Southend United U23s qualified for the group stages of the Premier League Cup for the first time in the competition’s history with a dramatic penalty shoot-out triumph over Stevenage.
Blues had seemed destined to suffer heartbreak again after failing to qualify in each of their previous four attempts when the hosts took the lead with just eight minutes remaining, but a last-gasp Matt Rush leveller sent the match into extra time.
A combination of inspired goalkeeping from the Stevenage custodian and some wasteful finishing from Blues ensured there was to be no winner in the ensuing half-an-hour, but Southend edged out their opponents in a sudden death shoot-out.
Cameron Brown, Jon Benton, Matt Rush and Charlie Sayers were all successful from twelve yards and, whilst Collin Andeng Ndi saved Stevenage’s third penalty, Tommy Davis saw his spot-kick repelled to leave the tie poised at 4-4 after five kicks apiece. Andeng Ndi saved again and Terrell Egbri stepped up to win the tie for the young Shrimpers.
The result means that the squad, jointly coached by Mark Moss and Danny Heath, will now have the opportunity to pit their wits home and away against Fulham, Stoke City and local rivals Colchester United in the group stages of the competition.
On the balance of play, it was a deserved victory for Southend, who were able to call upon Rob Howard, Harry Phillips and Louis Walsh as well as Sayers, Davis, Egbri and Rush, all of whom have had recent first-team experience alongside goalkeeper Andeng Ndi.
The opening 20 minutes saw little goalmouth action as the two teams took stock of their opposition. When Stevenage did probe, they couldn’t find an incisive pass, whilst Rush’s attempts to hustle defenders into mistakes drew free-kicks from the referee.
A Stevenage set-piece was fired into the defensive wall in the first effort on goal from either side before the twin threats out wide of Egbri and Walsh earned corners for the visitors. It wasn’t until the 25th minute that the Stevenage goalkeeper was called into action for the first time, leaping to his right to turn away a Rush shot on the turn after he had worked hard to force an error.
Three minutes later Rush’s persistence was almost rewarded as he seized possession again in the penalty area and teed up Howard, whose left-footed strike was well saved again. Then, on 32 minutes, Egbri’s centre was volleyed goalwards by Benton and blocked by a defender.
Blues were using the width of Egbri on the right touchline for the majority of their build-up play, and a simple pass inside to Brown in the 33rd minute ended with the midfielder’s shot flying narrowly over. However, there was a moment of anxiety at the other end when Andeng Ndi made a good near post stop to keep the scoreline goalless at half-time.
Despite Rush steering an early shot narrowly wide at the beginning of the second period, the hosts held sway in the early post-interval exchanges, with Andeng Ndi making a strong save to his right in the 51st minute, Jimmy Wallace bravely blocking from the resultant corner and another attempt flying across the face of goal shortly afterwards.
Once those moments had passed, it was Southend that moved back into the ascendancy, and Phillips went close from distance with a skidding strike in the 54th minute before Rush retrieved the rebound and dragged his follow-up into the side-netting.
As the game moved towards the hour mark, Benton and Rush combined for the latter to draw a low save from the goalkeeper before Benton directed over from the edge of the 'D' following good work from Walsh on the left-hand side.
Play switched to the opposite end, where more good work from the Blues back-line saw a Stevenage shot repelled before the follow-up was sliced wide, but the direction of play continued to move away from that goalmouth as the minutes ticked away.
More guilt-edged opportunities arrived shortly after the hour mark when Rush and Benton hunted down the Stevenage goalkeeper and forced him to surrender possession to Walsh. His attempt was saved before Brown drilled goalwards and Rush narrowly failed to get a vital touch with his toecaps.
Walsh then twisted and turned before sending a deflected effort into the side-netting, and Southend stepped up the pressure once he and Phillips had been withdrawn and replaced by third-year scholars Bobby Unwin and Oli Coker with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining.
Rush almost put Blues in front straight after the substitutions when he dribbled through the heart of the Stevenage defence before side-footing inches wide of the left-hand upright, and within seconds he was striding forward purposefully again to set up Egbri, who fired over.
The Stevenage goalkeeper then made two crucial saves to push out attempts by Unwin, on the turn inside the penalty area, and Coker, who was looking to sweep home a Sayers centre. In the 81st minute, Unwin drifted inside from the right flank and angled his shot past the near post.
As a result, the Stevenage goal came completely against the run of play in the 82nd minute. An attacker got free on the left-hand edge of the penalty area and, although Andeng Ndi made the initial save, he was powerless to stop the follow-up from being tapped in from eight yards out.
Blues refused to back down, and they earnt their equaliser with a little over sixty seconds remaining of the regulation ninety minutes. Benton swung a corner in towards the near post, the ball was turned in the direction of the goal and Rush was on hand to force his shot over the line from inside the six-yard box.
The forward continued to be a nuisance to the Stevenage defence in extra time, after Coker had headed over from Howard’s hanging cross in the ninth minute of stoppage time. Benton hooked an effort wide after the goalkeeper dropped a corner shortly after the restart, whilst Howard nodded off-target from a Benton flag-kick in the 98th minute.
It was in the second period of additional time that Southend really pressed on, with Benton smashing goalwards and forcing the goalkeeper into a fine save before Unwin’s curling free-kick was pushed to safety by the gloveman.
Tendi Quamina was brought on to represent an extra attacking threat, and he failed to head home from an Egbri cross after Coker’s strike had been deflected wide. Benton also found his range with two more thunderous attempts that the goalkeeper brilliantly turned away, with a defender following up the second one with a superb challenge on Rush as he prepared to shoot.
There looked likely to be one final moment for Rush to try and find a winner but, as he chased down a hopeful pass into the penalty area, he appeared to be clipped by a defender. The referee waved away appeals for a penalty, but Blues would have their time from the spot in the shoot-out that followed.
Southend United U23s: Collin Andeng Ndi, Rob Howard, Charlie Sayers, Harry Phillips (Oli Coker, 74), Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace (Tendi Quamina, 96), Terrell Egbri, Cameron Brown, Matt Rush, Jon Benton, Louis Walsh (Bobby Unwin, 74). Unused substitutes: Fin Purcell, Luke Reeve.
Goal: Rush (89).
Cautioned: Brown (90+1, foul tackle), Egbri (119, dissent).