Southend United U18s were unable to reprise their penalty kick success against Aveley in the previous round of The FA Youth Cup as they were edged out of the competition by Cambridge United at Roots Hall.
Blues had emerged victorious from that clash in a sudden death shoot-out, but this version was ultimately determined by the very first kick, with midfielder Callum Burkey sending the hosts’ opening effort against the right-hand post.
The following nine penalties were all successful, leaving Cambridge to celebrate a 5-4 win following a 1-1 draw in which Burkey had been influential alongside goalscorer Mo Amir in the centre of the park. Glen McConnell’s fine finish had given the U’s a 77th-minute advantage, but Amir levelled from the spot seven minutes later and the teams couldn’t be separated after extra time.
Youth team coach Danny Heath made three changes to the side that had overcome the Millers, attempting to utilise a change in shape that had been successful in their previous two league outings.
Patrick Droney’s injury meant Habib Bolarinwa moved inside to partner Luke Reeve at the back, with Ibrahim Kamara returning at right-back. Omari Williams and Sam Ratcliff were replaced in the starting line-up by Amir and Henry Sandat in a 4-1-3-2 formation.
On a chilly evening in south-east Essex, Southend almost made the perfect start when Louie Arrowsmith centred the ball from the left-hand side of the penalty area and skipper Jaden Crowhurst arrived unmarked at the far post, only to direct his close-range finish wide of the right-hand post.
Three minutes later opposite full-back Kamara picked out Amir besides the penalty spot, but the in-form midfielder slipped and failed to get an effective shot away. A mark of the positive start came on 17 minutes when Sandat located Tayo Adedoja on the right-hand apex of the area, but he snatched at his shot and sent it against the North Stand scoreboard.
Cambridge responded a couple of minutes later when Fin Purcell was required to claw away Harvey Beckett’s back-post header, and the U’s continued to press forwards thereafter, with Kai Yearn and Dan Barton both seeing close-range efforts blocked.
Purcell - the penalty-saving hero of the previous round - was impressive again on 27 minutes when he clutched Brandon Njoku’s cleanly-struck attempt and kept hold of the ball, and he also saved from Barton following a mazy 36th-minute dribble into the penalty area.
In-between Sandat had seen a strike charged down by Beckett at the opposite end, whilst Yearn curled wide from 20 yards out for the visitors. The midfielder, who is Cambridge’s youngest-ever senior goalscorer at the age of 16, was then thwarted by Burkey’s block five minutes before the break.
Garzon tested Tom Finch in the Cambridge goal with a daisycutter and Burkey rose imperiously at the near post to meet an Arrowsmith corner, but he directed his header wide and, as a result, neither team could break the deadlock before the interval.
Heath made a change at half-time with Sam Ratcliff replacing Sandat, but it was Burkey who tested Finch in the opening stages of the second period with a superb left-footed effort from 25 yards out that was brilliantly tipped over the crossbar.
That was the best Blues could muster in the opening half-an-hour of the second half, however, and within a couple of minutes Njoku had seen his attempt from the right-hand side of the penalty area improbably bounce out off the inside of the left-hand upright.
Frank Nzeh nodded over shortly afterwards and Amir cleared Yearn’s ambitious half-volley, but the pressure continued to mount on the Southend goal and Yearn smashed over at the near post following McConnell’s short corner in the 56th minute.
Blues were struggling to progress into Cambridge territory and, as the mid-point of the second period approached Purcell tipped Njoku’s strike around the right-hand post before the referee waved away appeals for a penalty after the forward went down under pressure from Bolarinwa.
Another Njoku effort was deflected wide in the 67th minute before Purcell saved from Beckett’s close-range header from the ensuring corner. Some respite arrived when Garzon drilled a shot at Finch on 70 minutes and, five minutes later, Adedoja’s looping header went over from an Omari Williams corner.
Heath had tried to freshen things up with the introduction of Williams in place of captain Crowhurst, but the initial signs were not good as the U’s took the lead through McConnell, who arrowed home from 25 yards out to leave Purcell with no chance.
Saleem Akanbi then thumped wide as Cambridge sought to extend their lead, but instead they were pegged back when Adedoja crossed for Amir and he was tripped in the penalty area. The first-year scholar brushed himself down to calmly slot home the spot-kick, contributing a goal for the third consecutive match and netting the club’s 300th in The FA Youth Cup in the process.
Remarkably the match turned around in an instant and Blues were now in the ascendancy, with defender Reeve meeting Garzon’s right-wing cross with an acrobatic overhead kick that Finch saved low to his left.
Southend were dealt a blow when Adedoja was unable to continue after contesting another Garzon delivery, with schoolboy Freddie Buers his replacement. Nonetheless, Burkey - who had taken over the captain’s armband from Crowhurst - almost snatched the win for Blues with a searing 25-yard strike that cleared the crossbar by inches.
Extra time was required, and the momentum switched again, with Nathan Braithwaite firing into the side-netting for the visitors and another substitute, Joe Tarpey, fizzing an effort across the face of goal. McConnell also fired wide from 20 yards out as he looked to double his personal tally.
However, as extra time continued, Southend reasserted themselves, despite the lack of an attacking fulcrum in the form of Adedoja. Burkey released Ratcliff just before the change of ends, but he was denied by Finch’s legs and was replaced with Joe Shenouda.
Reeve headed over from a Williams cross, but better chances would follow as Amir’s angled strike was parried to safety in the 112th minute and then Burkey fed Williams for a fierce strike that was turned wide by Finch’s right leg.
Unfortunately, Blues couldn’t force a winner as they coped with the two hours of high-energy football the better, and that left the tie to be determined by kicks from the penalty mark. Garzon, Amir (again), Williams and Buers were all successful, but Cambridge’s 100% record from the spot saw them through to the Second Round.
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Ibrahim Kamara, Louie Arrowsmith, Callum Burkey, Luke Reeve, Habib Bolarinwa, Jaden Crowhurst (Omari Williams, 71), Mo Amir, Tayo Adedoja (Freddie Buers, 90), Brian Garzon, Henry Sandat (Sam Ratcliff, 46 (Joe Shenouda, 105)). Unused substitutes: Luke Curullo, Mitch Fallows, Jacob Bland.
Goal: Amir (84 pen).
Cautioned: Ratcliff (97, foul tackle).