Southend United U23s scored four unanswered goals in the second half to overturn an interval deficit and run out 5-2 victors over Bristol Rovers at Garon Park.
Freddy Eastwood gave Blues the lead in just the second minute of the encounter, but Harry Warwick equalised against the run of play and Theo Widdrington’s penalty put the visitors in front shortly before half-time. However, first-year scholar Bobby Unwin levelled the scores before Matt Rush scored twice and set up Isaac Hutchinson to turn the tables on the Pirates.
Five members of the Southend side had tasted first-team football this season with goalkeeper Harry Seaden, central defender Richard Taylor and forward Emile Acquah joining Rush and Hutchinson in the line-up. Second-year scholars Eastwood and Sam Brogan, plus first-years Oli Coker and Jimmy Wallace, stepped up from the youth team whilst full-backs Rob Howard and Ide Osimeh completed the line-up.
Craig Fagan’s side made a superb start and could have taken the lead inside the opening sixty seconds when Rush fired into the gloves of Alexis Andre-Jr. Instead they had to wait another minute before edging ahead as Andre-Jr came off his line to apprehend Acquah and Eastwood thrashed the loose ball into the net from the right-hand side of the penalty area.
Rovers had an opportunity to equalise when Josh Barrett’s driven free-kick was diverted goalwards by Sam Matthews, but Seaden made a smart stop to gather through a crowded penalty area. That was a rare anxious moment for the hosts as Fagan’s side began to dominate proceedings.
Still a week away from his 19th birthday, Rush should’ve done better when was found by Eastwood’s pass in the eleventh minute, but he dragged a shot wide of the left-hand post from a good position. Two minutes later the forward was brilliantly denied by Andre-Jr, who turned a ferocious strike against the crossbar and away to safety.
With the fixture still inside the opening quarter-of-an-hour, Rush was thwarted for a third time, on this occasion by the right-hand post as he rose to meet Coker’s swinging cross, and Hutchinson was next to go close, forcing Andre-Jr to turn away his fierce strike after good work from skipper Howard on the right-hand side.
Hutchinson then turned provider, holding the ball up before bringing Eastwood into play, with his half-volley parried out by the over-worked Andre-Jr. Against that backdrop, it was something of a surprise that Rovers equalised in the 26th minute, despite Seaden having pushed over a Barrett set-piece slightly early. The Pirates worked the ball into the path of Warwick, who slotted underneath Seaden to make it 1-1.
Eleven minutes later the visitors were in front as Coker was adjudged to have tripped Widdrington inside the penalty area. The youngster – son of former Blues assistant boss Tommy – brushed himself down before curling his spot-kick out of Seaden’s reach and into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
Blues were rocking a little, but they could have restored parity before the half-time whistle when Acquah was found in space on the left-hand edge of the penalty area. He opened up his body to shoot right-footed, but he angled his finish high and wide of the far post.
Unwin was introduced in place of Eastwood at the break, adding more pace and flair on the left flank. Coker, who is usually deployed through the middle in youth team fixtures, switched to take up a right-sided role and, although Southend saw plenty of the ball in the early stages of the second period, initially there were no clear-cut chances.
That changed as the match approached the hour mark. Blues stepped up their intensity and Unwin forced Andre-Jr into a superb save as he pushed a stinging strike into the side-netting. From the resultant Hutchinson corner, Taylor cushioned the ball back to Acquah, who headed over from an unmarked position.
Andre-Jr was grateful that Rush then drilled an effort from Howard’s pass straight at him, but the goalkeeper was powerless to prevent Unwin from levelling in the 59th minute. The winger was found in a central position by Coker, and he advanced through a couple of challenges before slamming an unstoppable strike into the top right-hand corner of the net.
Hutchinson warmed the gloves of Andre-Jr with an attempt from the edge of the penalty area, but Blues were celebrating again in the 66th minute when Rush converted a penalty after the custodian was judged to have brought down Coker as the midfielder attempted to get past him.
Southend did not let up, and Rush clipped a cross against the top of the crossbar midway through the second half before Coker went agonisingly close to a fourth goal with a skidding shot inches wide of the far post from Acquah’s slide-rule pass.
With 16 minutes remaining, Blues did stretch their lead following more brilliance from Rush. He won possession on the halfway line and turned his marker before embarking on a left-wing run. The forward had the vision to pick out Hutchinson on the far side of the pitch, and he did well to shift the ball out of his feet before using a defender as a shield to arrow his finish into the bottom left-hand corner.
Blues were again denied by the frame of the goal in the 77th minute when Unwin picked out Acquah and his attempt cannoned off the upright, whilst Andre-Jr got his fingertips to an Unwin strike with just four minutes remaining. There was still time for a fifth goal, though, as Rush claimed his second of the afternoon with the aid of a couple of deflections.
Coach Fagan was delighted with the second half display: “In the second half we showed what we are about. We moved the football with a better intensity and played as a team, and people were not selfish and playing for themselves. The goals we scored were excellent and they were team goals as well.”
Blues complete their Central League campaign in three weeks’ time at home to Peterborough United, with just a point required from the fixture to claim the South Division title after winning five of the first six games.
Southend United U23s: Harry Seaden, Rob Howard, ide Osimeh, Sam Brogan (Cameron Brown, 80), Richard Taylor, Jimmy Wallace (Sam Knock, 80), Oli Coker, Isaac Hutchinson, Emile Acquah, Matt Rush, Freddy Eastwood (Bobby Unwin, 46). Substitutes not used: Callum Taylor, Demaray Anyadike.
Goals: Eastwood (2), Unwin (59), Rush (66 pen, 90), Hutchinson (74).