A moment of magic from second-year scholar Oli Coker as the clock ran down at Garon Park earned Southend United U18s a crucial 4-3 victory over Leyton Orient.
Blues remain in control of their own destiny as the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference campaign approaches its conclusion, but it looked as though Danny Heath’s side might have spurned two points against bottom club Orient after losing 3-2 at Milton Keynes Dons last weekend.
An equaliser for the visitors in the 89th minute had rocked the teenage Shrimpers, but Coker – who had ignited the match with two goals in as many minutes shortly after half-time to turn a one-goal deficit into the lead for the first time – had other ideas.
The playmaker received the ball from the kick-off and, spotting the goalkeeper off his line and prompted by Academy coach Craig Fagan, decided to try his luck from the halfway line. He caught the ball beautifully and it swirled over the custodian and into the left-hand corner of the net to spark scenes of joy from the relieved hosts.
“When it goes 3-3 so late in the game it’s such a disappointment but the weight of the shot was spot-on,” said youth team coach Heath afterwards. “He has just fed it into the air, and once it left his foot we all had a feeling it was going in. That is the quality Oli Coker has got.”
Perhaps it should not have been so close, given that the former Greensward schoolboy had taken the game by the scruff of the neck early in the second period to put Blues in front. Trailing at the break, Coker both started and finished the move that levelled the scores in the 50th minute.
The pass that initiated the move was delightful, lifting the ball gently over the O’s defence for Tayo Adedoja to pounce on. The forward, drifting in off the left-hand side, beat the goalkeeper to the ball and, when he realised he couldn’t get a shot away, laid it off to Coker with a return pass that was stroked into the net from 20 yards out.
Two minutes later, the pair combined again for the go-ahead goal. This time Adedoja made progress down the left-hand side and, presented with the defence in front of him, rolled the ball across the edge of the penalty area for Coker to arrow into the bottom left-hand corner.
Against a team that had won just two of its 15 league games to that point, Southend could have been expected to have pulled away, but the O’s bounced back impressively. A left-wing run in the 57th minute from an attacker ended with Tommy Davis sliding in to try and get a challenge in and the shot spiralling over George Murray-Jones.
The strong wind in south-east Essex was in Southend’s favour during the second period, and twin Louie Arrowsmith corners almost caught out the Orient goalkeeper just after the hour mark, requiring his full attention to tip over, before Coker’s delivery from the opposite quadrant was flicked across the face of goal by Damaray Anyadike.
Midway through the second period Jaden Crowhurst’s set-piece delivery bounced over the goalkeeper, but captain Jimmy Wallace couldn’t react quickly enough and he failed to touch the ball in at the far post. Adedoja then saw an effort deflected over before Cameron Brown’s 35-yard free-kick flew inches over.
Midfielder Brown was not to be denied, though, and he contributed his eighth goal of the season with ten minutes remain to edge Blues ahead once again. He made up good ground to get to the far post and, having pulled away from his marker, he turned home from ten yards out.
A spirited Orient outfit were not beaten yet, and they battled hard against the wind to pin Southend back into their own half. It was an impressive effort, and it reaped rewards in the penultimate minute of the match when a left-wing centre was tucked away by an unmarked attacker. Thankfully Coker’s denouement from the ensuing restart left them no opportunity to respond again.
The O’s had led, somewhat against the run of play, at half-time. Their advantage was earned three minutes before the break after Callum Burkey had been adjudged to have tripped an attacker just inside the penalty area and, although Murray-Jones guessed correctly, the penalty was converted into the bottom right-hand corner.
Until that point, it was not evident that Blues were playing into a strong headwind, such was their dominance, and they thought they had taken the lead in the 24th minute when Burkey stabbed home Wallace’s knock-down, but the referee ruled the goal out for a foul on the goalkeeper.
Before that Anyadike had fired straight into the gloves of the goalkeeper from Brown’s weighted pass to the right and the visiting custodian had also leapt off his line to prize the ball from Adedoja’s feet. Brown’s shot in the 12th minute was deflected out for a corner and Arrowsmith’s delivery was met powerfully by Kenny Coker, only for the header to be cleared off the line.
Adedoja also tested the goalkeeper with a shot through a crowded penalty area after cutting back onto his right foot midway through the opening period and, although Anyadike was called upon to clear a shot off the line at the opposite end, Oli Coker dragged wide and Adedoja was just off-target with another attempt before Orient’s spot-kick.
Southend showed a much more clinical edge in the second period, and Coker’s dramatic late heroics mean they go into next weekend’s home clash against Northampton Town four points off the top of the table in fourth place with four games remaining. Win them all, and the title will be in their grasp.
“The lads are more than capable of achieving the target they have got for the rest of this season, but they don’t come much tougher than Northampton at home,” Heath opined.
Southend United U18s: George Murray-Jones, Jaden Crowhurst, Louie Arrowsmith, Callum Burkey, Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace, Damaray Anyadike, Cameron Brown, Kenny Coker, Oli Coker, Tayo Adedoja.
Goals: O Coker (50, 52, 90), Brown (80).