Southend United U18s completed their EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference campaign with a 2-1 victory over Sutton United on Sunday afternoon.
The result represented a fourth straight win for Danny Heath’s squad in 2022 as they finished the first portion of the season as runners-up to champions AFC Wimbledon. Blues will now take their place in EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One for the remainder of 2021/22.
A congested section of the table meant that only three points separated second-placed Cambridge from sixth-placed Sutton United going into the fixture. Southend were fourth, two points ahead of their hosts at the Xcel Leisure Complex in Walton-on-Thames, but with the jeopardy of a four-goal defeat consigning them to Merit League Two football.
With second-year scholars Jaden Crowhurst and Luke Reeve on work experience loans at Great Wakering Rovers, Habib Bolarinwa and Patrick Droney stepped into the defence. Midfielder Callum Burkey skippered the side in place of regular captain Crowhurst.
Blues made the perfect start to the fixture when winger Williams gave them the lead less than sixty seconds into the game. Bolarinwa chased a long ball down the right flank and his centre was cleared as far as the first-year scholar, positioned just outside the ‘D’, and he rifled home a measured finish beyond Toby Fisher in the Sutton goal.
The opener gave the visitors belief, and Williams soon earned a third-minute free-kick that he took short to Sandat, who moved play on quickly to the marauding Clayden. The defender lashed over from 25 yards out, and shortly afterwards Tayo Adedoja dragged wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Sutton pegged Blues back in the seventh minute with their first attack of note. Kai Tanner picked up possession to the right-hand side of the penalty area and he arrowed his finish underneath Purcell at his near post to make it 1-1.
The Sutton skipper tried his luck from distance again a minute later, with Purcell this time turning his attempt over the crossbar before Euan Mutale angled an effort wide of the left-hand upright from besides the penalty spot.
Having got back on level terms, it was Sutton who were now playing with confidence, and Tanner seized on a Purcell goal-kick into the wind in the 17th minute, with Clayden in the right place to cut out his intended pass for Mutale.
Purcell managed to push a Mulate attempt around the post four minutes later, and Southend relieved the pressure to an extent in the 26th minute when Mo Amir forced a save from Fisher at full-stretch following a neat pass from Williams.
Brian Garzon then fired wide from 20 yards out after exchanging passes with Louie Arrowsmith before the left-back was involved in the opposite penalty area to prevent the dangerous Tanner from latching onto Mutale’s pass.
Adedoja was aggrieved when the referee waved away his appeals for a penalty after he tussled with central defender Anton Matthews in the 39th minute but, with the first half deep into stoppage time, the match official did point to the spot after Sandat had been tripped just inside the area.
The spot-kick gave the teenage Shrimpers the opportunity to end the first half in the same manner as they had started it, and Sandat picked out the bottom left-hand corner of the net to render Fisher’s correct guess irrelevant.
Blues were dealt a blow at the break when Clayden had to be withdrawn after suffering an injury late in the first half. Burkey moved back into the heart of the defence and, as Southend adjusted to the reorganisation, Matthews nodded a right-wing corner over for Sutton.
Sandat was denied another penalty after going to ground in a challenge with Rowan Charles-Cook in the 48th minute and Blues, who were now playing with the benefit of a substantial breeze, went close four minutes later when Garzon found Amir on the overlap and he drilled a shot at Fisher.
As the game moved into the final half-an-hour, nerves began to fray and both Patrick Droney and Tanner were cautioned for adopting an aggressive attitude, which led to both teams coming together.
Purcell made an outstanding save at his near post to turn Tanner’s fierce strike from a Charles-Cook through-ball into the side-netting in the 65th minute, and from the ensuing corner Mutale flicked a header over.
At the other end, Amir’s stinging drive was turned around the right-hand post by Fisher, but the match was becoming more and more disjointed, at Southend’s behest. The visitors were managing the match and causing increasing frustration for Sutton, who needed two goals in the final quarter-of-an-hour to move into the top half of the table.
Purcell held substitute Daniel Olabiyi’s left-wing cross at the near post with three Sutton attackers waiting to pounce in the 77th minute, and Williams wasted an opportunity to seral the success with six minutes remaining when he smashed a Garzon pass wide.
Max Fiddes and Mitch Fallows replaced Sandat and Arrowsmith for the final few minutes of the match as Sutton pressed on. Jonas Mukana blasted over when well-placed inside the penalty area in the 87th minute and, although Garzon flashed wide, Blues then had to deal with five additional minutes.
Two minutes into stoppage time, an opportunity fell to centre-back Matthews, who hooked a half-volley onto the roof of the net and, two minutes later, talisman Tanner steered wide of the left-hand post. Blues had held firm, and the squad could finally celebrate the victory and their place in Merit League One.
Southend United U18s: Fin Purcell, Habib Bolarinwa, Louie Arrowsmith (Mitch Fallows, 87), Callum Burkey, Harrison Clayden (Jacob Bland, 46), Patrick Droney, Mo Amir, Brian Garzon, Tayo Adedoja, Henry Sandat (Max Fiddes, 85), Omari Williams. Unused substitutes: Luke Curullo, Alfie Terry.
Goals:Williams (1), Sandat (45+2 pen).
Cautioned: Williams (50, delaying the restart of play), Droney (61, adopting an aggressive attitude), Sandat (72, pushing).