Burton Albion ground out a priceless first win of the season on the Essex coast to extend their unbeaten League 2 run to ten games with this 1-0 victory over Southend United. Calvin Zola's screaming strike on the half hour proved to be the difference between the two sides and Albion had to show plenty of defensive resilience to claim not only their first win of the season but also their first clean sheet of the campaign.
The Brewers made a quick return to Roots Hall, the scene of the final away game of last season where a 1-1 draw secured their Football League status and there was just one change enforced upon the manager after another battling home performance against Port Vale on Tuesday evening. On loan defender Tom Parkes suffered a fractured ankle against the Valiants and having returned to his parent club Leicester City for treatment there was an opportunity for Ryan Austin to stake a claim for a regular run in the side alongside Tony James. It meant that the back four was made up of regular members of the team that won promotion from the Conference three seasons ago.
Austin's promotion to the starting eleven opened up the chance for Jack Dyer to return to the substitutes bench after recovering from a wrist injury that had marred his pre-season build up.
Albion won an early free kick and Chris Palmer's delivery caused problems for the home defence with Aaron Webster's headed bundled behind for a corner. The Brewers kept the pressure on but a foul from Webster from Palmer's second corner allowed Southend to clear the danger.
The hosts also went close in the fourth minute. Neil Harris linked up well with Ryan Hall and his cross towards the back post found Liam Dickinson but he could only send a looping header wide of the post.
The home side had another chance to test out Albion's defence when Tony James gifted them with a free kick near to his own penalty for handball but the Shrimps were unable to capitalise.
Albion conjured up a good free kick routine in the 13th minute after Calvin Zola was brought down 25 yards out. A short ball to Chris Palmer was swung in for Ryan Austin who got his header in target bt without the power to beat Glenn Morris.
The lively from trio for Southend were beginning to cause problems with their movement but a watchful Albion defence kept them at bay without too much threat to the Albion goal although Ryan Hall's curling ball into the box in the 20th minute saw defender Bilel Mohsni ghost in almost unnoticed to sidefoot over the bar from no more than six yards.
Hall tried to break the deadlock himself in the 24th minute. Tony James was adjudged to be climbing all over Liam Dickinson and from 25 yards out his low shot went wide of the post.
Albion were looking neat and tidy but without seriously threatening the Southend goal but they sprang into life with a stunning goal from Calvin ZOLA. The striker picked up a clever pass from skipper John McGrath and cut inside his man before unleashing a curling strike from 25 yards that left Morris grasping at thin air as the ball hit the top corner of the net.
That came after Southend had gone closer still with another effort at the Burton goal. Ryan Hall, looking every bit the dangerman for the hosts swung over a teasing corner that Kane Ferdinand glanced over the crossbar at the near post.
McGrath gifted possession back to the hosts in the 36th minute allowing Hall and Dickinson to break forward but fortunately for the Brewers the move lost momentum and Albion were able to get back and snuff out the danger.
Albion almost had s econd in the 39th minute. An unfortunate slip by Mohsni allowed Justin Richards to charge into the penalty area but with the angle against him he only succeeded in winning a corner. Chris Palmer's delivery again caused problems for the Shrimps but some frantic defending kept the score down to one.
Richards then spurned a great chance to double the advantage in the 42nd minute. The striker had more time than he thought when a poor defensive header fell at his feet but he hurriedly volleyed the ball on his left foot without getting the ball on target.
Southend tried hard to get backon level terms before the half time break but Albion stood firm as the home side left the field to a chorus of boos from their frustrated fans.
Half time: Southend United 0-1 Burton Albion
Right from the kick off at the start of the second period Southend were on the attack. Hall brought down an angled ball into the area with great skill but Tony James was on hand to get a block on his shot and as the resulting corner was swung across it was Ferdinand who again got on the end of the cross with Ross Atkins relieved to get everything behind the ball anf make a routine save.
Zola went up the other end and when set up by Maghoma tried his luck from outside the box again but this time the striker scuffed his shot well wide of the post.
The hosts continued to look the more likely to grab the next goal though and former Millwall striker Neil Harris went even closer to getting on the scoresheet in the 51st minute. Full back Sean Clohessy was picked out in an advanced position and when the cross came across it was just too high for Andy Corbett but Harris was able to direct his header on goal with Atkins standing his ground well to save at the second attempt.
It was backs to the wall for Albion for a while as the Essex side sensed that a goal was not far away and Liam Dickinson was close with a header over the bar from another Hall corner as Albion had to weather a storm of pressure.
The hosts continued to bomb balls in from the right back channel to the back post where Atkins showed a reluctance to come from his line. Tony James had to make another clearance from such a move as the Brewers continued to soak up the pressure and try to hit Southend on the break.
Albion made their first change on 65 minutes. With Clohessy getting too much room down the Albion left it was a tactical change with Chris Palmer withdrawn and Danny Blanchett given a debut to protect and support Aaron Webster down the left.
It seemed to have the desired effect as Albion weathered the Southend storm going into the last fifteen minutes of the match, Jacques Maghoma picked up a booking for a rash challenge on full back Peter Gilbert and Southend tried to raise themselves for a final push by replacing Ferdinand with winger Jemal Johnson.
However it was one of the existing players on the pitch who threatened an equaliser on 85 minutes. Ryan Hall picked up a smart pass from Harris but Atkins was equal to his dipping shot. Albion quickly broke upfield from the resulting corner and were inches away from doubling their lead. Maghoma burst through the middle but with Zola and Richards in support he went alone and shot. The ball squirmed under Morris but the keeper got just enough on it to divert the ball just wide of the post.
The end was like the Alamo as Southend threw everything forward. Albion sacrificed goalscorer Zola to bring on Darren Moore to stiffen the defence for the closing moments. Albion's resolve held out and when the final whistle went it was a welcome victory over another of the sides fancied to be challenging this season.
SOUTHEND: Morris, Clohessy, Gilbert, Hall, Mohsni, Grant, Harris, Ferdinand, Kalala Sawyer, 69), Dickinson, Barker. Substitutes: Coughlan, Johnson, Bentley, Crawford.
BREWERS: Atkins; Corbett, James, Austin, Webster; Maghoma, Bolder, McGrath, Palmer (Blanchett, 65); Richards, Zola. Substitutes: Poole, Moore, Phillips, Dyer.
Referee: P.Tierney (Lancashire)
GOALS: Albion - Zola (30)
Attendance: 4,794 (209 away)