"And just what" inquired my esteemed travelling companion "are you going to write about THAT?". It was a rhetorical question that plunged me into deep introspection as we hurtled across the salty Essex mudflats, catapulted towards the twinkling lights of civilisation by a keen desire to leave far behind the steaming wreckage of another ghastly Tiger away-day. It was not that Southend convincingly outplayed us that was the principal cause of depression and confusion. It was that Mr Little had done exactly what we had hoped for - stuck with Saturday's richly successful 4-4-2 - and yet even so we had once again, yet again, looked bereft of ideas and shorn of confidence when asked to display our skills outside East Yorkshire. Personnel change had also been kept to a welcome minimum - compared with Saturday, only Mohan's inclusion for the injured Whittle disturbed the pattern, and that alteration was not the cause of our defeat - and yet the team had wholly lost its fluency and vigour within the space of three days. Whereas we had been first to most balls against Exeter the very reverse was true at Southend. Exeter's players, their midfield in particular, spent most of Saturday afternoon having what little possession they did manage to secure rustled away from them by our sharp-edged warriors. Come Tuesday night in Southend and it was the Tiger whose infrequent custodianship of the ball was regularly ransacked by the perky home side.
I gnash my teeth in frustration.
In frustration. Not in despair. There are plenty of points left to play for, and we ARE a good team. But I had not expected last night to leave us fearful that the beating of Exeter was merely a fleeting reminder of how we used to be able to perform, back in the heady days of Autumn.
And the opening stages were largely formless. City attacked the end containing the travelling support, not noticeably impressed by being required to fork out a princely 14 quid for the privilege of lengthy queues at the two turnstiles Southend had deigned to open for us. Beresford offered an early typical surging run, which, also rather typically, faded into the ether somewhere wide out by the flag. The lively Dudfield won a corner, which provided a shooting opportunity for Beresford - he pulled it well wide. Both Johnsson and Alexander punted shots from distance far over the crossbar And then a sweeping Southend move, using the whole width of the pitch, threatened our goal, only for Holt to intervene with a well-judged clearance. But it would mislead to focus too much on these penalty-box incidents, for they were isolated and the match was largely conducted in the midfield. It was far from sterile, as both teams attempted to pass the ball and to bring both flanks into play, but neither side seemed able to make connections between midfield and attack. And the quality of the crossing was miserable. For the home side, experienced bruiser Phil Whelan kept a cautious eye on Dudfield's skill, but seemed able to suppress Alexander's efforts all too readily, while our defence seemed collectively comfortable.
And so it was a surprise when we fell 1-0 behind. It all happened at the far end, so I really couldn't pretend to be able to provide detail. But it was as if the character of a cautious game was suddenly ripped aside for an instant, in which we provided far too much space to one of theirs down their left, and his cross to the far post was duly buried from close range by a jubilant and strikingly unmarked gentleman in blue.
We almost struck back immediately. A long ball from Beresford to the back post found Greaves, who had intelligently moved into space. He could have headed for goal, though the angle was tight; he could have headed back square across the face of the goal and set Southend a nightmare defensive task. Unfortunately the out-of-sorts midfielder let the ball bounce off his forehead at an angle mid-way between these two options, and the chance was lost as the ball trickled harmlessly out of play several yards beyond the far post.
Half-time, 1-0. Neither goalkeeper had made a save. No disaster though, and a point was still a realistic ambition.
But we were much the poorer side during the second period. Southend looked stronger and more direct, and we spent most of the time retreating in our own half. The player who was hardest to contain was the muscular centre forward Bramble. Every time I see him he looks bigger and more powerful. Perhaps he is picking up a few Flo-Jo style tips from his Premiership brother; perhaps the lower Divisions will soon be taking a leaf out of the self-styled leading clubs' book by adding a good pharmacist to the list of "can't do without" employees. Whatever: Bramble was too much for us last night. He jinked down the right and rolled an inviting ball across the penalty area for four - count ‘em! - slavering team-mates to take aim, but the shot, when it came, was brilliantly stopped by Musselwhite, throwing up an instinctive left hand as he tumbled to his right. It was the first save of the night, and it was followed shortly afterwards by the second. This, I am pleased to report, happened at the other end but it was distinctly more mundane. Holt punted in a long free-kick and a tame downward header bounced up straight into the keeper's gloves. A flurry of action! And ANOTHER save! Musselwhite bent low to get a firm grip on a fierce shot struck from the left wing.
We were showing no real capacity to claw our way back into this match; Southend looked much the livelier side. I liked their non-stop right-sided midfielder Forbes (though not his absurd Dave Joyce-style ‘tache), and both the rangy Rawle and the squat, determined front man Barrington Belgrave would be worth a place in most, if not all, teams in this Division. But it was Bramble that brought the axe down on our exposed neck. He surged past Wicks, who tried despairingly to hold him back as he bustled on towards the sanctuary of the penalty area. But Bramble, though fouled, just kept running, with the ball at his feet, until he had crossed the white line, whereupon he allowed the continuing illegal attentions of Wicks to usher him to the turf. The City players, joined by the travelling support in front of whom all this occurred, howled that the foul had occurred outside the box, and quite rightly so, such defiance is their job and it is ours too. But the referee awarded a penalty, and in this he was quite right too.
Hutchings thumped the spot kick into the corner, and, at 2-0, the points were not leaving Essex.
It was already as grim as a karaoke night in Basildon and it could have got even grimmer, a whist drive at the Conservative Association in Billericay, perhaps. Bramble marched through and smashed an imperious shot against the post, with Musselwhite simply watching in gloom. Southend were loving it now.
Sneekes came on for the limping Edwards, pushing Greaves to right-back; Whitmore replaced Beresford and we ran about in slightly more lively fashion for the last five minutes. To no avail.
I'll stop now, because last night offered little succour to those of us who - like me - believe we are one of the best three teams in this Division, and that the table come the end of the season will prove that. Everyone played well on Saturday. No one played well on Tuesday. And where do we go from here? Well, next up on our away calendar are York, Halifax and Torquay, quite conceivably the three weakest sides in the entire Division. I think I need not remark on how important it is that we seize this imminent opportunity to correct our inability to play to our full potential away from the Ark.
Report by: Steve Weatherill