Kenny Coker’s stoppage-time penalty earned Southend United U18s a dramatic 4-3 victory over Luton Town at Boots & Laces and kept the club’s hopes of claiming the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League Two title alive.
Coker nonchalantly chipped his spot-kick into the net to deceive the Luton goalkeeper and maintain Southend’s position at the top of the league table, although Danny Heath’s side will need to defeat Peterborough United away in the final match and hope Northampton Town slip up in one of their remaining fixtures to claim the silverware.
It was a magical moment for Coker personally, who completed his first competitive U18s hat-trick in the process to take his personal goalscoring tally into double figures for the campaign in his 15th start of 2020/21. Midfielder Brian Garzon was also on target early in the second half.
“To have the confidence to take a penalty like that and kick it down the middle was brilliant to see,” beamed youth team coach Heath afterwards. “A few players wanted the penalty, but he’s a number nine, he’s a centre-forward and he’s on two goals, and no-one should begrudge him the opportunity of getting his hat-trick.”
“His all-round game today was good; he was making runs into the channels, chasing lost causes and pressing from the front, and he has got his rewards. He is over the moon, not only for himself, but for the team, and that’s what it’s all about. You can be an individual, but it’s about doing what’s best for the team; he’s buzzing with the three goals but also with the three points.”
With the club’s second-year scholars stepping up to the U23s squad playing simultaneously against the Hatters, the side was made up exclusively of first-years and schoolboys, with midfielder Jaden Crowhurst handed the captain’s armband.
Blues attacked the game with vigour and could have taken the lead in the third minute when full-back Charlie Sayers picked out fellow defender Luke Reeve at the far post with a free-kick and his volleyed effort was gathered by the Luton goalkeeper.
Luton skied an early opportunity of their own after working the ball down the left wing a few seconds later, but Southend generally enjoyed the better of the early exchanges and Sayers curled a 25-yard free-kick into the gloves of the goalkeeper in the 12th minute.
Six minutes later Sayers fed Omari Williams down the left flank and his centre, directed towards Coker at the near post, was cut out by a covering defender, before Reeve craned his head but couldn’t direct a header on target from Crowhurst’s free-kick.
It was from another Crowhurst set-piece that Southend took the lead midway through the first half. The midfielder’s deep delivery was only cleared as far as Garzon on the edge of the penalty area and he managed to force the ball through to Coker, who hooked the ball around the goalkeeper on the half-volley to open the scoring.
Within sixty seconds the teenage Shrimpers could have doubled their advantage when Williams was brought down just outside the apex of the penalty area, but Crowhurst whipped the free-kick over and then, on 28 minutes, the first-year scholar’s skidding effort kicked up viciously off the dry ground and flew inches wide of the right-hand upright.
Blues were in control of the encounter, and central defender Reeve again went close in the 34th minute when he rose highest at the far post to meet Crowhurst’s left-wing corner, only to nod over the crossbar.
There was an anxious moment when schoolboy Habib Bolarinwa was forced to block a shot at the near post sixty seconds later, but it came as a surprise when Luton levelled in the 38th minute with a left-wing pass clinically directed across Fin Purcell and into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
Southend had been the dominant force in the match, but the visitors ended the first half strongly and Sayers did well to recover after being caught out by a bouncing ball to block with the help of Callum Burkey before Purcell gathered a low attempt in the 44th minute.
The half ended with Coker’s deflected strike going narrowly wide, and when the two teams went back to their coaches for their half-time team-talk, Blues must have felt similar emotions to the previous weekend’s clash with Northampton, where their failure to take the chances presented to them before the break were punished during the second period.
Whereas against the Cobblers Cameron Brown had seen an early attempt cleared off the goal-line as Southend sought to restore their lead, this time Garzon brilliantly got the go-ahead goal on 47 minutes after collecting a Sayers pass and angling his 20-yard finish in off the right-hand post just underneath the bar.
Unfortunately, the hosts were pegged back again shortly before the hour mark when a though-ball prized open the Blues back-line. A few moments earlier a similar move had ended with a shot being blasted over, but this time the ball was gently lifted over Purcell and the sliding Reeve to make it 2-2.
Mohammed Amir was brought on for Williams on the left-hand side, and Southend immediately set about trying to get themselves in front again. On 68 minutes Purcell quickly delivered the ball up-field and Coker and Garzon combined to set up Tayo Adedoja, who glanced a header wide.
The match had developed a more end-to-end nature in the second period, and Luton had their own opportunity to edge in front for the first time on 74 minutes when the ball was hoisted over the Southend defence, with the shot fired straight at Purcell.
Bolarinwa was injured as he attempted to get back to block the attempt, and he was replaced by another schoolboy in Patrick Droney for the final quarter-of-an-hour, but the change did not affect Blues and Adedoja nodded marginally over as he arrived late to meet a Sayers delivery from the left touchline.
The momentum was building again for the home side, and they took the lead for a third time with twelve minutes remaining when Adedoja did brilliantly to hold off a defender and win the ball on the right-hand side of the penalty area and his delivery was swept home from eight yards out by Coker at the near post.
Within two minutes, the Hatters had restored parity yet again. A free-kick almost immediately from the restart was floated to the far post and an attacking player superbly powered his header into the top right-hand corner of the net for 3-3.
A frenetic final ten minutes of the match ensued, with Coker failing to complete his hat-trick after Reeve and Garzon had helped Crowhurst’s long throw into his path and Amir just unable to turn home at the far post, before fine defensive work by Droney prevented a visiting player from getting a shot away as the game entered stoppage time.
The play switched to the opposite end as Southend went in search of a winner, and a right-wing cross was sent to the far post, where the referee adjudged Amir to have been floored as he and a defender tussled to reach the ball. Coker took responsibility for the spot-kick, and his assured finish set up a grandstand finale to the season during May.
“The most important thing is that we go to Peterborough and we perform to the best of our ability, first and foremost, and what will be after that will be. The boys set the target to win the Merit League and they have got themselves into a situation where they can still do that with one game to go, albeit it’s not in our hands. It’s down to us to put the pressure on the other teams,” Heath said.
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Harrison Clayden, Charlie Sayers, Callum Burkey, Luke Reeve, Habib Bolarinwa (Patrick Droney, 75), Adetayo Adedoja, Jaden Crowhurst, Kenny Coker, Brian Garzon, Omari Williams (Mohammed Amir, 60). Unused substitutes: Jacob Bland, Ibrahim Kamara, Henry Sandat.
Goals: K Coker (23, 78, 90+3 pen), Garzon (47).