Southend United U23s coach Kevin Maher paid tribute to his players after they battled back from 2-0 down to reach the final of the Central League Cup Southern Section following a penalty shoot-out triumph over Bristol Rovers.
Blues had looked set for defeat when Alfie Kilgour’s header was added to Rhys Kavanagh’s first-half opener to put the Pirates two goals ahead midway through the second period. However, substitute Dan Walker halved the deficit with eleven minutes remaining before Tom Clifford’s stoppage-time set-piece forced penalties.
Goalkeeper Josh Bexon had to go off injured with ten minutes remaining and, with no replacement custodian on the bench, youth team winger Eren Kinali donned the gloves as Southend completed the sensational turnaround. “Everything got thrown at the players. To be 2-0 down and come back and win shows great character, desire and belief,” said Maher.
“When you go 2-0 down you think it’s not going to be your day but we kept at it. When you get one back you’re always in the game and then Tom Clifford stepped up with a brilliant free-kick. All credit to the players because they kept going and got their rewards.”
Rovers started the brighter and could have the led in the seventh minute when Kavanagh got on the end of a decent cross from Isaac Pearce but his header drifted just past the post. Southend’s only effort on goal in the first half came on 24 minutes when a speculative effort from Michael Klass from the right-hand apex of the Rovers’ penalty area flew past the left-hand post.
The hosts took the lead on 32 minutes when the impressive Kavanagh burst between Dan Matsuzaka and Sonny Coutts before showing great composure to dribble beyond Josh Bexon and clip the ball into the net. Rovers had the ball in the net again on the stroke of half-time but Pearce’s effort was ruled out for an earlier foul on Nico Cotton.
Blues started the second half with a noticeably higher tempo and Rovers were pinned back into their own half. In the 49th minute a Cotton free-kick was nodded down by Matsuzaka and Coutts attempted an overhead kick but the ball landed straight in the hands of Rovers goalkeeper Andre Alexis.
Two minutes later Klass had a goalbound shot charged down, a fate that also befell follow-up attempts from Amadou Ba and Renei Batlokwa. Rovers were defending desperately and Klass and Clifford had further efforts blocked.
From Clifford’s effort the hosts cleared downfield and Bexon was faced with a one-on-one situation with Cam Ebbutt. The ball drifted wide of the Southend goal but Bexon was hit in the face by Ebbutt’s boot and the game was held up for some time while he was treated for a bloody nose.
Rovers should have extended their lead just before the hour mark when a well-worked short corner found skipper Kilgour unmarked in the Blues box, but he couldn’t direct his header on target. Two minutes later there was another long stoppage when Rovers left-back Michael Kelly caught the ball full in the face from Batlokwa’s attempted cross.
Rovers doubled their advantage on 66 minutes when a cross squirmed out of Bexon’s gloves for a corner. The flag-kick was over-hit but Tom Mayhew hooked the ball back into the box and again Kilgour was completely unmarked and made no mistake this time as his header found the corner of the Southend net.
With Southend dominating possession it could have been a hammer blow to the visitors but the young Blues dug in deep and redoubled their assault on the Rovers goal. On 71 minutes Blues were denied what appeared to be a clear penalty when Batlokwa was upended by Josh Bailey but the referee waved away vociferous appeals from the visitors.
Rovers had a good chance on 77 minutes when a mix-up between Joe Bedford and Clifford saw Kavanagh clean through, but he missed the target from close range. Just as it was beginning to look like it wasn’t going to be Southend’s day, sub Walker reduced the arrears with a fine reactionary strike after Ba’s shot had been parried by the keeper.
Immediately after the goal Bexon seemed to be struggling with the after-effects of his earlier blow to the head and he reluctantly left the field to be replaced by Zak Pianim. U18s midfielder Kinali bravely offered to keep goal for the closing period of the match.
On 83 minutes Blues were again denied a penalty when Klass’ shot seemed to hit a hand in the Rovers area, with the midfielder booked for arguing over the decision. The referee indicated there would be eight added minutes due to the earlier injuries and this seem to galvanise Southend further.
In the second minute of injury time Blues were awarded a free kick on the right-hand side of the penalty area and left-back Clifford hit a wonderful set-piece into the roof of the Rovers net. Alexis then denied Klass and Bedford’s attempts to get the ball back to restart the game and unfortunately a real skirmish took place in the back of the Rovers’ net.
When order had been restored Bedford and Kilgour were booked. Alexis, the Rovers goalkeeper, was shown a straight red card and then Klass was shown a red card followed by another yellow. It was unclear whether he was shown a straight red or a second yellow. Rovers had a substitute goalkeeper on the bench and he took the field in place of Dara Dada.
With penalty kicks beckoning Batlokwa had a chance in the seventh minute of injury time but his shot drifted wide of the target. The referee’s whistle blew after ten minutes of additional time so the tie would be settled on penalties for a place in the final against either Milton Keynes Dons or Bristol City.
Rovers went first and the first eight penalties were all scored with Kelly, Ebbutt, Spruce and Kavanagh netting for Rovers and Ba, Clifford, Batlokwa and Walker all on target for Blues. Rovers’ fifth kick was entrusted to skipper Alfie Kilgour and, with Kinali guessing the right way, the kick was slammed wide of the target.
The scene was now set for Joe Bedford. If he netted his penalty on his return from injury it would seal an unlikely comeback for the young Blues. The midfielder duly sent Thom Jonkerman the wrong way to spark scenes of sheer jubilation from the Southend players. It was an incredible second-half display from the young Blues who fully merited their place in the final.
“Josh Bexon came off injured with a knock and Eren Kinali went in goal. It was a toss-up between him and Dan Walker but I brought Dan on up front and he was excellent and gave us an outlet. Eren told me he had played in goal before so I went with it,” explained Maher.
“All credit to the players, they found a way to win it when they were up against it. We’re into the final and we want to go and win it now. Learning to win games is part of the development and winning trophies is a great learning curve as well.”
Southend United U23s: Josh Bexon (Zak Pianim, 80), Dan Humphreys, Tom Clifford, Joe Bedford, Dan Matsuzaka, Sonny Coutts, Renei Batlokwa, Michael Klass, Amadou Ba, Lewis Gard (Eren Kinali, 73), Nico Cotton (Dan Walker, 63). Substitutes not used: Rob Howard and Taylor Curran.
Goals: Walker (79), Clifford (90+2).