Charlie Kelman’s last-gasp goal clinched a dramatic extra-time victory for Southend United U18s against Leyton Orient on an exhilarating evening of FA Youth Cup football at The Breyer Group Stadium.
Blues claimed their first win in the competition for three seasons at the end of the encounter, but it had appeared for a long time as though the O’s would earn a second triumph in three seasons after goals by Jaedon Phillips, Charles Clayden and Bradley McClenagan had seen them move into a 2-0 and 3-1 advantage.
O’Shane Stewart’s 20-yard strike just before the break was crucial in giving Dave Huzzey’s side a foothold in the game, and Matt Rush and Kelman both struck the woodwork before late efforts by Terrell Egbri and, eventually, Rush - the latter deep into stoppage time at the end of the regulation 90 minutes – sent the tie into an additional half-an-hour.
The extra time period fluctuated wildly as both teams suffered with cramp but United States youth international Kelman had the final say when substitute Issa Mpangea chased down a long ball upfield and pressurised the Orient defence. Kelman pounced on the loose ball and arrowed it into the bottom left-hand corner of the net to seal a sixth straight win for the teenage Shrimpers.
Blues made just one change from the team that had so impressively dispatched of AFC Bournemouth in the EFL Youth Alliance Cup at the weekend as Miles Mitchell-Nelson returned at the heart of the defence. The second-year scholar replaced schoolboy Jimmy Wallace, who was named amongst the substitutes.
In contrast to much of what was to follow, it was a quiet start to the game in E10 as the two teams sized each other up. Jon Benton’s near-post header from an Ide Osimeh corner was the first opportunity of note, but this was directed wide and, just a few moments later, when Freddy Eastwood Jnr delivered the first goalbound shot, the effort was partially charged down and easy for goalkeeper Sean Campbell to save.
Brendon Shabani fired over for the hosts in the 17th minute, and Orient grew in confidence quickly as Phillips saw an effort blocked at close-quarters just seconds later. In the 19th minute they took the lead through Phillips, who made no mistake with a precise header from Clayden’s left-wing cross when left unmarked in the penalty area.
Blues had beaten their opponents 5-0 in the league at the end of September, but they were rocked by a second goal against them in the 25th minute. McClenaghan sent Clayden clear down the left-hand side and he arrowed the ball into the right-hand corner of Callum Taylor’s net to double Orient’s advantage.
It looked as though the O’s might edge still further in front just before the half-hour mark, but Taylor brilliantly kept out a stabbed attempt from McClenaghan after he had latched onto a Phillips knock-down six yards out, and Southend soon served notice that they remained a force in the game when Rush waltzed through the home defence before rolling the ball against the far post from an impossible angle.
Taylor made another impressive save, this time pushing a McClenaghan strike around the left-hand upright after Osimeh had wasted possession, and the portents did not look good when O’s winger Jeremie Sivi almost grabbed a third goal by dragging his far post volley across the face of goal with six minutes of the opening period remaining.
However, Blues showed great resilience to give themselves hope in the 41st minute through Stewart, who made it 2-1 with an assured finish from the edge of the penalty area. His strike was destined for the bottom left-hand corner, and even the outstretched right glove of Campbell could not keep it out.
Blues began the second half with real purpose, and Kelman warmed the gloves of Campbell from distance after being found by Egbri before the visitors heard the sound of ball on woodwork for a second time in the evening. This time Kelman was the unfortunate party, thwacking the outside the left-hand post with a rasping 20-yard drive.
Northern Ireland U16s international custodian Taylor, deputising for Harry Seaden, made an excellent save to push Clayden’s low shot around the far post in the 52nd minute, but at the other end Egbri was denied an equaliser when his side-footed shot was blocked and Campbell then made an acrobatic save to turn Stewart’s deflected strike around the post.
On 62 minutes Orient restored their two-goal advantage. This time Clayden was the provider, hoisting a deep left-wing cross to the far post where McClenaghan was arriving to volley the ball into the opposite corner from around ten yards out.
Five minutes later it looked as though the O’s had made it 4-1 but, after Taylor had got the faintest of touches to a divert a Phillips strike against the right-hand upright, Clayden was flagged offside as he tapped home the rebound. Orient still looked the more likely side to score at that stage, and substitute Lawrence Hammond saw a well-struck effort held by Taylor in the 71st minute.
The game turned again as a couple of periods of treatment for injuries to players allowed Blues the opportunity to regroup. They discussed what they needed to do and, with just five minutes remaining, Egbri scored for the fifth game in succession to narrow the deficit. The winger was perfectly-positioned to slot in the rebound after Rush’s drilled finish was pushed into his path by Campbell.
With five minutes of stoppage time signalled by the referee, Southend stirred themselves for one last effort. Knock rose to meet a set-piece delivery and head down for Rush, but after he had beaten Campbell to the ball he was unable to find a team-mate with his cross.
Then, in the third minute of additional time, the equaliser arrived. The ball was fed into Rush on the right-hand edge of the penalty area. The second-year scholar had only one thing in mind and he managed to squeeze his shot through a crowded penalty area and into the far left-hand corner of the net. It was a composed finish that belied the magnitude of the moment and sparked scenes of celebration from the squad.
Even then the job was not done. Almost immediately from the kick-off Orient went on the attack and sub Thomas Mulqueen thought he had managed to find the winner, but somehow the ball was scrambled off the goal-line and away to safety. Shortly after that the final whistle blew and Huzzey had the opportunity to speak to his teenage charges.
Blues began extra time on the front foot, and Eastwood twice went close to notching a fourth goal. On the first occasion his thunderous shot was repelled by Kyrell Palmer, whilst on the second he fired the ball inches the wrong side of the right-hand post. In-between custodian Campbell grabbed hold of a Kelman header at the far post as Southend tried to edge ahead.
In the 103rd minute, Blues did have the ball in the back of the net, but Knock’s aerial effort from a Benton free-kick was ruled out for offside, and Orient almost netted at the other end after Egbri had been cautioned for breaking up an attack with a foul. It was a sign of the hard work of the team that, when Hector Kyprianou rose to meet a set-piece, it was Kelman that cleared off the goal-line.
As extra time progressed, chances became less frequent but, when they did come, it was the visitors that were creating them. Rush saw a strong shot parried out by Campbell, who later pulled off a brilliant fingertip save to deny Benton. Rush then latched onto a long Taylor goal-kick, but Kyprianou got back to execute a well-timed challenge and thoughts turned towards penalties.
But there was still time for one last moment of magic. Blues had not been ahead in 120 minutes of football, but in the very last seconds Kelman was on hand to score his tenth youth team goal of the campaign. Southend’s players collapsed in a mixture of jubilation and exhaustion; Orient heads bowed in utter devastation.
Blues now travel to the winners of the tie between Charlton Athletic and Whitehawk, which was postponed due to floodlight failure, in the Second Round of the competition.
Southend United U18s: Callum Taylor, Reiss Chandler, Ide Osimeh, O’Shane Stewart (Sam Brogan, 82), Sam Knock, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Terrell Egbri (Issa Mpangea, 109), Jon Benton, Charlie Kelman, Matt Rush, Freddy Eastwood Jnr. Substitutes not used: Jamie Grossart, Ben Dabbs, Jimmy Wallace.
Goals: Stewart (41), Egbri (85), Rush (90+3), Kelman (120).
Cautioned: Stewart (90+4, entering the field of play without the referee’s permission), Egbri (104, foul tackle).