of the area that he dragged wide, before Maurice Edu slid the ball through to Derice Richards who skipped past a challenge before drilling a shot from identical range to the previous attempt, only to see it smothered by Will Britt.
Soon after, the pair who had come closest to breaking the deadlock combined but once again failed in their attempts. Etherington pulled the ball back for Richards to hit another goal-bound shot – this time from close range – only to see it blocked.
A Rowe free-kick that was curled narrowly wide from 25 yards was sandwiched by more Stoke efforts around the half-hour mark.
An Adam Thomas cross that was drilled through the six-yard box flashed across the face of goal and drew no contact; that period of pressure preceded arguably one of the most dangerous shots of the half, courtesy of Charlie Ward.
The schemer worked some space on the edge of the area under pressure from Matt Targett and scooped a looping shot that soared inches over the crossbar.
HALF-TIME: STOKE CITY U21s 0-0 SOUTHAMPTON U21s
It seemed that a flood of Potters attempts could have been imminent when Matt Young heroically rescued Saints from falling behind just six minutes after the restart.
Another troubling cross from Thomas found a fellow player on this occasion, Richards, who looked set to slam home from point-blank range but was prevented by a last-gasp block from the full-back before Southampton cleared the danger.
After more Stoke pressure, Saints cleverly countered and snatched a lead two minutes after Young’s intervention.
Rowe found space on the byline to pull the ball back for FLANNIGAN, who showed composure in the area as he teed himself up to steer the ball past Dale Eve and into the far corner of the net.
That helped Saints to tame a Potters side that were previously gaining confidence, restraining them to no opportunities in the late stages after nearly forcing an own goal through good work by Jordan Turnbull.
The centre-back raced the full length of the pitch under pressure before managing to whip in a cross from the touchline that was almost sliced into Stoke’s net by their substitute Ed Sanders before the defender swiftly hooked the ball away to safety.
The dying stages brought on onslaught that was tough for Saints to fend off as Stoke poured forward in numbers.
Southampton could have been thankful for the pitch conditions with five minutes of normal time remaining as Ryan O’Reilly’s cross found Thomas in a glorious position in the box, only to see the ball bobble up just as he was about to shoot, ensuring the midfielder swung his boot at thin air.
Thomas’ frustration continued as he narrowly failed to make contact when diving towards a cross that Karim Rossi had swung through the six-yard box, before Rossi saw an opportunity pass himself by when the ball ricocheted into his path in the area but Turnbull quickly reacted to block the substitute’s resulting shot.
Saints managed to hold Stoke off for a minute longer before time was called on an encounter where the visitors valiantly battled for a thoroughly pleasing three points.
FULL-TIME: STOKE CITY U21s 0-1 SOUTHAMPTON U21s
Speaking after the game, Hunter was pleased with the solidarity shown defensively as the U21s thwarted numerous attacks and grabbed the win through a delightful move of their own.
The coach was happy to welcome back goalscorer Flannigan back into the side and felt a change involving him controlling the game from the centre of midfield helped to turn the clash in Saints’ favour.
“I’m delighted,” he affirmed to Saints Player. “Difficult game – they were a difficult team, a very athletic team with several first team players in. So to win here one-nil is, for me, a better result than the performance against West Brom. Defensively, we were very, very solid and very professional. The goal was a bit a bit of cleverness from Omar [Rowe]’s pass and a great finish from [Jake] Flannigan.
“They started far brighter than us in both halves, so we had to defend several corners and we defended them very well, which I’m really pleased about. One of their strengths is to score off set-plays. We defended very well in those areas.
“I changed things round after about 20 minutes. We changed the shape slightly and put Jake back into central midfield, with ‘Robbo’ (Andy Robinson) to do more of a sitting role and put Jake [Sinclair] out wide – that helped us. That steadied us down.”
Hunter had full confidence when deploying winger Josh Sims in the final moments in place of Sinclair and claimed he would have no problem doing the same with the likes of youngsters Tom Leggett and Harry Isted, who he was absolute faith in.
Having recorded back-to-back wins in the league, the coach is already keenly looking ahead to the next game – the welcoming of Manchester United next month.
When asked about how good it was to be able to bring on Sims, Hunter said: “He would have got on earlier. Like Tom Leggett and the other boys, they’re here because we think they’re good enough. If we had a difficulty or an injury, they would have gone on. They’re not here just to make the numbers up.
“There’s little time before the festive period and then the next game is against Manchester United on the 13th January. We’re looking forward to that.”
Stoke City Under-21s: Dale Eve, Elliot Wheeler, Ryan O’Reilly, Alex Grant, Ben Heneghan (Ed Sanders 62), Adam Thomas, Maurice Edu, Jamie Ness, Matthew Etherington (Karim Rossi, 62), Charlie Ward, Derice Richards. Unused substitutes: Sam Westley, Daniel Gyollai, Lucas Dawson.
Bookings: Heneghan (37), Edu (62), Grant (90+3), Ward (90+4).
Southampton Under-21s: Will Britt, Matt Young, Jordan Turnbull, Jack Stephens, Matt Targett, Jake Sinclair (Josh Sims 87), Jake Flannigan, Andy Robinson, Dominic Gape, Omar Rowe, Tadanari Lee. Unused substitutes: Joe Curtis, Harry Isted, Tom Leggett, Corby Moore.
Goals: Flannigan (53)
Bookings: Turnbull (35)