Forward Matt Rush took his goals tally in 2021 to seven in seven games with a brace against Fulham U23s in a friendly at Boots & Laces on Good Friday.
The former Wickford Town youngster put Southend in front after 11 minutes and rounded off the scoring with three minutes remaining, but a quickfire burst of three second-half goals in quick succession from the visitors - including two for Terry Ablade and a Thorsteinn Antonsson header - meant Craig Fagan’s side suffered a narrow 3-2 defeat.
“In the first half we were very good. We were excellent, actually, and we deserved our lead,” said Fagan afterwards. “Rushy was excellent again, he’s scored again and he has got a habit of doing that, but there were some good all-round performances from a lot of the lads.”
Rush lined up as the sole striker, with support from Eren Kinali and Jon Benton either side and Freddy Eastwood just behind. O’Shane Stewart and Sam Brogan held a central midfield role with Reiss Chandler and Ide Osimeh flanking skipper Miles Mitchell-Nelson and Jimmy Wallace in defence. Collin Andeng Ndi was named in goal.
Although Rush’s first goal of the afternoon came relatively early on, Blues had already had one effort ruled out for offside in the fourth minute after Kinali met Benton’s free-kick at the far post. Mitchell-Nelson was the culprit behind his team-mate, and his active role saw the assistant referee’s flag raised.
Three minutes later Benton took a short free-kick to Stewart, who saw his fierce strike from 35 yards out deflected over, but Southend would not have to wait long before getting the go-ahead goal. Benton was involved again as his inswinging delivery bounced back off the inside of the right-hand post and Rush was alert to turn home from three yards out.
As well as dead-ball situations, Blues were enjoying a lot of freedom on their right-hand side, with Chandler over-hitting a cross and Kinali being crowded out when he sensed an opportunity to find an expectant Rush in the penalty area. On 24 minutes Stewart fed Rush after nicking the ball in front of a Fulham midfielder, with the forward then setting up Kinali, only for his attempt to be deflected into the side-netting.
From the resulting Benton corner, Brogan nodded into the goalkeeper’s gloves, but Blues weren’t satisfied with their one-goal advantage and Rush was unfortunate when he volleyed an Eastwood flick-on into the side-netting shortly before the hour mark.
There was only one anxious moment for Southend in the opening period when Mitchell-Nelson, in attempting to bring the ball out of defence, was dispossessed by Jean Pierre Tiehi, but Stewart reacted quickly to stall the Fulham forward and Wallace then swept up behind him to clear to safety.
Indeed, Fagan’s side almost doubled their lead in the closing stages when Osimeh and Benton combined on the left-hand side and set up Eastwood, whose ferocious strike from the edge of the penalty area had to be tipped over the crossbar.
Fulham came out in the second half with more purpose, and within five minutes Sylvester Jasper had dragged a shot narrowly wide of the right-hand post. Ten minutes later Jasper sent a cross into the six-yard box following a short corner routine with Fabio Carvalho, but Tommy Davis - on as a half-time substitute for Wallace - read the danger and cleared.
Andeng Ndi then turned Sonny Hilton’s shot over the bar, with Fagan opining: “I think they got a bit of a telling off at half-time, but that’s not to say they weren’t at it, we were just better than them. They competed a lot more in the second half, they got their goal and got back into the game, and it took us a while to get going again.”
Before Fulham equalised, Blues had a big shout for a second goal turned down. Benton’s corner was cleared as far as Eastwood, and he chipped the ball back into the penalty area. Kinali swivelled on the spot to connect with a sweet half-volley in mid-air, and he was convinced the ball had crossed the goal-line before the Fulham substitute goalkeeper could push it out, but he couldn’t sway the match officials with his pleas.
Rush then saw his shot from Stewart’s through-ball turned around the post, but from the ensuing corner - delayed by the introduction of Cameron Brown and Oli Coker for Brogan and Eastwood - Fulham broke away quickly and Ablade calmly slotted his finish into the bottom right-hand corner of the net beyond the advancing Andeng Ndi to level the scores.
On 75 minutes the visitors took the lead. Another short corner arrangement led to Jasper tip-toeing into the penalty area at the left-hand apex and he sent a precise delivery to the far post where Antonsson - like Ablade a second-half replacement for the away team - stooped to send a diving header into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
If Southend had been rocked by those two goals coming against the run of play, then they were hit by a further sucker-punch sixty seconds later when Ablade contributed his second goal of the game with a close-range finish from another Jasper delivery to make it 3-1.
Blues responded well, and Benton’s free-kick was charged down by the defensive wall in the 80th minute before a curling Osimeh set-piece was easily gathered by the goalkeeper. Despite the set-backs, the hosts continued to push, and they were rewarded with three minutes to go.
Again, Benton’s dead-ball delivery was the key, with Mitchell-Nelson rising highest to meet his right-wing corner and nod the ball into the path of Rush at the back post. The marksman made no mistake with another close-range finish and turned the ball home to set-up a grandstand finish at 2-3.
Blues stepped up the pressure once again and tested their higher-level opponents as they attempted to draw a mistake in the closing stages. With 30 seconds remaining, Southend were awarded a corner; Benton delivered and Davis this time leapt to meet the cross but, despite a powerful connection, his downward header was gathered by the goalkeeper.
“We were excellent in the first half, and I don’t think it was the case that we weren’t at the same levels in the second half, but there was a lack of concentration for some of the goals,” Fagan stated. “One was a counter-attack from a corner, so that’s concentration, it’s not effort, and then there was another from a cross.
“That was concentration again in terms of marking your man, and sometimes you can’t compensate for that with effort, it’s about being switched on to the danger and being aware of it in your head.
“I’m happy with the way we performed; it was a different test against a Premier League team and a good Academy. The standard of their players is meant to be right up there and we gave them a real test today, which is good for our Academy.
“We gave a good account of ourselves and stood up to the challenge, and at the end of the game we’re hearing their staff tell their players to keep the ball in the corner because we were looking like we’d get back into the game and nick an equaliser or even win it. They know they were in a game.”
Southend United U23s: Collin Andeng Ndi, Reiss Chandler, Ide Osimeh, O’Shane Stewart, Jimmy Wallace (Tommy Davis, 46), Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Eren Kinali, Sam Brogan (Cameron Brown, 67), Matt Rush, Freddy Eastwood (Oli Coker, 67), Jon Benton. Unused substitutes: Damaray Anyadike, Issa Mpenga.
Goals: Rush (11, 87).