EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One win for the U18s...
Southend United U18s survived a second-half fightback from Exeter City to record a thrilling 4-3 victory at Boots & Laces and extend their unbeaten run to three matches.
The win lifted Blues up to third in the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One table, and the hosts had looked comfortable when a first-half own goal and a brace by in-form front-man Emile Acquah either side of the interval gave them a three-goal advantage.
However, the Grecians scored three times in a breathless seven-minute period to restore parity with ten minutes remaining and it took a late finish from Sewa Marah to secure the spoils for Dave Huzzey's side, who gave a debut to U15s midfielder Freddy Eastwood as a second-half substitute.
Huzzey made two changes to the starting line-up, bringing in first-year scholars Dan Humphreys and Zak Pianim ahead of experienced defensive duo Elvis Bwomono and Joe Mackenzie. Tom Clifford was handed the captain's armband, with Lewis Gard the only other second-year in the eleven.
Blues made the perfect start at a sun-soaked but blustery Boots & Laces. Dru Yearwood had already slashed wide from 25 yards by the time that his team took the lead as Marah beat his full-back and induced an own goal from an Exeter defender as he attempted to cut out an inviting right-wing cross.
Nathan Bishop made a comfortable save from a close-range header as Exeter looked to respond swiftly, and he immediately set Eren Kinali away on the right flank. The attacker found Emile Acquah with his pass and he cut back for Marah, whose strong shot required a good save.
Bishop emulated his counterpart with an excellent stop in the 12th minute, watching a hanging left-wing cross intently before racing off his goal-line to smother the shot, but it was the hosts who enjoyed the majority of the possession as they benefitted from the ball holding up in the wind.
Gard scrapped on the edge of the penalty area to set-up Yearwood, who curled into the goalkeeper's palms from 25 yards out, before the playmaker tried his luck himself, drawing another fine save from the Grecians gloveman after being picked out by Kinali. On 21 minutes, a pinpoint Kinali cross was met powerfully by Acquah's head, but his attempt was pushed out by the goalkeeper.
Southend did not let up, and four minutes later Yearwood galloped onto a loose ball after another Kinali delivery had been cleared, only to fire narrowly wide with his left foot. Within seconds Kinali had sought out Acquah with a beautiful reverse pass, but the forward's strike was tipped to safety.
It proved to be a temporary reprieve for Exeter, who found themselves 2-0 down following Gard's ensuing corner. The inswinging delivery was met by Marah and nodded down for Acquah, who eventually stabbed home from close range after his initial effort had been blocked.
Blues were still not content and, before the half-hour mark had been reached, Acquah had forced a defender to hack clear after sending a ferocious volley goalwards. From Clifford's flag-kick, Acquah's dominant header required an outstanding point-blank reaction save to prevent City falling further behind.
The threatening Kinali fizzed the ball across the six-yard box with no-one able to capitalise in the 37th minute, and shortly afterwards Bishop instigated the next attack he pinging the ball out quickly to Clifford. He moved it on to Marah, who smashed over at the end of a purposeful run. Clifford ended the opening period by failing to collect a return pass from Acquah with the Exeter defence opening up in front of him.
If Southend felt that their dominant opening period performance deserved more goals, they quickly rectified things by adding a third less than two minutes after the restart. Bishop's goal-kick was flicked on by Gard to Marah, and he slipped the ball through for Acquah to steer his eleventh competitive goal of the campaign inside the right-hand post.
Exeter needed to establish a foothold in the game, and quickly, but Bishop was alert to a swiftly-taken free-kick in the 54th minute and, when an angled header from the resultant corner beat his desperate dive, Yearwood was stationed besides the left-hand upright to nod off the line.
That was the extent of the threat posed by the visitors during the opening 70 minutes, and Southend could have added further goals, with Yearwood sweeping over from the 'D' and Pianim finding himself inches away from connecting with a Clifford corner. Against that backdrop, Eastwood - son of the Shrimpers striking legend of the same name - was introduced for his youth team debut.
Eastwood looked robust and fought hard in midfield against older opponents, but Blues conceded in the 73rd minute when Exeter moved the ball inside from the left flank and a shot was fired home from ten yards out to make it 3-1.
There was no need to panic at that stage, and Southend could have restored their three-goal lead when Acquah helped Kinali's centre into the path of Marah, only for the forward to side-foot wide. Within seconds Exeter had further reduced the arrears, making it 3-2 with twelve minutes remaining as a corner was drilled home from besides the penalty spot.
The incredible comeback was completed two minutes later when a left-wing cross was knocked down and then guided beyond Bishop and Blues had been stunned. Having conceded late levellers in their previous two matches, Huzzey's charges could have been forgiven for thinking that worse might happen against the Devonians.
Instead, they showed impressive resolve to recover their composure and snatch a winner themselves in the 82nd minute. Acquah was involved again, receiving the ball on the edge of the penalty area and holding it up before finding the right moment to release Marah on the right-hand side of the penalty area. He beat a defender on the outside before dispatching his shot into the net.
Huzzey introduced Mackenzie in place of Marah with five minutes to go, but Blues held on to register a 4-3 victory and leapfrog their opponents in the league table on goal difference. Next Saturday Swindon Town will be the visitors to Boots & Laces for an 11:00am kick-off.
Southend United U18s: Nathan Bishop, Dan Humphreys, Tom Clifford, Harry Cuthbert, Taylor Curran, Zak Pianim, Eren Kinali, Dru Yearwood, Emile Acquah, Lewis Gard (Freddy Eastwood, 70), Sewa Marah (Joe Mackenzie, 85). Substitutes not used: Harry Seaden, Yonis Farah, Alex Clark.
Goals: own goal (5), Acquah (27, 47), Marah (82).