Sam Gallagher’s stunning double helped Saints’ Development Squad on their way to a comfortable 3-1 victory over West Brom.
The striker’s brace – added to by Jake Sinclair’s penalty – ensured Southampton cruised to a deserved win at the Baggies’ training ground after they initially fell behind against the run of play.
Coach Martin Hunter felt the Under-21s transferred all their great training work onto the pitch and atoned for their cup loss to Exeter in perfect fashion.
Saints took the initiative early on and pressed the hosts with a rising effort from Sinclair that was glanced over the crossbar, followed by a goal-bound effort from Ryan Seager being blocked after the striker ghosted past several challenges.
Despite the encouraging start, the U21s surprisingly fell behind shortly after the quarter-hour mark, courtesy of an unstoppable strike from AARON BIRCH. The midfielder was afforded the space to slam a 30-yard drive that soared into the top corner of the net.
The visitors maintained to dominate however and struck back ten minutes later through a vicious lash from GALLAGHER.
After teeing up Seager with a clever flick that resulted in a blocked shot, Gallagher saw the favour returned when a cross reached him on the edge of the area. With the pass seemingly fizzing behind him, Gallagher swiftly re-adjusted and wrapped his foot around the ball, slamming it past the helpless Jack Rose and into the corner at the near post.
Following a goal with their first attempt of the encounter, the Baggies were restricted to very little in terms of opportunities, with a speculative Mani O’Sullivan free-kick failing to trouble Cody Cropper.
Despite blatant domination towards the end of the opening period, Saints failed to fashion any glorious opportunities as they went in at the break level on terms with the home side.
HALF-TIME: WEST BROM U21s 1-1 SOUTHAMPTON U21s
The second half brought an intense onslaught from the impressive Saints side that were thwarted on a number of occasions by Rose.
The Baggies custodian was equal to two stinging long-range efforts from Harrison Reed – both of which were destined to find the corner. Rose also rescued West Brom when pushing Sinclair’s 25-yard effort around the post and smothering Andy Robinson’s shot from similar distance before finally being beaten by GALLAGHER again.
With little under 20 minutes remaining, the towering striker rose to meet Omar Rowe’s corner with a header that was flicked into the far corner – handing Saints the lead they battled for and deserved.
The Baggies’ misery was compounded with just ten minutes left when Robinson was brought down in the area, leaving the referee no choice but to award a penalty.
SINCLAIR assumed the spot-kick duties and side-footed into the bottom corner; Rose’s outstretched arm failed to stop the ball from continuing into the net.
Not content with a two-goal lead, Saints admirably pushed on for a greater margin and that nearly paid dividends when Reed played Seager through on goal.
Unfortunately for the striker, Rose anticipated the danger well and swiftly raced out of goal to block Seager’s effort in the dying stages as Southampton eased to the three points.
FULL-TIME: WEST BROM U21s 1-3 SOUTHAMPTON U21s
Speaking after the game, Hunter was delighted with Gallagher after the youngster fired in his first and second goals for the U21s but was keen to stress that he was pleased with every single player involved for the Saints.
The coach honourably took the blame for the manner in which Saints conceded the opening goal and was full of praise for the way that progress is being made.
Hunter told Saints Player: “I’m delighted with the whole game. Apart from five minutes, that’s probably the best domination we’ve had in a game. All the players, including the two lads that came late on, were terrific – that’s the standard we’re trying to aspire to.
“To be fair to the boy (Birch), he struck it (his goal) in from distance – and I’ll have part of the blame for that. I asked Ryan [Seager] to push on behind him. The ball’s broken to him and he’s hit an unstoppable shot. That one is down to me, not the players.
“He (Gallagher) has been working hard at his game – we’ve been doing a lot of receiving with him in tight areas and that was clear today. He’s obviously scored a good goal from a good one-touch finish. He’s doing well, as are the other lads.
“The actual game started the day after the Exeter game in terms of the debrief, where we went through a lot of things, a lot of our errors. Then we had another terrific week’s training on our pressing and passing. Some of the possession today, in terms of playing in between the lines and playing between players, was terrific.
“They’re young players; they need to learn quickly. The lads on the bench are disappointed. There were one or two changes to the team today because of the Exeter game and people have come in and done well. That is what we need at U21 level. If you’re not performing, then you don’t get a shirt.
“The weeks vary. Three of the players (U21s) have trained with the First Team and also did the game preparation for us. That’s good. Things are going well at the moment and we need to keep doing that. Now we need to do the same in the next game.”
Hunter also reserved special praise for the influential Andy Robinson, saying that the midfielder’s display showed how strong he is mentally.
“I was delighted for Andy,” he continued. “He played really well. I was really pleased for him.
“He’s made a great comeback from injury after being out all that time and he looked brilliant today. His performance really showed his character.”
Double-goalscorer Gallagher was delighted to be able to replicate his prolific U18 form on the U21 stage and was thoroughly impressed in the manner that the side fought back after being unlucky to go one goal down.
When asked by Saints Player how it felt to score two, the striker replied: “I’m very pleased. I’ve scored a few for the Under-18s this season, but that’s my first for the U21s.
“We didn’t deserve to be one-nil down, so it was a bit of a relief to get us back into the game. I was really happy with it.
“I thought I had a better first-half than second – got on the ball a bit more. Overall, I was really pleased the performance – individually and as a team.
The Scotland Under-19 international was particularly satisfied by how the side responded to the Exeter loss in this match, echoing Hunter’s thoughts on how a successful week in training paid dividends.
“It was a difficult game against Exeter,” Gallagher conceded. “It was a different side we were playing against altogether but I thought we played really well today and pressed them high. They didn’t really know what to do.
“We’ve been working on a few things in training. He (Hunter) said that was working and paying off today.”
After getting off the mark for the U21s, the impressive striker was quick and assured in his response to what his upcoming targets are.
“Score more!” Gallagher gleefully responded.
WEST BROM U21s: Rose, Francis, Atkinson, Birch, O’Neil, C. Jones (Donnellan 59), Hallahan, Nabi (Oldnall 78), A. Jones, O’Sullivan, Ward (Barrow 78).
SOUTHAMPTON U21s: Cropper, Young, Targett, Reed (Flannigan 88), Stephens, Turnbull, Sinclair, Robinson, Gallagher, Seager (Moore 88), Rowe.