Blues led for the majority of the encounter, edging ahead for the first time in the fifth minute through midfielder O’Shane Stewart and then again midway through the second period via Matt Rush. However, a second-half hat-trick by substitute Jake Robinson proved to be the difference in the final reckoning.

“The lads need to learn how to see games out and not give sides opportunities to get back into the game,” said U23s coach Craig Fagan after the match. “But am I pleased with the way we played with the ball? Yeah, we did better but it’s just seeing the games out and I’m disappointed we haven’t won the game.”

Having been defeated heavily in their last two trips to New Lodge in the competition, Southend could have been forgiven for expecting their hosts to come out of the blocks quickly, but instead, it was Matt Rush who warmed the hands of Town goalkeeper Emmanuel Agboola inside the opening sixty seconds.

Four minutes later the Harlow Town loanee was involved again as he set up Stewart for the game’s opening goal. The stylish midfielder collected a square pass and proceeded to arrow his finish in off the base of the left-hand upright from 20 yards.

The lead should have been doubled in the tenth minute after Rush did well on the right-hand side to dispossess Themis Kefelas. The 18-year-old hung the ball up to the far post, where Eren Kinali was arriving at pace, but he couldn’t keep his close-range effort down and he crashed the ball against the top of the crossbar.

Undeterred, Southend continued to carve out chances and Egbri set-up Acquah for a shot that was dragged wide of the left-hand upright in the 12th minute. Seconds later the hosts gave the ball away in midfield and Acquah dribbled into the penalty area. His left-footed strike was pushed out by Agboola, and Rush was unable to get to the follow-up before a defender.

Billericay had their first real opportunities shortly after the quarter-hour mark when Moses Emmanuel was released by Alfie Potter. Miles Mitchell-Nelson tracked that run, and when Emmanuel was found by a right-wing cross shortly afterwards Harry Seaden managed to tip the shot over at point-blank range.

Seaden also made a smart save in the 25th minute by gathering Doug Loft’s low strike, but Blues continued to create opportunities and Mitchell-Nelson should have done better with a misdirected header from a Harry Phillips free-kick just before the half-hour mark.

Egbri sent a well-struck attempt into the grateful gloves of Agboola from Acquah’s intelligent pass in the 33rd minute, but Emmanuel was a constant distraction for Southend and he narrowly failed to make a connection with a right-wing cross as Billericay sought an equaliser. He then dragged an effort across the face of goal just after Ody Alfa had drawn an impressive stop from the unsighted Seaden in the closing moments of the first half.

Seaden made an unconventional stop to thwart Emmanuel, but Fagan’s side ended the opening period strongly and Kinali should have done better with a volleyed finish at the far post from Egbri’s cross, whilst Agboola also denied Acquah at full-stretch.

“We had four or five chances and we could have been 4-2 up or something like that,” said Fagan. “That’s kind of killed us in the end because we should have taken those opportunities. We started the game well and I was pleased with how we played in the first half, but we should have had more to show for it.”

Billericay sent on the prolific Robinson - who netted three goals against Southend in the Third Round in 2017/18 - at half-time, and his impact was almost immediate as he equalised in the 52nd minute. Potter was the architect with a superb reverse pass that sent the forward clear, and he emphatically thumped the ball into the top right-hand corner of the net.

Blues could have restored their advantage within a couple of minutes when Richard Taylor nodded a Phillips set-piece wide and, despite Emmanuel glancing a powerful Loft header over, the visitors had further opportunities just after the hour mark. First Rush’s thunderous strike was parried by Agboola before Acquah’s flick-on was stabbed at the shotstopper by Kinali from close-range.

Six minutes later Southend were in front again through Rush, who netted his 17th competitive goal of the campaign. Acquah collected a left-wing throw-in and teed up the striker for a clinical finish from around 15 yards out.

This time the lead lasted just five minutes as the referee awarded Billericay a penalty for a foul by Tom Clifford on Robinson. The forward went down under pressure and brushed himself down to smash the spot-kick past Seaden.

The goalkeeper clutched a strong Emmanuel effort shortly afterwards, but Blues had one more opportunity to try and see off their hosts. A right-wing cross wasn’t dealt with by the Billericay back-line and Kinali took a touch at the far post before seeing a close-range strike deflected over.

With seven minutes remaining, it was Billericay who edged ahead for the first time. Alfa worked hard to fashion the opportunity and the ball fell kindly to Robinson on the right-hand side of the penalty area. The striker slammed an unstoppable shot into the top left-hand corner to make it 3-2.

There was an injury-time appeal for a penalty after Kinali went to ground, but those claims were waved away by the referee and Southend exited the competition by the odd goal in five. “At half-time, I said to the lads after the way we had played they would be getting a telling off in there,” said Fagan.

“They came out closing down with real intensity and got the equaliser. I’m not going to hold it on the penalty because we had the chances to win the game. I don’t think that’s a penalty but at 2-2 I still thought we could go and win the game but that’s the difference,” he added.

Southend United U18s: Harry Seaden, Rob Howard, Tom Clifford (Ide Osimeh, 90), O’Shane Stewart (Zak Pianim, 88), Richard Taylor, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Terrell Egbri, Harry Phillips, Emile Acquah (Jon Benton, 74), Matt Rush, Eren Kinali. Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Sam Brogan.

Goals: Stewart (5), Rush (67).
 
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