Youth team coach Dave Huzzey had set his squad the target of reaching second in the table ahead of The FA Youth Cup First Round trip to league leaders Milton Keynes Dons on Tuesday evening and, following away wins at Dagenham & Redbridge and Luton Town, Sewa Marah’s 20th youth team goal helped the squad achieve that target with a fourth win in their last five games.
With Miles Mitchell-Nelson suspended following last weekend’s dismissal at Luton Town, and Taylor Curran and Zak Pianim not risked ahead of the match at Stadium MK, schoolboy Joseph Joseph made his competitive U18s debut at the heart of the defence alongside Marley Hutchings, who was making just his fourth youth team start.
The first action of the match saw Cambridge hit the crossbar in the sixth minute. Dan Humphreys had just returned to the field after a clash of heads had led to a bandage being applied, and the hosts exposed the reorganisation to send in a left-wing cross that was nodded against the underside of the bar from six yards out.
Blues were soaking up the U’s early advances, and in the ninth minute Emile Acquah battled hard to win the ball for Marah, who failed to fully connect with his shot and scuffed it into the goalkeeper’s gloves. Southend continued to work hard and, when Matt Rush was brought down in the 17th minute, it led to the only goal of the game.
First-year scholar Jon Benton delivered a delicious free-kick over the top of the defensive wall and into the path of Marah. The powerful centre-forward, who had also notched in his previous two appearances, found himself in behind the back-line and he stooped to nod the ball beyond the goalkeeper and into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
Seven minutes later Blues may have had designs on a similar conclusion to another Benton set-piece, but on this occasion Cambridge cleared the danger and Humphreys had to make up a lot of ground to chase back and force a cross out for a corner. However, the teenage Shrimpers retained a threat on the break, and they would have the best of the next ten minutes.
First Marah cut inside from the left flank to smash a shot into a defender and then, in the 35th minute, Eren Kinali – making his 50th youth team appearance – linked up with Humphreys and Harry Cuthbert to set-up Benton, who saw an effort deflected into the side-netting.
Cambridge fought back in the closing stages of the opening period, but Rush’s tracking of an opponent to the edge of the penalty area that allowed Joseph to step in to clear was indicative of the hard work the visitors were getting through. Joseph then threw himself towards a 20-yard shot, forcing an attacker to fire over before Hutchings flung himself into a crucial challenge in the penalty area.
Those endeavours preserved the half-time advantage, but more industry would be required after the interval. Marah was withdrawn, with Terrell Egbri taking his place on the left flank, and O’Shane Stewart would soon replace skipper Cuthbert in the centre of the pitch. In between, Hutchings acrobatically hooked over from an Ide Osimeh corner.
Hutchings then sliced a shot from the edge of the penalty area and Kinali saw an attempt charged down as Southend sought to extend their lead. As the match progressed, they would see less of the ball in their opponents half, and superb work from Stewart saw a forward marshalled out of the penalty before a shot from a right-wing cross was driven over from 25 yards out.
Charlie Kelman came on for Emile Acquah as the team took on an ever more youthful complexion, but it was one of the more experienced performers remaining on the field who came to the fore as goalkeeper Harry Seaden made an outstanding near-post stop with his legs following a shot from point-blank range on the hour.
That chance had come from a free-kick just outside the penalty area, and an almost identical set-piece sixty seconds later saw an attacker blast over at the back post. In the 64th minute Seaden was at it again, making another magnificent save with his feet after a close-range effort was sent goalwards, with Joseph then making an important block from the follow-up.
Southend’s belief grew exponentially as they worked with grit and determination to maintain their narrow advantage. Egbri picked out Kelman in a rare foray upfield, but his strike from the edge of the penalty area lacked purchase and Sam Knock – sidelined through injury since pre-season – was soon introduced to further shore up the defence.
When Joseph collided with an opponent in the 73rd minute, it gave Huzzey an opportunity rally the team and regroup. Egbri sent in a cross from the left wing that was inches out of the reach of Kelman, who was then almost slid through, only for a defender to chase back and clear on the apex of the penalty area.
Sam Brogan was introduced for the final seven minutes, although he would end up completing almost a quarter-of-an-hour as seven minutes of stoppage time were played. Blues were desperate to hold on for the win, and Kelman and Kinali were both cautioned for delaying the restart of play, which Humphreys read a left-wing pass to clear the danger with four minutes to go.
Still Southend had to show resolve and resilience, and a minute later they were almost undone as Cambridge rattled the frame of the goal for a second time. Again a close-range header was sent against the crossbar and Blues frantically cleared their lines.
As the game moved into additional time, a right-wing centre fizzed along the six-yard box before Knock volleyed a flicked header from a corner off the goal-line. The hosts continued to throw everything at Blues, but another cross was cleared in the fifth minute of stoppage time and, when the loose ball was lashed over, it proved that Southend’s spirit and commitment had been enough to earn the victory.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Ide Osimeh, Harry Cuthbert (O’Shane Stewart, 52), Marley Hutchings, Joseph Joseph,Eren Kinali,Jon Benton (Sam Brogan,83),Emile Acquah (Charlie Kelman, 57), Matt Rush (Sam Knock, 70), Sewa Marah (Terrell Egbri, 46).
Goals: Marah (17).
Cautioned: Kelman (85, delaying the restart of play), Kinali (86, delaying the restart of play).