Southend United U18s booked their place in the First Round Proper of The FA Youth Cup with a dramatic penalty shoot-out success against Aveley at Roots Hall.
Blues were unable to break down their opponents during the regulation ninety minutes, but they earned an early lead in the shoot-out when Fin Purcell saved Harry Brown’s first spot-kick for the Millers.
Oliver Johnston in the Aveley goal immediately denied Tayo Adedoja, and the two teams traded blows to take the denouement into sudden death. Louie Arrowsmith converted Southend’s seventh penalty, and Purcell then turned away Ethan Charlette’s twelve-yarder to spark scenes of celebration.
For long periods of the first half, it hadn’t looked as though Blues would require penalties to prevail as they pressed forwards against their Eastern Junior Alliance opposition. But Aveley stayed in the game and caused their hosts some discomfort during a nail-biting second 45 minutes.
Danny Heath named the same starting line-up as the Second Round Qualifying win against Barking, which meant recalls for Sam Ratcliff and Omari Williams out wide in place of midfielders Jacob Bland and Henry Sandat. Arrowsmith was also restored to the team after his exploits in the Premier League Cup for the U23s on Friday evening.
After Purcell had confidently claimed a third-minute Charlette set-piece, Blues began to dominate by working the ball into wide spaces for Williams and Ratcliff to run at the Aveley defence. Adedoja nodded a right-wing Ratcliff cross into Johnston’s gloves in the fifth minute, and another attempt at a centre from the first-year flanker shortly afterwards was cut out at the near post.
In the twelfth minute Brian Garzon, scorer of the second goal in the previous round, went to ground under a challenge from Flynn Monk, but the referee waved away Blues’ appeals for a penalty. Within seconds the playmaker had dusted himself down and dragged a 25-yard shot wide of the left-hand upright.
Blues were growing in confidence, and Williams flashed a strike from just outside the ‘D’ into the side-netting in the 18th minute before the winger tested Johnston for the first time immediately after the restart, having been picked out by Adedoja. Johnston pushed the ferocious shot into the air before safely gathering the ball as it dropped into his gloves.
There was further joy for Southend down their left-hand side in the 20th minute when full-back Arrowsmith earned a corner and Callum Burkey met the Williams delivery with a powerful header that only cleared the crossbar by a matter of inches.
The pressure was intensifying on Johnston’s goal, and the custodian made another parried stop to thwart a thunderous attempt from Williams midway through the first half before Adedoja curled a measured effort into his hands from the edge of the penalty area.
There was little let-up from the teenage Shrimpers, and shortly after the half-hour mark patient build-up play involving Williams, Arrowsmith and skipper Jaden Crowhurst led to Burkey firing marginally over from distance.
Brown saw his shot from an acute angle deflected into the side-netting for the visitors in the 34th minute, but Blues were quickly back on the attack and Adedoja threaded a shot between two defenders that Johnston held at full-stretch to his right-hand side.
A burrowing run from the forward then saw him denied twice in quick succession again by the inspired Johnston, before Arrowsmith was invited to shoot from fully 30 yards and he sent a searing strike narrowly over.
The opening period ended with perhaps the first indication that Aveley would enjoy more success in the second half. Firstly, former Blues youngster Kwabena Yeboah angled a shot across the face of goal in the 39th minute before Charlette found Brown, who drew a routine save from Purcell.
Williams did test Johnston once again on the stroke of half-time, but the interval seemed to interrupt the hosts’ fluency and they appeared more ragged after the break. Aveley began to craft opportunities, from set-pieces in particular, and Purcell held an early headed effort from Brown.
Arrowsmith was unfortunate that his clean strike from a Garzon lay-off was deflected wide in the 49th minute, but Blues enjoyed their own stroke of luck seven minutes later when Purcell failed to claim Finlay Shipp’s free-kick and Luke Reeve and Habib Bolarinwa blocked efforts from James Baruam and Yeboah in the six-yard box.
Another dead-ball delivery from Shipp just before the hour mark found Yeboah in space inside the Blues penalty area, but Crowhurst was quickly in position to effect an important challenge on the attacking midfielder.
With 18 minutes left, Crowhurst saw an attempt charged down before Heath introduced schoolboy Freddie Buers and first-year Sandat into the fray. Buers made an immediate impact, drawing a foul from a defender, but Crowhurst’s delivery was cut out at the near post.
As the clock ticked towards the 90th minute, it looked as though penalties was the most likely outcome, although Adedoja saw a fierce strike turned wide for a corner and Sandat failed to apply an acrobatic finish to Garzon’s injury-time cross.
Captain Crowhurst set Southend on their way in the shoot-out, and later efforts from Buers, Sandat and Garzon were all successful as the scores were tied at 4-4 after five penalties apiece. Defenders Reeve and Arrowsmith then converted from twelve yards before Purcell guessed correctly to deny Charlette.
Aveley had proved to be difficult opponents, but Blues finally claimed their first-ever FA Youth Cup success on penalties following four previous shoot-out defeats in the competition. The squad will now be eagerly awaiting news of the First Round Proper draw.
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Habib Bolarinwa, Louie Arrowsmith, Callum Burkey (Henry Sandat, 86), Luke Reeve, Patrick Droney, Sam Ratcliff, Jaden Crowhurst, Tayo Adedoja, Brian Garzon, Omari Williams (Freddie Buers, 75). Unused substitutes: Mitch Fallows, Ibrahim Kamara, Jacob Bland, Mo Amir, Joe Shenouda.