Blues won their opening fixture of the new campaign at Barnet, and they came close to claiming all three points from their first home encounter of the season when Miles Mitchell-Nelson had a last-minute finish ruled out for offside. Matt Rush and Mitchell-Nelson had earlier edged Southend ahead twice, only for the reigning EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One champions to peg them back.
Boss Dave Huzzey made just one change to the starting line-up that had defeated Barnet, 2-1, seven days previously as full-back Reiss Chandler was deemed fit enough to start ahead of schoolboy Alex Bragg. Ide Osimeh switched to his favoured left-back position, with U16s central defender Jimmy Wallace again partnering Mitchell-Nelson in the heart of the back-line.
Blues made a promising start, and they could have taken the lead in the fifth minute when a swift move culminated in Charlie Kelman touching the ball inside for Terrell Egbri. The forward’s long-range effort was deflected wide and, from the resultant Osimeh corner, O’Shane Stewart’s attempt was charged down.
After that initial activity the match settled down, with Southend allowing their opponents time on the ball and permitting them to shoot from distance. Only once inside the opening 20 minutes did Harry Seaden’s goal come under threat when the England U17s custodian brilliantly tipped an angled finish around the left-hand post.
Midway through the first half Seaden was called into action again, making a confident save to deny a Gillingham attacker following a left-wing centre, but Blues soon stepped up their game and Egbri’s floated pass almost sent Kelman clear. The promising young forward uncharacteristically miscontrolled the ball after getting behind the Gills defence, and the opportunity passed.
Within seconds the teenage Shrimpers were ahead when Matt Rush opened the scoring for the second week in succession. Rush took his career youth team tally to eightgoal;s in his 30th start when he latched onto a weighted Kelman through-ball to dribble round the Gillingham goalkeeper and slot into an unguarded net.
Unfortunately the advantage lasted a matter of seconds as the visitors equalised almost immediately from the restart. A left-wing attack saw the ball guided inside the right-hand post with Seaden beaten, and Blues would have to work to regain the lead.
They almost did so in super-quick fashion as Kelman hit the woodwork in the 26th minute. Osimeh’s set-piece delivery was met by the first-year scholar, who nodded a looping header against the top of the crossbar. At the other end Seaden made a smart stop to push a free-kick over, whilst the half ended with Rush glancing a header wide at the end of Osimeh’s rampaging run.
Blues had tried unsuccessfully to work the ball into the Gillingham penalty area towards the end of the opening period, but a slightly modified approach early in the second half almost reaped dividends. Intelligent through-balls from Stewart and Jon Benton almost released Kelman and Egbri in quick succession, but on both occasions the Gillingham goalkeeper read the situation well to swoop on the ball just inside his area.
A fine move involving Egbri, Rush and Stewart saw Kelman shoot narrowly wide in the 57th minute, but a couple of moments later Southend were ahead again. Rush drew a foul on the left-hand edge of the penalty area and Benton’s excellent dead-ball delivery was steered inside the right-hand post off the head of Mitchell-Nelson.
This time Blues controlled the match after going in front, and they could have extended their advantage in the 72nd minute when Kelman’s cheeky flick from an Osimeh cross drifted marginally wide of the far post. Unfortunately the hosts were hauled level again with ten minutes remaining as the Kent side fought back.
Seaden almost did enough to keep the ball out, but a right-wing cross which had been headed goalwards was deemed to have crossed the line by a matter of millimetres by the assistant referee, and the one-time Rayleigh Boys shotstopper’s desperate attempts to claw the ball out were rendered futile.
Gillingham sensed an opportunity to snatch an unlikely victory, and Seaden did well to grasp a close-range header from a left-sided delivery in the 82nd minute. The match swayed from end to end as both teams went all-out for victory, and Kelman smashed over from 30 yards out with four minutes remaining.
In the final minute of the regulation ninety, Mitchell-Nelson thought he had snatched the win for his team when he converted a Benton free-kick on the edge of the six-yard box, but his effort was chalked off and Blues then saw two Gillingham shots fly inches wide in stoppage time. Skipper Stewart also dragged a strike off-target deep into injury time before the referee’s whistle heralded the end of a pulsating encounter.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Reiss Chandler (Alex Bragg, 84), Ide Osimeh, Sam Brogan, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Jimmy Wallace, O’Shane Stewart, Jon Benton, Charlie Kelman, Terrell Egbri, Matt Rush. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Freddy Eastwood, Issa Mpangea.
Goals: Rush (24), Mitchell-Nelson (59).