Brian Garzon’s hat-trick helped Southend United U18s reach the Second Round of the EFL Youth Alliance Cup with a 4-2 victory away to Stevenage.
Garzon struck in a devastating ten-minute spell either side of the half-time interval to turn a 2-1 deficit into a two-goal advantage after goals by Watkiss and Finley Johnson had twice given the hosts the lead. Omari Williams had earlier netted for the Shrimpers to haul Blues level.
Youth team coach Danny Heath named an unchanged line-up following a 4-0 win away to Milton Keynes Dons in their previous encounter, and Southend started with a confident swagger as the ball was moved around the pitch before Jaden Crowhurst smashed over from 25 yards out.
Despite those encouraging signs, Stevenage took the lead just six minutes into the tie with their first attack of note. The hosts moved the ball quickly and precisely through midfield, prizing open the Blues defence in the process, and Finlay Johnson set up Watkiss to fire clinically into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
A foul by Ibrahim Kamara on the edge of the penalty gave the home side a chance to double their advantage on ten minutes, but the defensive wall did its job and charged down the set-piece, allowing Blues to equalise sixty seconds later.
The goal came from Williams and represented his first for the youth team in a competitive fixture. It was made by Tayo Adedoja, playing through the middle but drifting out on the left touchline to receive a pass. Williams occupied the space left by the second-year striker and was picked out by his lay-off, sweeping the ball first-time into the bottom left-hand corner from 18 yards out.
Almost immediately the same combination linked up to try to put Blues ahead, but this time Adedoja was stopped by a superb challenge by a Stevenage defender after collecting a square pass by winger Williams.
Midway through the first half Williams produced some good defensive work to dispossess a Stevenage attacker with a well-timed tackle, and that was replicated by midfielder Mo Amir on 24 minutes after Williams and Sam Ratcliff had lost possession at a short corner and Crowhurst had failed to complete a challenge on the halfway line.
Unfortunately Williams was to be withdrawn shortly after the half-hour mark as he succumbed to injury, with forward Joe Shenouda taking his place and Adedoja moving onto the left-hand side. It was frustrating for the first-year scholar after an impressive start to the game.
Despite that set-back Blues continued to craft chances with Crowhurst winning the ball to release Garzon and the playmaker setting up Adedoja, who saw his effort deflected wide. On 42 minutes, Arrowsmith’s mid-range attempt was charged down and Amir side-footed over from the edge of the ‘D’.
Southend had been in the ascendency, but they went behind for a second time three minutes before half-time as a mistake in the Blues back-line allowed Johnson to dribble around goalkeeper Fin Purcell and tap into an unguarded net.
It took less than sixty seconds for Southend to level this time around, thanks to the persistence of Amir, who chased a long ball over the top that had seemed destined to bounce out of play. He hooked the ball back from the goal-line and Garzon arrived to power home a six-yard header into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
The equaliser proved to be crucial and, within three minutes of the second half kicking off, Blues were in front. Amir had just fired over when he spread play to the right flank and Ratcliff. He pulled the ball back to Garzon, who steered a ten-yard finish at the near post into the roof of the net.
Southend were having real joy working the ball down each wing and another cross from Ratcliff was fired over by Amir from the edge of the penalty area. However, there was an anxious moment on 52 minutes when Hicks lifted the ball over Purcell and Luke Reeve did well to nod off the goal-line.
That came at the expense of a corner, which eventually led to Blues stretching their advantage. The ball was quickly cleared up to the halfway line, where a defender attempted to cut it out. That merely laid the ball into Garzon’s path, and he confidently stroked his shot beyond the advancing Stevenage goalkeeper.
From that moment there was no doubt that Southend would progress to the Second Round, although they failed to eclipse the four goals they had netted in the league at MK Dons. Amir - who was outstanding in the centre of midfield - screwed wide and Adedoja failed to find the target with a volley, both from Ratcliff centres before the hour mark.
Amir also warmed the gloves of the goalkeeper from 25 yards out before Heath gave Callum Burkey - returning from injury - Jacob Bland and Henry Sandat some minutes at the end of the game.
The match ended with Reeve’s header being gathered at the second attempt by the goalkeeper on 83 minutes and Adedoja dragging a shot inches wide from yet another Ratcliff pass in stoppage time, but Blues had already done enough by then to emerge victorious.
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Ibrahim Kamara, Louie Arrowsmith, Jaden Crowhurst (Callum Burkey, 73), Luke Reeve, Patrick Droney, Sam Ratcliff, Mo Amir (Jacob Bland, 77), Tayo Adedoja, Brian Garzon (Henry Sandat, 89), Omari Williams (Joe Shenouda, 32). Unused substitute: Habib Bolarinwa.
Goals: Williams (11), Garzon (43, 48, 53).