Southend United U18s kept their hopes of claiming the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One title alive with a 2-1 victory over Oxford United at Boots & Laces.
Matt Rush’s brace helped to earn an impressive victory over the U’s in the club’s final home fixture of the season and maintain Southend’s position at the top of the table alongside Swindon Town. The Robins travel to Oxford for their final fixture on Saturday, whilst Blues make the journey to Portsmouth.
“This experience for the boys will be brilliant,” claimed youth team coach Dave Huzzey. “We’ve not been involved in a title race to the last day of the season for a very long time, and never in this new format of how the league runs, so the boys will be excited, I’ll be excited, but it’s the professionalism that will go and win us the game.”
“Swindon have got a massively hard trip to go to Oxford because we have seen what Oxford are capable of. They’re a good side and, if they perform like they did against us, then there’s a chance that Swindon will slip up, and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to grasp that chance.”
Huzzey was able to call upon Emile Acquah up front, and the forward came into the side ahead of schoolboy Bobby Unwin, who was named on the substitutes’ bench. O’Shane Stewart was also restored to the starting line-up, as captain, with Sam Knock not included.
At a blustery Boots & Laces, the teenage Shrimpers made a fast start and Freddy Eastwood warmed the palms of Oxford goalkeeper Max Harris inside the first minute. Seconds later Matt Rush drew a scrambling save from Harris after Acquah had flicked a throw-in into his path.
In the second minute the lively Eastwood almost created a chance for himself by stealing possession from a defender, but Harris read the situation well and raced off his line to claim the ball at the feet of the forward. It was not until the tenth minute that the U’s - who had won the South West Conference - threatened, with Gwen James firing over after turning Miles Mitchell-Nelson in the penalty area.
A couple more minutes passed before Blues took the lead. As he has done so many times this season, Rush burrowed into the penalty area and drew a foul from Leon Chamblers-Parillon. The referee pointed to the spot and Rush brushed himself down before coolly slotting home from twelve yards out.
Southend were in control and the hard-working Rush conjured up a dangerous right-wing cross that picked out Acquah in the penalty area. The striker’s touch was slightly heavy as he spun Ben Tricker and Harris was able to gather the loose ball after a quarter-of-an-hour.
Huzzey’s team were keeping their opponents away from Harry Seaden’s goal, with Miles Mitchell-Nelson and Ricard Taylor at centre-back cutting out a couple of through-balls. Even when Taylor was slightly indecisive, in the 20th minute, he recovered his composure to muscle Jordan Edwards off the ball.
Rush tried to create another opening by bursting into the penalty area again midway through the first half, but this time the tackle was clean and Oxford were able to break. However, it was proof of how industrious Southend were that winger Terrell Egbri tracked the run of a winger and won possession back.
Tyler Goodhram dragged an effort across the face of goal for the visitors on 26 minutes, and there was another anxious moment for Southend a couple of moments later when Mitchell-Nelson gifted possession to Jack Stevens. He found Edwards on the edge of the penalty area, but Ahmet Biler got around the forward and forced the ball back to Seaden, who cleared.
As the first half drew towards a close, Acquah’s physical presence continued to pose problems for the U’s. He flicked on a left-wing throw for Stewart, whose attempt was saved by Harris, before being found by Rush on the left-hand edge of the area. Acquah steadied himself but smashed over from 15 yards out. In-between Eastwood timed a tackle to perfection on James in the penalty area and Blues led at the break.
The second period began with defenders making important interventions at either end. First Southend’s Taylor stepped in to dispossess Edwards, then sixty seconds later Sam Johnstone made a challenge to steal the ball from Stewart as he attempted to latch onto an Eastwood pass.
Five minutes after the break Acquah was presented with a superb chance to double the advantage, but he failed to steer Egbri’s cross underneath the crossbar having beaten Harris to the ball, but the end-to-end nature of the play continued with Stevens firing over from twelve yards out in the opposite penalty area.
Southend’s threat continued to be carried by Rush, who linked up with Acquah just before the hour mark. The former Harlow Town loanee strode into the penalty area, but Tricker timed his tackle brilliantly to clear the danger. Just after the hour Rush found Eastwood in space in the 18-yard box, but he curled over with his right foot.
Blues went even closer to a second goal in the 62nd minute. Rush burst down the left-hand side and crossed for Acquah, who this time diverted the ball against the crossbar. Egbri attempted to retrieve the loose ball and convert, but he was challenged and the U’s were able to clear.
Given the threat of the hosts, it was perhaps surprising that Oxford had the benefit of the wind behind them in the second period. However, they came back into the game and Seaden scrambled across his goal-line to thwart Stevens before making a near-post stop with his legs from substitute Josh Hines.
Lung-busting work from Mitchell-Nelson helped Taylor to cut out a James centre midway through the second half, but the momentum then swung again in Southend’s favour and Tre Grant diverted a Mitchell-Nelson effort wide in the 69th minute before Eastwood went close from a Taylor cross. His ferocious strike was palmed away by Harris, who had very little time to react.
Finally, with eight minutes remaining, Blues extended their lead. Freddy Eastwood was fouled on the halfway line, but the referee played an excellent advantage as the ball ran into the path of Rush. The second-year scholar advanced towards goal before lashing into the net from 22 yards out.
Unfortunately the two-goal cushion lasted just two minutes as Eastwood was adjudged to have committed a foul just inside the Blues penalty area. The referee pointed to the spot and U’s skipper Fabio Lopes sent Seaden the wrong way to make it 2-1.
However, Southend regained their composure and managed to run down the clock. Four minutes of stoppage time passed and Huzzey’s charges now head to Portsmouth knowing that a victory could earn them a first-ever Merit League One title.
“We had a meeting as staff - myself, Amy [Rogers, physio] and Cat [Malcolm, sports scientist] - and we spoke about wanting to stay in it to the end of the season,” said Huzzey “We’ve been in so many situations where the last two games mean nothing, and it’s horrible. It doesn’t matter what level or age group, when you’re playing a game that means something in terms of a result - winning and losing - having that pressure is really exciting.”
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Reiss Chandler, Ahmet Biler, Sam Brogan, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Richard Taylor, Terrell Egbri, O’Shane Stewart, Emile Acquah, Matt Rush, Freddy Eastwood (Bobby Unwin, 88). Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Sam Knock, Ide Osimeh, Issa Mpenga.
Goals: Rush (12, pen, 82).
Cautioned: Brogan (90+2, foul tackle), Chandler (90+4, delaying the restart of play).