A late Nicke Kabamba header rescued a strong Colchester United under-23s side a 2-2 draw against Essex neighbours Southend United in the opening group game of the Central League Cup.

All four goals came in the final 18 minutes at Florence Park, with Kabamba securing a share of the spoils for the U’s after two goals in as many minutes from Norman Wabo and Renei Batlokwa had cancelled out Tommy O’Sullivan’s opener for the hosts.

Colchester’s starting line-up, watched by head coach John McGreal, featured a host of senior players including midfielder Craig Slater, who played for an hour as he continues his comeback from a hip injury.

O’Sullivan went close in the opening ten minutes for the U’s with a long-range effort and the hosts had the better of the first half.

Southend keeper Nathan Bishop was the busier of the two goalkeepers, making good saves to twice deny Kabamba and also Sanmi Odelusi.

Cole Kpekawa’s long-range strike flew over the bar and Odelusi lifted the ball over Bishop but also over the bar, as the U’s pressed for an opener.

But Blues were not without their opportunities in the first half, with captain Harry Phillips’ goalbound free-kick pushed over for a corner by Colchester keeper Dan Wilks just before half-time.

After a goal-less first half, the game became more open in the second period.

Phillips’ first-time effort flashed just wide for Southend just after the break while at the other end, Kabamba’s far-post header from O’Sullivan’s corner sailed just wide as both sides looked to make the breakthrough.

It finally came with 18 minutes remaining through O’Sullivan’s excellent strike from the edge of the area that flew into the net.

But after Wilks had denied Alex Clarke an equaliser, Southend hit back with two quick-fire goals.

Wabo levelled with 12 minutes to go when he broke in from the right and slammed home a shot that flew in off the woodwork.

And soon after, Batlokwa’s powerful effort left Wilks with no chance, to leave Colchester trailing.

But with four minutes remaining, Kabamba guided home a fine header from Will Wright’s deflected ball into the area to equalise.

Substitute Eoin McKeown was unlucky not to win it for Colchester in stoppage-time, as the game finished all square.

COLCHESTER UNITED: Wilks, James, Wright, Kpekawa (sub Allarakhia, 71), Kinsella, Brown, O’Sullivan, Slater (sub Edge, 60), Odelusi (sub McKeown, 71), Senior, Kabamba. Substitutes (not used): Wilson, Kurasik.