Nationwide League Division Three, Wednesday, 26th December 2001
AS THE old saying goes, 'it's a game of two halves' and at Roots Hall on Boxing Day afternoon that was certainly the case as Southend United fought back from a two goal half time deficit to inflict a League double over Rushden & Diamonds.
Southend's first half performance in this post-Christmas Day encounter was nothing short of abysmal as Rushden, only promoted to the Football League in May, tore the Shrimpers to pieces and stormed into a two-nil lead by half time. Perhaps Southend were suffering from the early mid-day kick-off, nevertheless something seemed to be affecting the home side as Rushden took the lead after just five minutes. United's defence with Damon Searle the culprit, appeared to be asleep as Scott Partridge was allowed time and space to slip the ball to the edge of the penalty area where Garry Butterworth was on hand to dispatch a neat, low shot past the despairing dive of Darryl Flahavan.
Southend tried to gain a quick reply; the ball was scrambled away from the feet of Carl Hutchings inside the six-yard box and Barrington Belgrave had a shot deflected wide of the post.
Rushden however soon regained the initiative, former United midfielder Ritchie Hanlon feeding Partridge, but the ex-Brentford striker was denied by a great challenge by Rob Newman. Paul Hall then headed an Andy Burgess corner wide after 20 minutes before Hanlon shot wayward twice in as many minutes. On 28 minutes both Paul Underwood and Hanlon saw shots charged down, but Southend then created two fine chances. Firstly Newman's cross found Carl Hutchings who's header was pushed out by Diamonds goalkeeper Billy Turley to Tesfaye Bramble who fired over from a tight angle before Damon Searle nodded Hutchings' cross over from close range.
Barrington Belgrave then played the ball through to Hutchings but Turley raced off his line to block at the midfielder's feet, but the visitor's then doubled their advantage on 35 minutes. Both referee Grant Hegley and his linesman seemed oblivious as Onandi Lowe controlled the ball with his right arm before playing the ball back to Partridge who had the simple task of dispatching the ball past Flahavan from 8 yards. Three minutes later Hanlon headed a Hall cross over the crossbar before Rob Newman then surrendered
A miserable 45 minutes came to an end when Leon Cort fired a shot straight at Turley from 20 yards after a good run.
To say that Southend made a recovery in the second half would possibly be the understatement of the year. United obviously received a stern talking to during the break and it certainly worked as Southend completely dominated proceedings. On 47 minutes Stephen Broad's huge punt forward was met by the head of Cort but the ball was deflected for a corner. Phil Whelan headed the resulting Kevin Maher corner over Turley's crossbar.
Southend then began their fight back on 51 minutes. A Maher corner found Cort who headed the ball down to Hutchings who's shot fell to Whelan, the Shrimpers defender tried to turn the ball in but it rebounded back to Cort who drilled home his first senior goal from 15 yards.
Six minutes later however United nearly handed the two-goal lead back to the visitors. Maher needlessly gave the ball away to Lowe who in turn fed the ball to Hanlon who advanced on goal, Hanlon's eventual shot had the power taken away by Flahavan's fingertips but Broad had to dash across goal to scramble the ball clear.
The equaliser arrived on 59 minutes, Barrington Belgrave sending a low shot past Turley and into the bottom right hand corner of the net from 25 yards. Bramble then flicked a Maher cross over the bar with his head on 61 minutes before Bramble found himself on the score sheet to put United ahead after 67 minutes. Belgrave pin-pointed the striker with a precise through ball and Bramble nudged the ball past Turley and despite the desperate attempts of Andy Sambrook the ball just rolled over the line after an agonising wait. Eight minutes later Southend scored their fourth with a fantastic move, a powerful run from Belgrave saw the striker find Bramble who quickly returned the favour and Belgrave neatly finished from 10 yards to give Southend a healthy two goal cushion.
Bramble then headed a Maher corner over the bar on 77 minutes before the final action of the match on 86 minutes saw Flahavan block Hanlon's shot after Burgess had provided the assist. It completed a most unlikely and unexpected comeback from Southend who are now six matches unbeaten.
(Article by Mark Wallis, The Little Gazette, Wednesday December 26th, 2001.)