On a day that will be forever remembered for first-year scholar Charlie Kelman’s amazing goal from inside his own half for the Blues first team on his league debut, Freddy Eastwood, Jon Benton and Miles Mitchell-Nelson were on target for Kelman’s U18s team-mates as they swept aside the U’s in the area semi-final...
The teenage Shrimpers had started 2019 with a 6-1 victory over Gillingham in the league, and youth team coach Dave Huzzey made just two changes to the line-up for the visit of Cambridge. Goalkeeper Harry Seaden was brought back from his work experience loan with Great Wakering Rovers in place of Callum Taylor whilst Benton took Kelman’s attacking spot.
There was a whirlwind start to the encounter as Cambridge won an early corner straight from the kick-off and Seaden had to grab hold of the ball at his near post. However, less than two minutes had been played when Blues took the lead through Freddy Eastwood’s 13th goal of the season.
Matt Rush did well to hold the ball up on the right-hand side before switching play to the opposite flank and Benton. The midfielder found full-back Ide Osimeh, who calmly rolled the ball into the path of Eastwood. The first-year stepped inside before lashing the ball into the top right-hand corner of the net from 14 yards out.
Southend almost added a quick-fire second goal as the action continued apace when Rush worked his way down the left flank and centred for Benton. The former Leigh Ramblers youngster lined up a shot from a similar distance to the opening goal but saw his thunderous effort rattle the underside of the crossbar before bouncing out.
The 144 spectators in attendance had barely had time to catch their breath before the visitors went close themselves in the fourth minute through defender Sam Goode, who saw his initial attempt from a corner blocked before aiming the follow-up over the crossbar.
If Blues had enjoyed the better of the early opportunities - and Terrell Egbri sent a 25-yard effort over in the ninth minute after good built-up by Rush and Benton - that was based on a solid defensive foundation. Right-back Ben Dabbs did particularly well after a quarter-of-an-hour to track the run of Sam Bennett and force the ball away from the U’s attacker and out for a corner.
Southend were denying their opponents a direct sight of goal, even if their aerial presence meant that set-pieces remained a danger. In the 20th minute Seaden did well to race off his line and smother a Bennett shot, although the assistant referee had already raised his flag for offside, and a couple of moments later he dropped comfortably on Ben Worman’s long-range attempt.
After 25 minutes Joe Neal glanced a Lewis Simper free-kick over at the near post before another Simper delivery was punched out by Seaden, with Blake D’Arcy smashing the rebound over. Blues did not exhibit any signs of anxiety at the threat posed by Cambridge, and they extended their lead just after the half-hour mark.
Again the move was initiated on the left-hand side, with the Eastwood this time playing his part in the build-up. He laid the ball off to Sam Brogan and the former Billericay Town youngster slid a pass into the path of Benton, who crashed his shot home via the underside of the crossbar. This time the ball bounced down inside the goal and up into the roof of the net as Southend doubled their advantage.
Five minutes later the woodwork came to Cambridge’s rescue as Blues sought to extend their lead still further. Rush picked the ball up inside the left-hand portion of the penalty area and angled his finish against the inside of the right-hand upright, with the shot improbably rolling along the goal-line and out.
Nonetheless, the hosts had a comfortable margin with which to enjoy their half-time break, and they almost scored a third straight from the restart. Dabbs did well to force the ball into the path of Benton, and his left-wing centre was miskicked by Rush inside the six-yard box before Benton’s own follow-up was diverted out for a corner.
Two minutes later Mitchell-Nelson nodded an Osimeh corner onto the roof of the net and Southend were displaying the same levels of confidence as they had at the end of the opening period. They even had the perfect opportunity to make it 3-0 on 58 minutes when Dabbs’ cross was handled by D’Arcy leading to a penalty, but Rush elected for placement over power and Craig Foxall guessed correctly to save.
The U’s went straight down the other end, where Seaden was called upon to claw away Worman’s well-struck attempt, but Blues remained in the ascendancy and Egbri was unfortunate when he drifted inside from the left wing and saw a ferocious effort deflected wide for a corner on the hour.
However, it was that flag-kick that led to Southend’s third goal as the home side made the tie safe. Osimeh’s inswinging delivery to the near post was met by Mitchell-Nelson, who got an important touch to the ball and goalkeeper Foxall was left scrambling to try and make a save. The custodian only succeeded in helping the ball into the top right-hand corner and Mitchell-Nelson wheeled away in celebration.
A goal inside the next ten minutes could have made for a tense conclusion, especially since Cambridge had only narrowly been defeated, 3-2, in both of the team’s previous meetings this season. However, Seaden was intent on registering a clean sheet and he stood tall to deny Bennett in the 64th minute before Sam Knock got across to clear Harvey Steel’s right-wing cross two minutes later.
Egbri and Worman traded shots into the side-netting at opposite ends, but the main feature of the final quarter-of-an-hour was the introduction of a triumvirate of schoolboys in the shape of Alex Bragg, Jimmy Wallace and Oli Coker. For midfielder Coker this was a youth team debut as he became the fifth U16s player to feature for the U18s so far this season.
There remained time for one last opening for Southend, with Rush denied the goal that his hard-working performance deserved. He brilliantly out-paced a defender down the left wing before forcing Foxall to beat away his fierce attempt, with the forward then nodding the rebound inches wide.
By that point the result was not in any doubt, and Dave Huzzey’s side had claimed a spot in the area final. They will now face Exeter City, with the full details of the fixture to be confirmed. The Grecians beat Southend’s next opponents, Northampton Town, 2-1, with the Cobblers visiting Boots & Laces in the final South East Conference clash of the season on Saturday morning.
Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Ben Dabbs, Ide Osimeh, Sam Brogan, Sam Knock, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Terrell Egbri (Jimmy Wallace, 90), O’Shane Stewart (Oli Coker, 90), Matt Rush, Jon Benton (Alex Bragg, 74), Freddy Eastwood (Issa Mpenga, 84). Substitute not used: Callum Taylor.
Goals: Eastwood (2), Benton (31), Mitchell-Nelson (61).