Southend United U18s were unable to hold onto the lead handed to them by Emile Acquah's 14th goal of the season as Gillingham fought back to win 2-1 on Saturday.
Blues carved out the better chances during the match as they sought a victory that would've set-up a seismic encounter away to newly-crowned EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference champions Milton Keynes Dons this weekend but, despite Acquah finding the target for the fifth consecutive game, the hosts fought back to enhance their chances of usurping Dave Huzzey's squad to the runners-up spot.
With regular left-back Ide Osimeh suffering from flu, U15s defender Alex Bragg was promoted to make his youth team debut. The Fitzwimarc School pupil was composed and unflustered as he lined-up alongside Miles Mitchell-Nelson and Taylor Curran - back after a six-week injury lay-off - plus Sam Knock, who moved to right-back.
Huzzey elected for experience elsewhere on the pitch as Zak Pianim shored up the midfield and Harry Cuthbert made his 50th youth team appearance. Sewa Marah returned from a successful loan spell at Bostik League North Division outfit Aveley to support Acquah in an advanced position.
Goalkeeper Harry Seaden made a smart save low to his left in the seventh minute following a quickly-taken free-kick, but Blues were soon on the attack and Acquah had an excellent chance to open the scoring within seconds. Jon Benton's ferocious half-volley was too hard for the goalkeeper to hold and the ball dropped invitingly to Acquah, who chipped over from ten yards out.
Seaden was fortunate when his attempted clearance rebounded off a forward and into his own gloves in the 13th minute, although on the whole Southend were defending resolutely. Curran was dominant and Mitchell-Nelson made a good tackle on the edge of the penalty area before heading clear from underneath his own crossbar midway through the opening period.
A Gillingham effort from a left-wing centre was angled into the side-netting, but Blues could still lay claim to the better chances and Acquah slipped as he attempted to convert a Benton free-kick just after the half-hour mark. The ball dribbled beyond the goalkeeper, only to be hacked off the goal-line.
Benton continued to prove most likely to create an opening, and his lofted through-ball for Marah in the 38th minute could not be brought under control by the second-year scholar. Acquah then stabbed wide after Marah had beaten the goalkeeper to Cuthbert's pass before, seconds ahead of the half-time whistle, a Benton corner swirled over the custodian but was nodded over by Knock from close-range.
Huzzey gave his team belief that they could win at the interval, and they took the lead within two minutes of the restart. Knock gradually made progress with a series of right-wing throw-ins before releasing Marah. When his attempt was parried out, Acquah made no mistake with the follow-up.
Bragg did well to get back and step across a forward to execute a well-times tackle on the edge of the penalty area in the 55th minute, but a couple of moments later the Gills were level as a winger got had better of Mitchell-Nelson on the edge of the penalty area and the cross was diverted beyond Seaden.
Worse was to follow for Southend as they surrendered parity with a quarter of the fixture remaining. A deep free-kick should not have caused too many problems, but the ball was nodded back over Seaden and a stooping attacker was able to direct it into the net to make it 2-1.
The teenage Shrimpers knew the magnitude of their task, and against a combative Gills side who frustrated the visitors with their tactics it was made all the more difficult. Acquah rose to glance a Cuthbert free-kick wide of the left-hand upright in the 72nd minute, but chances were few and far between.
Matt Rush was introduced in place of Eren Kinali with eleven minutes to play, and shortly afterwards Marah drilled an effort wide from Benton’s lay-off 30 yards out. A Gillingham full-back then fizzed an effort over the crossbar from distance but, despite their best efforts, Blues could force an equaliser during six additional minutes to slip to a first defeat in four matches.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Sam Knock, Alex Bragg, Zak Pianim, Taylor Curran, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Eren Kinali (Matt Rush, 79), Harry Cuthbert, Emile Acquah, Jon Benton, Sewa Marah. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Terrell Egbri, O’Shane Stewart.
Goal: Acquah (47).
Cautioned: Curran (86, foul tackle).