Youth team vice-captain Callum Burkey led from the front as his first-half header earned Southend United U18s a single-goal victory over early EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference pacesetters Sutton United.
The visitors arrived at Boots & Laces for a match switched to south east Essex during the week with an unbeaten league record to protect after recording two wins and a draw from their first three matches, but Burkey’s aerial effort hauled Blues to within a point of their opponents.
The second-year scholar was wearing the captain’s armband in the continued absence of regular skipper Jaden Crowhurst through injury, whilst coach Danny Heath made three changes to the starting line-up from the 5-1 home defeat to Cambridge United seven days earlier.
Two third-year scholars were included to add experience to the side, with forward Tommy Lambourne making his first start since missing the entirety of the 2020/21 season with an anterior crucial ligament injury. Tommy Davis replaced Patrick Droney at centre-back whilst first-year Henry Sandat made his first U18s start in place of Sam Ratcliff.
After dominating the second period against Cambridge in their last outing, Blues were intent on making a fast start to their next encounter, although they found opportunities difficult to come by at an overcast Boots & Laces.
In the eighth minute a good advantage by the referee following a foul on Sandat allowed Lambourne to square for Burkey, who fired narrowly over from 25 yards out, and after a quarter-of-an-hour Mo Amir failed to get any strength behind a shot when Davis’ defensive header had helped the ball into his path.
Sutton went up to the opposite end, where a forward used Burkey as a shield and drew a low stop from Fin Purcell, but the game was largely attritional at this stage and neither side was finding it easy to get their foot on the ball and create consistent chances.
Midway through the opening period Lambourne’s dinked pass found Amir, and although he couldn’t hook home from 12 yards out Southend, and Amir, would go even closer on 29 minutes when the first-year midfielder’s free-kick was curled against the crossbar.
That set-piece would also lead to the only goal of the game as Sutton could only scramble the loose ball out for a corner. Louie Arrowsmith’s left-wing delivery picked out Burkey at the near post and his towering header bounced off the turf and deceived the visiting goalkeeper to drop into the bottom right-hand corner of the net.
The goal gave Blues some freedom, and an Arrowsmith centre from the left flank just eluded Tayo Adedoja at the far post in the 34th minute before Adedoja turned provider in the lead-up to half-time, using his strength to roll his marker and set up Amir, who dragged his finish wide.
In between Ibrahim Kamara was required to track a forward’s run and effect an impressive sliding tackle in the penalty area, and that would be a portent for how the second half would evolve, with Sutton enjoying more possession and posing more of a threat to Blues.
The hosts remained resolute, however, and at the other end could have stretched their advantage when Adedoja was thwarted by the goalkeeper as he attempted to slide home after bursting between two defenders, whilst Lambourne snatched at a half-volley following good work by Amir and Adedoja on the hour.
Sutton missed a good chance shortly afterwards when an attacker sliced wide, and midway through the second half Davis made a brave block before Amir slid in to force a forward away from goal inside the penalty area.
Williams was brought on for Sandat to provide fresh attacking impetus for the teenage Shrimpers, and he immediately pressurised the Sutton goalkeeper into a hurried clearance. Burkey won a header in midfield, Amir and Adedoja combined again on the right wing and Amir eventually drew a save from the custodian.
Good work at the back saw Purcell grab the ball at the feet of a Sutton forward on 74 minutes and, with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, Davis read a near-post corner to thump the ball to safety. The third-year centre-back then showed his aerial dominance at the other end as Southend sought to give themselves a cushion, but the goalkeeper parried his header out.
Adedoja had another effort charged down on 82 minutes, but Sutton kept pressing and Purcell twice came out of his penalty area to clear as the final moments approached. In stoppage time, Lambourne went back to powerfully clear a hoisted free-kick out of the Blues box and maintain the lead.
However, Southend did have chances of their own in an additional three minutes with Amir narrowly overhitting a pass to Adedoja and Garzon then setting up Lambourne. He appeared to be clattered by the goalkeeper, but the referee waved away appeals for a penalty and, in the final reckoning, the decision had no bearing on the result as Blues returned to winning ways in their first-ever league meeting with Sutton.
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Ibrahim Kamara, Louie Arrowsmith, Callum Burkey, Luke Reeve, Tommy Davis, Brian Garzon, Mo Amir, Tommy Lambourne, Henry Sandat (Omari Williams, 63), Tayo Adedayo. Unused substitutes: Jacob Bland, Habib Bolarinwa, Mitch Fallows, Joe Shenouda.
Goal: Burkey (30).