Southend United U18s moved to the top of the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One table following a second victory in four days, this time defeating Bristol Rovers, 2-1.
James Spruce gave the visitors the lead with a fifth-minute penalty, and Blues spurned an opportunity to equalise on 27 minutes when Eren Kinali saw his own spot-kick saved. However, Sewa Marah netted on the stroke of half-time and Matt Rush added the eventual winner four minutes into the second period.
Youth team coach Dave Huzzey named an unchanged starting eleven following an impressive 3-1 away win at then league leaders Swindon Town for a fixture switched to the 3G surface at the Len Forge Centre. Striker Emile Acquah was still not ready to return to the side after picking up an ankle injury in the U23s match against Milton Keynes Dons, although he has returned to training.
An entertaining encounter started in the worst possible fashion when Bristol Rovers were awarded an early penalty for a foul by Miles Mitchell-Nelson. Spruce stepped up to take the spot-kick and, although Harry Seaden correctly guessed the direction of the shot, he couldn't keep it out.
Southend did not allow the set-back to undermine them, and Sam Knock smashed wildly off-target in the eleventh minute when Jon Benton's free-kick was not sufficiently cleared. Spruce dragged an effort wide from the edge of the penalty area after a quarter-of-an-hour, but from that point the hosts started to take control.
In the 16th minute skipper Zak Pianim was inches away from a leveller as he stopped to connect with Mitchell-Nelson's header from a Benton corner and, sixty seconds later, Kinali was brilliantly denied by Pirates custodian Graeme Anderson, who clawed his fierce 20-yard attempt away from the top left-hand corner of the net.
Rush then nodded wide of the left-hand upright from a Terrell Egbri centre in the 19th minute before Blues stepped things up again and Knock drew a foul from Tom Mehew inside the area. Kinali was tasked with delivering the twelve-yarder, but Anderson made a fine save before Rovers scrambled the ball to safety.
The shotstopper was much less secure on the half-hour when he raced off his line to meet Marah and brought down the attacker inches outside of the penalty area. Benton's free-kick was curled narrowly over, and Marah then half-volleyed wide from a Rush flick-on.
Despite all that pressure on their own goal, the visitors hit the woodwork twice inside a minute at the other end as the first half moved into the final ten minutes. First Lucas Tomlinson swept a 25-yard shot against the crossbar from a Kieran Phillips lay-off and then Phillips himself saw a daisy-cutter deflected onto the left-hand upright.
Nonetheless, the teams went in at the interval all-square when Marah netted his ninth youth team goal of the current campaign in composed fashion. Benton's excellent through-ball split open the Rovers defence and Marah rolled his finish past Anderson to make it 1-1.
With their next meaningful attack, four minutes into the second half, Blues moved ahead for the first time in the fixture. Egbri, who set up two goals at Swindon, burrowed his way into the left-hand side of the penalty area and drew a parried save from Anderson, which presented Rush with the opportunity to fire clinically into the bottom right-hand corner.
A lengthy period of treatment for Tomlinson broke up the momentum Southend had gathered, and the final half-an-hour took on something of an end-to-end nature as the two sides fought for a goal that would change the complexion of the match once again.
Spruce got the better of Mitchell-Nelson in the 57th minute, forcing Seaden into a tumbling save, before Marah nodded over from a Rush cross at the other end. Knock made a superb sliding challenge to apprehend a Phillips run in the 62nd minute, leading to Marah's centre for Rush, who couldn't steer home from close-range.
Midway through the second period Seaden was called upon to make a superb double-save to keep the Shrimpers in front. The England U17 international was at full-stretch to tip away a low Spruce strike, but he recovered quickly to smother the rebound from Phillips.
That almost laid the foundations for a third Southend goal, but the excellent combination of Marah and Rush both directed efforts marginally off-target. Marah was disappointed to side-foot wide from his team-mate's fine cut-back, whilst Rush was unfortunate that his cheeky chip landed on the roof of the net.
There remained anxious moments at the other end, however, and Tomlinson drove the ball over from 20 yards out before Ollie Hubert nodded over from a Spruce corner. Blues were working hard, and that was epitomised by captain Pianim, who made a crunching tackle to dispossess the dangerous Spruce in the 84th minute.
O'Shane Stewart's introduction brought fresh legs into midfield, although a foul on the edge of the box gave Spruce a chance to showcase his dead-ball prowess. His free-kick was charged down by the defensive wall and Seaden flopped onto the follow-up by Tomlinson.
As the match headed towards five minutes of stoppage time, Egbri was cautioned for a push on Anderson, but Blues were largely effective in running the clock down. Indeed, they could have snatched a third when Benton's free-kick was curled into Anderson's gloves, although in the end that extra goal wasn't required.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Dan Humphreys, Rob Howard, Zak Pianim, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Sam Knock, Eren Kinali (O’Shane Stewart, 84), Jon Benton, Matt Rush, Sewa Marah, Terrell Egbri. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Ide Osimeh, Taylor Curran, Freddy Eastwood.
Goals: Marah (45), Rush (49).
Cautioned: Egbri (90, pushing).