Southend United U18s opened their EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One campaign with a 2-2 draw against Oxford United at Boots & Laces.
Blues showed great resilience to emerge from the encounter with a draw, having twice trailed to goals by Nathan Baker and Dejon Noel-Williams. However, on both occasions, Emile Acquah hauled the hosts level to ensure a share of the spoils.
Acquah extended his consecutive goalscoring run to eight matches in the process and took his career tally for the U18s beyond thirty. He has now contributed 18 goals in 2017/18 alone, although he may rue missing an early opportunity to open the scoring.
Barely a minute had been played when Matt Rush scythed through the U's defence and directed a teasing centre towards Acquah, who narrowly failed to get a toe-cap to the ball as he slid in. Even then the effort beat Oxford goalkeeper Max Harris before flying inches wide of the far post.
Blues were punished as the visitors took the lead in the fifth minute. James Cowen's left-wing corner could have been cleared by O'Shane Stewart at the near post, but he got caught in two minds and his clearance dropped to Baker, who thumped home from eight yards out.
Oxford had already beaten Dave Huzzey's squad once this season - a 3-1 victory in the Youth Alliance Cup - and they grew in confidence after taking the lead. Albie Hopkins found Kylan Lofthouse in the 11th minute, but Harry Seaden read the situation well and made a good save.
Chances were few and far between for Southend as Oxford kept a high line and starved their opponents of possession. A Rob Howard cross was nodded at Harris by Acquah and Stewart smashed over from a Jon Benton pass, but Blues were struggling to locate a response.
Then, with three minutes remaining in the first half, the Shrimpers equalised thanks to a familiar source. Ide Osimeh's corner was met by a towering Miles Mitchell-Nelson header, and Acquah was on hand amongst an army of defenders to nod in from close range
Now it was Southend that possessed a swagger, and Acquah almost turned provider in first-half stoppage time when he set-up Stewart, who dragged a 25-yard attempt wide. Early in the second period, Mitchell-Nelson rose to meet a Benton free-kick at the far post, but he could only head against the outside of the left-hand upright.
Dan Carr fired wide for the U's, but Rush was presented with an even better chance for Southend when Acquah laid Kinali's centre into his path and he side-footed wide from around ten yards out. Suddenly the momentum switched and Oxford moved onto the front foot.
Midway through the second half Seaden made a spectacular flying save to turn a strong Carr strike around the post, and three minutes later he dived bravely at the feet of Noel-Williams to prevent him from converting Cowen's square pass.
Despite those efforts, the England U17s shotstopper could do nothing to prevent Noel-Williams scoring in the 71st minute. The forward exhibited outstanding attacking prowess to curl a stunning, dipping shot into the bottom right-hand corner of the net from 25 yards out to make it 2-1.
Terrell Egbri was introduced in place of Stewart, and Rush was thwarted by Harris from a Howard pass with nine minutes remaining, but Oxford appeared the more likely side to score at this stage. Mitchell-Nelson cleared one finish off the goal-line and Seaden brilliantly pushed a Hopkins effort around the post as Southend kept in touch.
All they required now was one more chance, and that arrived in the final minute of the regulation ninety. Howard's throw was collected by Kinali, who darted between two defenders to enter the penalty area before cutting back to Acquah. If he couldn't fail to score his first, the striker had much more to do on this occasion but he steered the ball in from slightly behind him to find the bottom right-hand corner.
The leveller sparked wild celebrations, but an entertaining contest wasn't over and Blues could have snatched all three points in stoppage time when Acquah and skipper Zak Pianim teamed-up to find Kinali on the edge of the penalty area, but he sliced off-target and the match finished all-square.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Rob Howard, Ide Osimeh, Zak Pianim, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Sam Knock, Eren Kinali, O’Shane Stewart (Terrell Egbri, 72), Emile Acquah, Jon Benton, Matt Rush. Substitutes not used: Callum Hazletine, Marley Hutchings, Dan Rogers, Alex Bragg.
Goals: Acquah (42, 90).