Forwards Emile Acquah and Matt Rush netted two goals apiece as Southend United U23s advanced to the Second Qualifying Round of the Premier League Cup with a 4-1 win over Fleetwood Town.
Acquah bagged a brace of headers either side of Harvey Saunders’ precise lob for the visitors before Rush put Blues in control at half-time with his first finish from close range. The former Bromfords School pupil then ensured Southend would claim their first-ever win the competition with a composed strike midway through the second period.
The Shrimpers had lost their previous four matches in the Premier League Cup, but they were not to be denied on this occasion by Fleetwood as they progressed to the Second Qualifying Round and one step away from the group stages. Blues will host Scunthorpe United or Shrewsbury Town in the next round.
They were helped in their quest by the presence of defenders Jason Demetriou and Liam Ridgewell. The pair, who can boast over 700 senior appearances between them, slotted in alongside Richard Taylor and Tom Clifford and in front of Harry Seaden in goal. Second-year scholars Sam Brogan and Freddy Eastwood joined Terrell Egbri and Zak Pianim in midfield with Acquah and Rush up front.
The two teams traded chances in the opening stages as Clifford saw a free-kick charged down and Dan Mooney fired over for the visitors before Demetriou’s quality helped Acquah to give Blues the lead in the eighth minute. Egbri rolled the ball into the former Leyton Orient full-back’s path and he swung a pinpoint cross onto the head of Acquah, who planted his header beyond Scott Pengelly in the Fleetwood goal.
The experienced Ridgewell then made his first contribution, getting back to block Barry Baggley’s goalbound attempt after Pianim had been robbed on the edge of his own penalty area, and Demetriou also had to step in to keep Southend in front in the tenth minute when his outstretched right boot deflected a Saunders attempt out for a corner.
Fleetwood had responded well to going behind, and they continued to enjoy the better of the chances as the first half progressed. Gerard Garner smashed over from the apex of the penalty area and then Saunders looked set to convert a Baggley pass before Taylor read the play well and intercepted the ball.
Former Burnley defender Taylor also made a vital sliding challenge to steal possession from Saunders in the penalty area before Garner dragged an effort wide of the right-hand post in the 20th minute. However, midway through the first half, Fleetwood equalised after Saunders charged down Taylor’s attempted clearance. Spotting Seaden off his line, the forward brilliantly judged his lob from 35 yards out to beat the custodian.
The visitors appeared to have the momentum at that point, and Mooney angled a finish wide two minutes later before Blues managed to wrest it back. Rush almost picked out Egbri’s run on the half-hour, only for Pengelly dived bravely at the feet of the winger, but there was no stopping Acquah from nodding Southend back in front on 36 minutes when he glanced Clifford’s swinging left-wing cross into the bottom right-hand corner.
Southend would probably have settled for a 2-1 lead at the interval given the pattern of play to that point, but they actually managed to extend it after Clifford had denied Baggley with a sliding challenge and Pianim had seen a header deflected over. In first-half stoppage time another excellent delivery, this time from Egbri on the right flank, was forced over the goal-line by Rush, who showed a striker’s instinct to net from four yards out.
The third goal gave Blues the opportunity to manage the game in the second half, and they controlled possession by building from the back and moving upfield with a series of decisive, crisp passes. Demetriou was withdrawn after 56 minutes, with his final contribution being a teasing cross that Harrison Holgate cleared with Acquah loitering menacingly, but that had no effect on Southend’s dominance.
Seaden was called upon to make a good save after Saunders had robbed Ridgewell on the edge of the penalty area, standing tall to make a block, but Blues almost grabbed a fourth in the 67th minute when Eastwood collected Clifford’s left-wing cross and thumped a ten-yard strike against the crossbar.
Two minutes later the youngster turned provider and Rush didn’t make any mistake with his opportunity. Eastwood’s pass was precise and the forward, who is on loan at Isthmian League club Harlow Town, stylishly slid the ball underneath the body of the advancing Pengelly to make it 4-1.
Rush almost added a fifth – in the process completing his hat-trick – when his 25-yard half-volley clipped the top of the crossbar, but Blues were able to see out their inaugural triumph in the competition, even if they did have a few anxious moments in the final quarter-of-an-hour.
First Seaden beat away Ryan Rydel’s thunderous long-range attempt and then the former Fitzwimarc pupil made a smart near-post stop to deny substitute Michael Fowler as he tried to convert a cross by former Blues youngster Shayden Morris. Seaden completed the match by thwarting Saunders with his legs as Southend recorded victory in Dave Huzzey’s final match at the club before joining Colchester United’s Academy.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Jason Demetriou (Ide Osimeh, 56), Tom Clifford, Sam Brogan, Richard Taylor, Liam Ridgewell, Freddy Eastwood, Zak PIanim (O’Shane Stewart, 63), Emile Acquah, Matt Rush, Terrell Egbri. Substitutes not used: Jamie Grossart, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Bobby Unwin.
Goals: Acquah (8, 36), Rush (45+1, 69).
Cautioned: Pianim (28, foul tackle).