Blues went into the match knowing they could not qualify for the latter stages of the competition, but they claimed their first success of the four-match group stage thanks to goals from Jon Benton, Matt Rush and substitute Kenny Coker.

“It was a very good performance,” declared U23s coach Craig Fagan. 

“In the game we played away to Oxford we weren’t good enough, but we had a different group of players. We had a younger group then, but we had some U23s players back for this one and it was a realistic game of football. We competed for the ball in the right areas and we were a threat going forward, and that was good to see.” 

Fagan was able to call upon midfielder Jacob Mellis and winger Terrell Egbri in the first half as the first-team duo stepped up their respective returns from injury. The pair completed 45 minutes and the former Hull City forward was happy to see them involved. “They need minutes,” he confirmed.  

“Jacob has come into the club and hasn’t featured yet so he got 45 minutes. I’ve worked with Terrell before, so it’s good to see him back and playing. He gives you something out wide; he wants to get forward into the box and he’s energetic. He never gives anything up and we need that with where we are as a football club.” 

Mellis was involved in the opening goal of the game after six minutes. He scrapped for possession alongside Oli Coker deep in Oxford territory, and that meant the ball broke free for Benton to lash home from 25 yards out. The midfielder had also put Blues in front in the reverse group fixture, but there was to be no repeat of the U’s fightback this time. 

The visitors had actually threatened first, after two minutes, when Joshua Anifowose sliced wide from the edge of the penalty area, but Southend settled into their groove after going ahead and, on nine minutes, Rush could have doubled the lead when he outpaced centre-back Clinton Nosakhare. Unfortunately, the ball took an untimely bobble as he unfurled his shot and it flew wildly over. 

Three minutes later Blues went even closer to a second goal in the unlikely form of holding midfielder Sam Brogan. The third-year scholar featured in 58 youth team matches for the club without scoring, but he was the width of the left-hand upright away from notching his first U23s goal after meeting Benton’s inswinging corner and heading it against the upright. 

On 18 minutes, another Benton delivery found Miles Mitchell-Nelson, captaining the side in the absence of the injured Rob Howard, and his aerial effort was brilliantly turned around the post by Oxford goalkeeper Kie Plumley. Four minutes later, central defensive colleague Tommy Davis glanced a header wide from Benton’s free-kick.

Oxford slowly grew into the game, which became more disjointed as the half-time whistle approached. Tyler Goodrham’s attempt from the right-hand side of the penalty area was blocked by Ide Osimeh on 39 minutes before the U’s attacker was cautioned for simulation after going down under challenge from Mellis just before his withdrawal at the interval. 

The second half started in spectacular fashion with Rush grabbing the second goal for the hosts. Both Southend substitutes, O’Shane Stewart and Freddy Eastwood, were involved in the move, with the latter sending a well-weighted pass into the path of Brogan. He stood up a cross to the edge of the six-yard box and Rush powerfully headed home. 

Oli Coker, celebrating his 18th birthday, then dragged a 20-yard shot wide before Oxford halved their deficit on 64 minutes. Davis had just done well to cut out an Anifowose cross when a right-wing centre picked out Dylan Asonganyi and he rifled his finish into the roof of Collin Andeng Ndi’s net. 

Blues had a couple of chances themselves either side of that goal, with Brogan’s replacement Kenny Coker unable to turn home Rush’s cut-back and Eastwood’s thumping shot deflected out for a corner, but Oxford were hunting for an equaliser and Oli Coker had to make a superb sliding challenge to dispossess Asonganyi in the Southend penalty area. 

Both Cokers failed to find a finish when Benton slid the ball back into their path with ten minutes remaining, but Blues made sure of the victory in the final minute of the regulation ninety when Benton’s corner dropped to Stewart inside the ‘D’. His shot was blocked, and Rush couldn’t prod the follow-up past Plumley, but Kenny Coker reacted quickest to force the ball over the goal-line. 

Deep in stoppage time, Rush saw a fierce shot deflected off-target and then volleyed Mitchell-Nelson’s flick-on into Plumley’s gloves, but Southend had done enough. Their attention now turns to a trip to National League South club Dorking Wanderers for a friendly on Saturday afternoon. 

Fagan was delighted, not just with his experienced players, but with the youth team scholars stepping up: “This club is renowned for getting people through,” he said. “We try to push them on when they’re ready or when they need to be pushed. Tommy Davis has played a few U23s games now and Jimmy Wallace will play in the next couple of games, and Kenny has come on and scored.” 

“We forget about Kenny, but he was with the first team at the start of the season. He was disappointed to be left out for a while, but he’s got his head back down and he’s working hard, and he’s come on today and scored a goal, so that will do his confidence the world of good,” he concluded. 

Southend United U23s: Collin Andeng Ndi, Reiss Chandler, Ide Osimeh, Sam Brogan (Kenny Coker, 55), Tommy Davis, Miles Mitchell-Nelson, Terrell Egbri (Freddy Eastwood, 46), Jacob Mellis (O’Shane Stewart, 46), Matt Rush, Oli Coker, Jon Benton. Unused substitutes: Damaray Anyadike, Jimmy Wallace. 

Goals: Benton (6), Rush (46), K Coker (90).