“It was much better than Saturday,” said coach Craig Fagan, referencing a defeat by the same scoreline away to National League South side Dorking Wanderers. “We kept the ball better, and I felt we were more physical. That was what I asked for after Saturday’s game, and it’s what they’ve got to get used to; playing against men and being physical and being horrible and not being worried that they’re older.”

The squad had a slightly more youthful feel to it as the likes of Harry Phillips and Freddy Eastwood stepped aside and were replaced by second-year scholars Cameron Brown and Oli Coker in the starting line-up. Schoolboy Fin Purcell was named in place of Collin Andeng Ndi in goal, with the latter travelling with the U18s side for a friendly away to Colchester United.

However, Blues were straight out of the blocks and Coker drew an unconventional save from the Crawley goalkeeper in just the third minute, with the custodian somehow pushing a driven strike over the crossbar. Three minutes later Coker won the ball in an advanced position, but a defender recovered his composure before Rush could bear down on goal.

Shortly afterwards, Jon Benton’s inswinging corner was met by Jimmy Wallace at the far post and his downward header was somehow smuggled away by a defender as skipper Miles Mitchell-Nelson attempted to turn home. Then, in the eleventh minute, Benton’s fierce shot was gathered at the second attempt by the goalkeeper after Rush had beaten two Crawley players to find him on the left-hand apex of the penalty area.

Fagan’s side were moving the ball around nicely, and at the end of an intricate move Rush saw a thumping effort bravely blocked by a defender before Benton’s corner in the 17th minute dropped to Coker just inside the penalty area and he saw his first attempt charged down before the follow-up was deflected wide.

It appeared it would only be a matter of time before the hosts managed to break the deadlock, and that was how it proved as Kinali opened the scoring sixty seconds later. Benton’s cross-field pass was perfect for right-back Reiss Chandler and he cushioned the ball beautifully into the path of the 21-year-old, who managed to squeeze the ball home from a tight angle with an intricate piece of skill.

Having got themselves in front, Southend lost their way a little as the first half progressed and, after half-an-hour, a shot was flashed into the side-netting, although Purcell seemed to have it covered. Four minutes later Crawley were level as Chandler slipped and a forward got the better of Ide Osimeh to stroke the ball past Purcell whilst one-on-one.

Kinali thought he had restored the advantage within a couple of minutes, but his far post finish was ruled out for offside. Blues felt they had been hard done by as the ball appeared to come off a Crawley defender in the build-up, but there were further chances to score in the moments that followed as Rush flashed a shot across the face of goal and then fired over from Benton’s left-wing centre.

The Red Devils, too, could have taken the lead just before the break when an attacker failed to get a strong connection to a left-wing cross, whilst Southend also failed to capitalise on an excellent opportunity when Mitchell-Nelson met Benton’s corner in first half stoppage time and Osimeh’s glancing touch was held by the goalkeeper.

Fagan made some changes at the beginning of the second period, but it was the away team that dominated the early stages after the interval with Cameron Brown doing well to intercept a left-wing cross and Purcell pushing out a delivery from the opposite flank before charging out to keep out an attempted shot.

The Blues boss was not surprised to see Crawley on top during that period: “That happens when they go in at half-time, no matter where you are, and if they’re not doing too well they get a bit of a rocket from the manager, and Crawley definitely came out with a bit more of a spring in their step, but that was good for us because it meant that we had to get back on our game.”

“Overall it was a good performance from us. We were comfortable at times in the way we looked after the football, but we didn’t try and play too much. I felt we played it in the right areas, which was good to see,” he added.

That certainly happened just after the hour mark when Southend got the go-ahead goal. Brown brought the ball through midfield and looked to release Rush. His pass bounced up off substitute Eastwood, but the forward took the ball in his stride and curled home to make it 2-1.

Rush could have added an immediate third when his attempted lob was lifted just over the crossbar but, when he was replaced by Issa Mpenga in the 65th minute, he thought his afternoon’s work was done. Indeed, Mpenga almost made an instant impression himself, only for his slide-rule finish to be directed inches wide of the left-hand upright.

Unfortunately, an injury to Damaray Anyadike meant Rush was re-introduced to the action with 20 minutes remaining and, within sixty seconds of arriving back on the pitch, he had contributed his second goal of the afternoon. This time he latched onto Mpenga’s through-ball and swept home left-footed from the ‘D’ to make it four goals in his last three appearances for the U23s.

Mpenga curled over after winning the ball from a defender shortly afterwards, but at the opposite end Purcell did brilliantly to maintain the two-goal cushion by clawing the ball away from the feet of a forward in the 84th minute before later beating away a 30-yard free-kick.

That was sufficient to see out a 3-1 victory, mirroring the scoreline when the two teams met at the same venue in February, with Fagan happy to see some of the club’s U18s squad involved: “I was pleased for Tendi coming in and, as I’ve said before, if the U18s are doing well enough, they’ll always play,” he said.

“Jimmy Wallace played again today, Tommy Davis played, Oli Coker is in and around it all the time and Cam Brown has come back after a week out with concussion. I’ve said to the U23s that they have to earn their shirt; if there’s an U18 doing better, I’m never afraid to leave boys out.”

“That’s what it’s about. Whoever is playing well has got to keep their shirt, and I’ve told the U23s that there are a lot of decent players underneath now and they can’t rely on their age. I think that’s improving the group and there’s not that safety net that you’re going to be playing every week because some of the U18s are ready to come in and take their place,” he concluded.

Southend United U23s: Fin Purcell, Reiss Chandler, Ide Osimeh, O’Shane Stewart (Sam Brogan, 51), Jimmy Wallace (Tommy Davis, 46), Miles Mitchell-Nelson (Wallace, 67), Eren Kinali (Damaray Anyadike, 55 (Rush, 70)), Cameron Brown, Matt Rush (Issa Mpenga, 65), Oli Coker (Freddy Eastwood, 55), Jon Benton (Tendi Quamina, 65).

Goals: Kinali (18), Rush (61, 71).