Southend United U18s bounced back after suffering two consecutive defeats with a 3-1 victory over last season’s EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference champions Leyton Orient.
Ruel Sotiriou, who scored one of the goals when Blues were knocked out of the 2016/17 FA Youth Cup by the O’s, was on target after just 42 seconds of this encounter, but captain Harry Cuthbert crucially levelled just five minutes before half-time and second-half finishes by Jon Benton and Emile Acquah handed Southend a fourth win of the season.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey made three changes to the starting line-up that had lost 3-1 to Oxford United in the Youth Alliance Cup during midweek. Ide Osimeh returned at left-back in place of Yonis Farah, whilst Terrell Egbri came into the team for the injured Eren Kinali. Zak Pianim solidified the midfield, with Miles Mitchell-Nelson playing in defence and Sewa Marah dropping out of the squad.
Blues had barely touched the ball from kick-off when the hosts took the lead inside the first minute. Play was shifted out to the right-hand side, and Hector Kypianou crossed for Luca Carter. He slotted the ball beyond Nathan Bishop, and Sotiriou was on hand to get the vital touch to send it into the net.
Despite that early set-back, Southend were able to attempt a response, and a third-minute Matt Rush strike from 25 yards out bounced up awkwardly, although goalkeeper Arthur Janata judged his save well and collapsed on the ball. Seven minutes later Benton scrapped hard for possession and that allowed Acquah to send a deflected shot inches wide of the left-hand upright.
After a quarter-of-an-hour, Blues opened up the home defence with the move of the match at that point as Acquah flicked the ball into the path of Rush down the right flank. He crossed for Cuthbert, who knocked it down for Egbri to send an effort into Janata’s gloves from the edge of the penalty area.
The O’s, who ended 2016/17 with many of last year’s title-winning side featuring for the first-team as they slipped out of the Football League, enjoyed their best spell of the game in the middle of the first half. Sotiriou darted in from the inside-right channel in the 18th minute, with the Southend defence covering well to force his shot wide, and Dan Humphreys then had to make a goal-line clearance from the forward.
Just after the half-hour mark Bishop had to race out of his area to nod Toby Stevenson’s chipped pass away from the onrushing Sotiriou but Blues weathered the storm and, on 34 minutes, Stevenson was involved in a defensive capacity as he cleared Taylor Curran’s centre away from Acquah and Rush lashed the ball into the side-netting.
Orient could have doubled their lead four minutes later when Amin Benyouef and Hector Kyprianou combined to find full-back Andrew Tayaka, but he flashed a cross along the six-yard box and Southend switched play quickly to the opposite end, where Cuthbert linked up with Egbri to set up Benton for a curling strike narrowly over the crossbar.
Within seconds the visitors had managed to source an equaliser through Cuthbert’s first goal of the season and only his second in Southend colours. The midfielder latched onto Rush’s precise pass from the right-hand side of the penalty area and he stabbed the ball past Janata to make it 1-1.
Blues could even have gone in at the break a goal to the good when Mitchell-Nelson rose to meet an inswinging Osimeh corner, but Stevenson managed to get to the ball first and nod it just inches over his own bar and, in first-half stoppage time, Bishop preserved parity by clutching a Benyouef drive to his chest.
After a highly-competitive opening period, the second half proved equally exciting and Acquah could have scored within two minutes of the restart when he rose unmarked to nod a Rush cross over. The tall forward went even closer on 55 minutes when his downward header from another Rush centre was brilliantly turned onto the bar by Janata.
In between those openings, Kyprianou could have edged Orient ahead when he ran onto a Tayaka pass and sent his shot inches wide with the outside of his right foot, and the O’s went even nearer in the 68th minute when Charles Clayden skipped past Mitchell-Nelson and sent his shot against the inside of the right-hand post.
The ball rebounded to safety with home players vehemently suggesting to the officials that it had flown out off the metal stanchion inside the goal. If that was the case, then Southend certainly made the most of their fortune as Benton fired in from 25 yards to put the away team in front on 72 minutes. Janata got a strong hand to the ball, but it still squirmed through his grasp and into the top right-hand corner.
Sotiriou smashed a vicious volley wide shortly afterwards, but Blues were soon on the attack again and putting the game beyond their hosts with fifteen minutes remaining. Acquah won possession for Benton, who then squeezed the ball back to his team-mate for him to toy with Janata before slotting in his 20th youth team goal from just 20 starts.
Schoolboy Charlie Kelman was already on the field, and he was joined by first-year scholar O’Shane Stewart for the final 12 minutes. Bishop gathered Sotiriou’s nonchalant flick, Stevenson glanced a Tayaka cross wide and Bishop claimed a Tayaka set-piece, but Blues held on to lift themselves up to fourth in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference table ahead of next week’s trip to Peterborough United.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Dan Humphreys, Ide Osimeh, Zak Pianim, Taylor Curran, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Matt Rush, Harry Cuthbert (O’Shane Stewart, 78), Emile Acquah, Jon Benton, Terrell Egbri (Charlie Kelman, 74). Substitutes not used: Harry Seaden, Marley Hutchings, Dan Monk.
Goals: Cuthbert (40), Benton (72), Acquah (76).
Cautioned: Osimeh (87, foul tackle).