A glance at the Nationwide League Third Division table on the back of the matchday programme showed how important the match was to both sides, but the relegation six-pointer was eventually shared, despite yet another gargantuan effort from the visitors. Starting the game two points behind their opponents, Blues were set to leapfrog the Robins into 21st place until an unfortunate own goal and a dubious linesman’s decision resulted in the draw.
Manager Steve Tilson again praised his team, declaring that he “could not fault any one of the players”, but after three minutes of action-packed injury time had been played, Drewe Broughton’s first League goal for United was not enough to seal a much-needed win for his side. The Seasiders have increased the distance between themselves and the drop zone to four points with another game in hand over Darlington, but Leon Cort’s own goal three minutes from time again robbed them of the victory.
Management duo Steve Tilson and Paul Brush kept faith in the side that ended the 1-1 F.A. Cup third round tie at home to Scarborough, with the only change being an enforced one – Tesfaye Bramble’s hamstring knock meaning that former Kidderminster Harriers forward Broughton was given a starting berth. Michael Husbands came on to the bench alongside Stuart Williams and fit again Mark Warren.
In an opening spell devoid of goalmouth action, Jay Smith blasted a fourth-minute free-kick into the wall, the ball deflecting off of Leon Constantine before two minutes later a quick set-piece routine allowed Richard Forsyth to find Martin Devaney at the other end. The wide man sent a right-wing cross into the box, but Broughton cleared for a corner, and the ensuing effort from Devaney again on the edge of the box failed to test Darryl Flahavan.
On nine minutes, Duncan Jupp threatened down the Shrimpers’ right-hand side, as his cross was flicked on by Broughton. Leon Constantine attempted a first-time volley approaching late at the far post, but his well-struck shot was saved low by Shane Higgs. A midfield tussle epitomised much of the first period, and it was not until midway through that time that Flahavan was called on to make his first save, an easy catch after Northern Ireland international Grant McCann lofted a soft free-kick over the wall.
As play switched immediately to the other end, Jupp teed up Broughton, with the struggling front man beating Higgs with a first-time drive, only to watch his scooped attempt fizz over the top of the crossbar. From the goal kick, Damian Spencer fed veteran striker Bob Taylor, and although his path to goal was blocked by Lewis Hunt, the follow-up from John Finnigan was sent inches past the right-hand upright.
Two minutes after the half-hour mark Spencer’s sharp turn and shot on the left-hand edge of the penalty area was confidently collected low down by Flahavan, and four minutes before the interval left-back Jamie Victory pushed up to fire harmlessly over the Whaddon Road stand in which most of the Blues’ following were housed. The last action of the first half saw the burly Spencer again to the fore as he collected the ball thirty yards out took it forward a couple of paces before crashing a fierce drive against the angle and out for a throw-in on the Shrimpers’ right.
In a game that contained generally few clear-cut chances, defender Michael Duff tried his luck from distance with an audacious scissors kick that was so far off target that it failed to go out of play. Seconds later he was booked for failing to retreat ten yards at a free-kick.
The game was beginning to become more open, and eleven minutes into the second half the away team almost took the lead. Neil Jenkins nudged the ball wide to Leon Constantine, whose crisp shot beat Higgs but rebounded off of the base of the post. It fell to Mark Gower, but the midfield playmaker fired past the angle of post and bar from twenty-five yards.
Town threw on Paul Brayson and Shane Duff for the ineffectual Taylor and John Brough, but it was Southend captain Kevin Maher who next threatened on the hour mark, lashing a drive with the outside of his right foot from a square Jenkins pass into the hands of custodian Higgs. Play again moved quickly to the opposite end and substitute Brayson almost made an instant impact as his strong effort troubled Flahavan from the right, striking the post and Hunt had to clear up as the dangerous Devaney chased in.
The Robins were slowly moving into the ascendancy and they pushed forwards again; this time Spencer allowed a Devaney pass to drop over his shoulder before firing over the bar. In the 64th minute a hopeful punt over the top allowed the short but pacy Brayson to sprint clear of Duncan Jupp on the left, but his attempt was harmless as Flahavan watched it cross the six-yard box and out of play for a goal-kick.
With a little over twenty minutes left on the clock, Broughton sent the travelling supporters into pandemonium as he finally got off the mark in the Third Division. Leon Constantine managed to set the Hitchin-born front man free on the right-hand side of the penalty area, and his shot from sixteen yards was hit hard enough to take a deflection off of the wrist of Higgs and still nestle safely into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Both sides made more chances to personnel in the final fifteen minutes as Tilson tried to preserve what he had by bringing on Mark Warren for Gower and Michael Kightly for the tired Jenkins. John Ward brought on David Bird for McCann in a desperate switch to change his side’s fortunes, and it worked with a little under four minutes left of normal time.
Again it was the impish Brayson who took hold of the ball on the left-hand side of the Shrimpers penalty area, and as he fired towards the back post, defender Leon Cort, who had vowed in the Southend Evening Echo to get his first goal of the season, shinned the ball into the top left-hand corner of the net. It fairly rocketed in, leaving Flahavan with no chance whatsoever.
Yet still there was more drama. In the last act of normal time Constantine set up the sprightly Kightly, who lobbed the ball wide of the right-hand post but in the third minute of stoppage time Blues again felt aggrieved at a refereeing decision. Ex-Brentford striker Constantine was again at the heart of the move as he flicked the ball over the top for Jay Smith to run onto and confidently slide home underneath Higgs’ left arm. However, assistant referee Richard Smith had his flag dubiously raised, with his only defence that he was quick to put it up. Nevertheless it was a close call, and with a number of tough matches in the latter half of the month, Southend supporters can only hope that it is not a costly one.
Leon Cort [o.g.] 87
Referee: Fraser Stretton
Match Time: 94:09
1st half: 46:06, 2nd half: 48:03
Drewe Broughton 70
Michael Duff --
Total Goal Attempts
Shots/headers On Target
Shots/headers Off Target
TLG Man Of The Match – Jamie Stuart
A compact performance from the ex-England Under-21 International. Stuart managed to put together a fine defensive performance, leading from the back line and ensuring that Cheltenham were not able to threaten Darryl Flahavan’s goal too often. However, he could do nothing to stop Leon Cort putting the ball into his own net.
NATIONWIDE LEAGUE DIVISION THREE - Friday, 9th January 2004 (7:48pm)
Look out for more photos from our day out in Cheltenham in a new feature for TLG entitled - 'Day Tripping', which will start this weekend