Southend United U23s claimed the first point of their Premier League Cup Group H campaign with a 1-1 draw away to Essex neighbours Colchester United.
Bobby Unwin’s first-half header had given Blues the advantage but Colchester - who had former Shrimpers youth team boss Dave Huzzey in their dugout - levelled midway through the second period through Frankie Terry’s own aerial effort.
A draw was the least the visitors deserved after a hard-working performance that largely stifled their Category Two opponents at the JobServe Community Stadium. Even more impressive was that Southend did so without a number of regular U23s performers such as skipper Rob Howard, left-back Charlie Sayers (both due to first-team duties), O’Shane Stewart and Jon Benton.
Goalkeeper Harry Seaden lent some experience at the back, whilst young forward Matt Rush led the line. Oli Coker had been handed his league debut in the final match of last season, whilst the remaining first-team experience came in the shape of right-back Reiss Chandler, who appeared as a substitute in last season’s EFL Trophy fixture at the same venue.
The two teams took some time to size each other up, and the first chance of note arrived in the tenth minute when Coker’s free-kick dropped to Jimmy Wallace on the edge of the penalty area and his half-volley was smashed into the side-netting.
Colchester responded through a set-piece of their own, with Seaden easily holding Marley Miranoa’s header, and that allowed Blues to take the lead after a quarter-of-an-hour.
Typically, the opening was crafted by Rush, who chased down a seemingly lost cause to hook a long ball back from the goal-line to the far post, where winger Unwin was arriving to cushion a simple header into the bottom left-hand corner of the net from eight yards out.
Colchester’s Andre Hasanally went to ground under challenge from Jimmy Wallace four minutes later, but referee Lloyd Wood waved away the hosts’ appeals for a penalty and Southend began to grow in confidence with the base of an early lead.
Unwin delivered an inswinging cross from the left touchline that Demaray Anyadike failed to convert at the far post and, after another Unwin centre was blocked at the near post, the winger glanced a header against the right-hand upright from Louie Arrowsmith’s 25th-minute cross.
At the other end, Blues were forced to be on their mettle defensively as the first half drew towards a close. Tommy Davis bravely blocked Hasanally’s centre in the 39th minute before Seaden confidently claimed the resultant corner and, after Harvey Sayer had beaten Chandler, Rush tracked back to challenge the dangerous attacker before Davis cleared.
As they had in their previous Group H fixture against Fulham, Blues went in at the break a goal to the good, and this time Danny Heath and Mark Moss elected to make a half-time substitution with Jaden Crowhurst replacing Tendi Quamina to provide additional ballast in midfield.
The home side made a quick start to the second period and Sayers was unfortunate to see a 25-yard strike fly inches over the crossbar in the 47th minute. Shortly afterwards Jake Hutchinson - younger brother of former Blues midfielder Isaac - combined with Donell Thomas to set up Kacy Parish for a centre that was cleared at the near post.
However, as the match approached the hour mark, Blues pushed forwards again, driven on by Coker playing in a more advanced central position. The former Greenward pupil’s quickly-taken free-kick in the 57th minute released Rush, who saw his effort from an acute angle blocked by a defender.
Seconds later the forward was put clear one-on-one with experienced U’s goalkeeper Gerken, who stood tall to turn away a near-post strike, and a couple of minutes later Rush was thwarted again, this time by defender Al-Amin Kazeem’s perfectly-timed challenge in the six-yard box.
With Blues unable to capitalise on those opportunities, their hosts hit back and, after Bryan Ifeanyi’s 20-yard strike was directed inches over the crossbar in the 65th minute, central defender Terry rose highest to meet a right-wing Sayer free-kick and power his header into the top left-hand corner to equalise.
For a few moments Colchester were buoyant, and Wallace had to nod a Hasanally effort off the goal-line from another Sayer delivery in the 69th minute before Seaden raced out of his penalty area to clear at the feet of the 18-year-old.
Southend were in need of some relief, and it came from the left foot of Unwin, who picked up possession on the right flank in the 72nd minute before arrowing a 25-yard attempt into Gerken’s gloves. The custodian was grateful three minutes later when Anyadike’s cross was deflected in his direction after a superb pass from Arrowsmith had threaded the wide-man through.
Blues were dealt a blow with twelve minutes remaining when Chandler was forced to limp off, but Heath and Moss took the opportunity to provide their side with more attacking options as Crowhurst dropped in at right-back and Tommy Lambourne was introduced to partner Rush.
The decision could have reaped dividends with five minutes remaining when Coker was tripped 28 yards from goal following a neat interchange with Unwin, but Cameron Brown’s free-kick was curled into the defensive wall.
Instead, Blues had to see out an uncomfortable conclusion as Davis made an excellent challenge on the edge of the penalty area to dispossess Sayer before Thomas dragged a 22-yard strike wide of the left-hand post and Seaden clutched Sayer’s injury-time free-kick to his chest.
The fixture was the first of three successive away games in the competition for Southend, who will travel to Stoke City next on 22nd November before visiting Fulham on 13th December. Colchester will be the next opponents at Roots Hall on 11th January 2022.
Southend United U23s: Harry Seaden, Reiss Chandler (Tommy Lambourne, 78), Louie Arrowsmith, Cameron Brown, Tommy Davis, Jimmy Wallace, Demaray Anyadike, Oli Coker, Tendi Quamina (Jaden Crowhurst, 46), Matt Rush, Bobby Unwin. Unused substitutes: Jamie Grossart, Luke Reeve, Tayo Adedoja.
Goal: Unwin (15).