Central defender Taylor Curran was delighted to play his part as Southend United U18s claimed a dramatic 3-2 victory over Portsmouth on Saturday to remain top of the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One table.
It had looked likely that the points would be shared after substitute Stan Bridgman cancelled out goals by Terrell Egbri and Curran for Blues. The prolific Bradley Lethbridge had earlier put Pompey in front, but it was Dave Huzzey’s side who edged the encounter when Matt Rush slammed home the winning goal in stoppage time to earn a third consecutive success.
“I thought it was a good game,” remarked Curran, who had missed almost three months through injury, after the final whistle. “The boys worked really hard and were solid throughout the whole game. We had a solid base and we definitely deserved the win.”
“I was so tired when I went off. When it got to the 75th minute I was feeling it, but I tried my hardest to stay in the game and 88 minutes was about the right time to come off in the end. Hopefully I played my part in getting the three points,” he added.
Curran replaced Zak Pianim in the starting line-up, with Sam Knock playing in a more advanced role. Reiss Chandler started at right-back in place of Dan Humphreys, who had played 90 minutes for the U23s as they reached the Central League Cup Southern Section final on Friday afternoon. Eren Kinali, who had been forced into action as a goalkeeper in that match, featured in a more familiar wide midfield berth.
Blues started the game well, and Egbri smashed wide in the fourth minute after linking up well with Sewa Marah on the left-hand side. Portsmouth replied with Daniel Smith sending in a dangerous cross in the eighth minute, but Kinali was alert to the danger and nodded the ball away from Lethbridge at the far post.
Curran rose to meet a Benton corner just before the quarter-of-an-hour mark, but he planted his aerial effort wide of the left-hand upright, giving Lethbridge the chance to open the scoring in the 18th minute, Smith was apprehended in the penalty area, but the ball ran loose to the dangerous striker, who drilled home via the inside of the left-hand post.
Southend’s response to falling a goal behind was excellent. Rush immediately darted into the penalty area and forced Pompey custodian Leon Pitman to make a fine save with his legs before Knock found Marah inside the penalty area and only the close attention of Joe Dandy prevented the second-year scholar from delivering a shot on goal.
Knock then chipped over from the edge of the penalty area following a driven centre from Rush, and eventually Southend’s pressure told. A high pressing game finally forced a mistake from the visiting defence in the 38th minute and Egbri took full advantage by nicking the ball off Pitman’s toes and then rounding the goalkeeper to roll into an unguarded net.
Blues could even have headed in at half-time in front as Kinali twice caused problems on the right flank. First Rush failed to connect with a spectacular bicycle kick at the near post and Marah saw his effort charged down, and then another Kinali centre led to Rush being brilliantly thwarted by Pitman at point-blank range besides the right-hand post.
The hosts wasted little time in establishing an advantage once the second period was underway. Captain Curran almost nodded Blues ahead from a floated Benton free-kick, but that attempt was clawed around the post by Pitman, allowing Benton to deliver a corner to far post in the 48th minute. This time the central defender was not to be denied and his thumping header left three Portsmouth players motionless.
“I was buzzing to score,” said Curran. “I said to myself that, when I came back, in my first game I’m going to score, but I didn’t tell anyone because when I do that I don’t! Sewa did well to leave the ball and I put it in. It was a great feeling to score on my return after eleven weeks out and, with everything that’s happened in those eleven weeks, it was a good moment.”
Portsmouth responded well, although Benton almost extended Southend’s lead shortly before the hour mark when he fired wide from a Rush knock-down. Knock read the situation well when Oscar Johnstone appeared to have space to shoot seconds later, and Chandler did well to deflect a Smith header wide after the towering Matthew Casey had met a corner.
In the 65th minute Chandler was called into action again as he got his body across Smith and denied him the chance to latch onto a chipped Fredrick Read pass. Midway through the half Portsmouth went close again when James Whiting curled narrowly wide from 20 yards out, and Dandy also headed a Josh Flint corner over the crossbar as the away team upped the ante.
Despite that, Blues retained a threat on the break and Marah’s bulldozing run in the 72nd minute led to the forward offloading to Rush, who saw his superb strike tipped over at full stretch by Pitman. At the other end, Lethbridge waltzed in the penalty area and it took four defenders to clear the ball from his feet, with Curran eventually seeing the ball out for a corner.
With twelve minutes remaining Portsmouth equalised. Knock was cautioned after being adjudged to have tripped Leon Maloney, and Smith’s free-kick crashed into the outside of the right-hand post. The ball was recycled into the penalty area and Bridgman forced it over the goal-line from close range to make it 2-2.
Despite that setback, Curran felt the Shrimpers defended well: “I thought both Portsmouth’s forwards were really good. They were aerial threats as well as being quick and strong, but I’d say myself and Miles [Mitchell-Nelson] got the better of them even if they did score two goals. I thought we handled them quite well,” he said.
Both sides now had the chance to win the game and Marah was denied by the legs of Pitman in the 80th minute before Seaden leapt at the feet of sub Alfie Stanley to push the ball away from goal. Emile Acquah had been introduced to the action, and his deflected strike was parried out by Pitman. Rush retrieved the ball and drove it into the six-yard box, where it hit Benton and flew agonisingly wide.
Smith curled inches wide with the aid of a deflection at the opposite end, and Rob Howard did well to clear ahead of the attacker with three minutes remaining to avert a three-on-one situation from developing. Schoolboy Jimmy Wallace was then introduced in place of Curran ahead of the game’s incredible conclusion.
As the clock ticked past ninety minutes, Marah raced through midfield. He intelligently spotted the run of Rush to his left and picked out the forward’s run to perfection. Rush shifted the ball out of his feet before unleashing an unstoppable left-footed strike past Pitman’s right glove and into the top left-hand corner of the net.
Curran raced off the substitutes’ bench to help celebrate the winning goal: “Matt did really well, especially for someone that small. Everyone got so excited with the goal. It was a big three points and everyone was passionate about winning the game. It was a good game of football and a proper battle, and everyone was excited when he scored. It was a good feeling and when he ran over it was a special moment.”
“The target is to win the league. We believe we’ve got the ability and the mental strength to pull through. We’re in a good position compared to last Saturday when we only had one point and, to now have ten including a tough game in midweek, I think everyone’s been exceptional. I think the boys have done really well over the last week to get us where we are and hopefully we can keep pushing on,” he declared.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Reiss Chandler, Rob Howard, Sam Knock, Taylor Curran (Jimmy Wallace, 88), Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Eren Kinali, Jon Benton, Matt Rush, Terrell Egbri (Emile Acquah, 72) Sewa Marah. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Charlie Kelman, Imaad Sankoh.
Goals: Egbri (38), Curran (48), Rush (90+1).
Cautioned: Knock (77, foul tackle).