Norman Wabo bagged a brace and Harry Phillips was also on target as Southend United U23s edged an entertaining Central League South Division encounter against Forest Green Rovers.
Wabo scored with a stylish solo effort in the 22nd minute to give Blues the lead, but Isaac Pearce issued an immediate riposte for the hosts. Phillips netted a close-range second for Kevin Maher’s side on the stroke of half-time and, after Phillips and Miles Mitchell-Nelson had both struck the woodwork, Wabo extended the advantage in the 81st minute.
There was still time for Junior Mondal to halve the deficit in the closing stages, but Southend stood firm to extend their unbeaten run to three matches. This success was made all the more impressive by the lack of experience in the team as Maher named an exclusively U23 line-up.
Forest Green created the first opening of the game in the third minute when Dayle Grubb dispossessed Mitchell-Nelson to set up Reuben Reid, who directed his 20-yard shot inches over the crossbar. Isaac Hutchinson then responded for the Shrimpers, drawing a good save from Lewis Ward from Wabo’s cut-back in the tenth minute.
The frame of the goal was clipped for the first time two minutes later after Harry Seaden had raced off his line to push the ball away from Udoke Godwin-Malife. The loose ball fell invitingly for Pearce, who skimmed the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area with a wicked strike.
The open nature of the encounter continued past the quarter-of-an-hour mark with Wabo beginning to cause problems for the home defence. He directed a right-wing centre from Renei Batlokwa into the gloves of Ward in the 15th minute before, just seconds later, Phillips sent a deflected shot narrowly wide. From the ensuing corner, Wabo couldn’t crane his head to nod on target at the far post.
When Tom Clifford galloped down the left flank in the 18th minute, Blues were made to pay for not being purposeful enough as his inviting centre across the six-yard box went unfinished, and they were almost punished at the other end when Seaden was forced into a fine save to deny Pearce before clutching Reid’s follow-up.
However, Blues moved in front for the first time in the 22nd minute after good pressure by Amadou Ba on the right-hand side. He forced Isaiah Jones into an error and Wabo pounced, out-pacing the young centre-back to advance one-on-one with the goalkeeper before calmly placing the ball beyond Ward at his near post.
The advantage lasted just two minutes. Pearce picked up possession midway into the Southend half and drove towards the penalty area. He exchanged passes with Grubb on the edge of the box and the referee played a good advantage before the attacker steered his shot into the bottom right-hand corner of Seaden’s net.
Blues were seemingly dealt another blow on the half-hour when Zak PIanim limped off to be replaced by Eren Kinali. The substitution forced Maher into changing the composition of the midfield as Batlokwa moved inside to a deep-lying role and Kinali appeared wide on the right, and the winger immediately won a corner, from which Mitchell-Nelson failed to head home whilst unmarked in the six-yard box.
Rovers broke swiftly at the other end and Mondal found himself clear on the counter-attack with just Seaden to beat, but the second-year shotstopper stood tall before making a fine save with his legs. Kinali then continued his quick impact by warming the gloves of Ward from Wabo’s pass in the 35th minute, although the forward had continued his run and was seeking a return ball.
On-loan custodian Ward was forced into another smart stop at his near post a couple of minutes later when Ba swept Kinali’s right-wing cross towards his net, and from the ensuing Phillips corner Mitchell-Nelson was twice thwarted on the goal-line. The central defender then thought he had put the Shrimpers in front by nodding home another Phillips delivery just before the break, but the assistant referee’s flag was raised for offside.
In-between Seaden had made another crucial intervention after Reid found Mondal with a through-ball and the forward’s excellent control took him away from the Blues back-line and towards the goal. Mondal picked his spot in the bottom right-hand corner, but Seaden stretched to his left to palm the shot to safety.
The former England U17s goalkeeper was rewarded for his excellence when Southend edged ahead again in first half stoppage time. Ba saw a thunderous attempt charged down by a Forest Green defender, but Kinali retrieved the ball and laid it off unselfishly to Rob Howard. He coaxed a cross to the back post, where Phillips touched home from a couple of yards out.
The opening period had finished at breakneck pace, and the second half began in similar fashion. Pearce threaded a pass through to Mondal for the home side in the 48th minute, but a precise curling finish was superbly turned around the left-hand upright by Seaden before Hutchinson warmed the palms of Ward at the opposite end.
Mondal and Reid were a persistent threat for the hosts, but Howard did well to hold up the latter in the 52nd minute and allow Seaden to come off his line to gather possession. When the defence was not able to stop Rovers from getting a shot away, midfielder Ben Liddle sent a searing 25-yard effort just over.
Kinali was proving to be a constant outlet on the right, drifting away from his marker to provide an option for Seaden’s goal-kicks and also from open play. In the 55th minute he received the ball from Hutchinson and sent a fierce shot towards Ward, who gathered at the second attempt, and on the hour mark he thwacked another effort towards the gloveman when a pass outside to an open Hutchinson may have been a better option.
After Kinali had seen yet another well-struck attempt deflected out for a corner in the 64th minute, Blues smacked the woodwork for the first time at the mid-point of the second half. Phillips connected sweetly with a 25-yard shot that Ward turned onto the right-hand post. Such was the venom in the strike that it careered across the goal-line and against the left-hand upright before Ba smashed the loose ball wide.
Four minutes later the frame of the goal was shuddering again, this time as a result of Mitchell-Nelson’s half-volleyed attempt. The defender was picked up at the far post by Hutchinson’s looping cross and his attempt beat Ward for pace, but cannoned off the underside of the crossbar and against the left-hand post before rebounding away from goal.
Mitchell-Nelson did not spend any time rueing his misfortune, though, as he raced back to cut out a Pearce centre at the other end, and Forest Green briefly looked to the more likely side to score as Reid volleyed over from close range and substitute Daniel Ogunleye planted a header across the face of goal.
Instead, Southend gave themselves a cushion nine minutes from the end with another wonderful finish by Wabo. The move started in the visitors’ own half with Mitchell-Nelson and travelled through Batlokwa, Kinali and Phillips before Hutchinson’s shot was beaten out by Ward. Wabo was quickest to react before turning his marker and leaving Ward with no chance as he slammed his shot into the roof of the net.
To their credit, Forest Green did not give up and, although Reid could only locate Seaden with an 82nd minute shot, he was involved again when they narrowed the advantage three minutes later. Mondal picked out his strike partner, who saw Seaden make a parried stop before Mondal lifted home the rebound.
Hutchinson could twice have made the game safe for Southend in stoppage time, curling marginally over and then failing to connect with Kinali’s driven centre, but there was an anxious moment in the Blues box when Pearce prodded goalwards and Mitchell-Nelson was positioned perfectly on the goal-line to clear. The final whistle sounded seconds later to signal the end of a five-goal thriller with Southend ending on top in Wiltshire.
Southend United U23s: Harry Seaden, Rob Howard, Tom Clifford, Zak Pianim (Eren Kinali, 31), Sam Knock, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Reni Batlokwa, Isaac Hutchinson, Amadou Ba, Norman Wabo (Terrell Egbri, 86), Harry Phillips. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Ide Osimeh, Freddy Eastwood.
Goals: Wabo (22, 81), Phillips (45+1).
Cautioned: Howard (51, foul tackle).