United were sunk by two first-half goals this afternoon to leave their promotion dreams hanging on one final game. The U's simply must win next week now if they are to have any hope of reaching the Play-Off places on the last day of the season.
With both Ryan Clarke and Wayne Brown injured Middlesbrough's England under-19 goalkeeper Connor Ripley answered an 11th-hour call to become the fourth keeper United have fielded against Southend in three games this season (Asa Hall being the other) and the powerfully built keeper was joined in the line-up by the returning Damian Batt, Simon Heslop and Jon-Paul Pittman after injuries..
It was Pittman who created the first opening of the afternoon, powering away from the defence in the sixth minute and cutting the ball back to allow Dean Morgan to cut inside his man and test Cameron Belford for the first time with a well-struck low shot. Heslop was denied by a good block a couple of minutes later as he burst into the box, and with another Morgan drive blocked from the opposite side of the box on 12 minutes United had certainly started the brighter of the two sides.
The visitors though, still with hopes of automatic promotion, then began to grow ominously into the game after those opening exchanges and after both Jake Wright and Michael Duberry had been booked inside a couple of minutes it was the Shrimpers who took the lead. Duberry's foul on the evergreen Neil Harris gave Paul Sturrock's side a free-kick 25 yards from goal. It was central and there seemed little danger as Ryan Hall fired in a left-footed shot, but with a swirling wind and the ball dipping, Ripley seemed to lose the flight of the ball and will have been devastated to see it fly almost through his hands and under the bar to make it 1-0 on 19 minutes.
United regrouped and continued to try and play their way through, but on 31 were 2-0 down and facing a serious test of their Play-Off credentials. Bilel Mohsni is always a threat when he links up with the forwards and was given far too much room to work with as Peter Gilbert hung up a left-wing cross. Mohsni headed downwards and the ball crept unerringly into the right corner of the net to double the advantage.
The U's had a Pittman header test Belford on 40 minutes but it could just as easily have been 3-0 before the break had Duberry not got back in time to clear a Harris effort off the line. Andy Whing forced a good save out of Belford and Morgan nodded a rebound over right on the break, and United had shown that they could create chances. The question now was whether they could put them away in the next 45 minutes.
Adam Chapman came on for Heslop, Tom Craddock was in for Morgan before the hour mark and with the fans roaring them on United started to press more and more. Duberry looped a header on to the roof of the net, Craddock started to find little holes in ther defence and all it needed was a goal to give United something to build from.
Pittman, lively throughout, almost picked his way through but saw his shot blocked once again after 65 minutes, Cristian Montano seemed to be blatantly tripped but was not awarded a penalty and gradually the game slipped away. A final free-kick from Chapman flew narrowly over the bar, and that was it. United had dominated much of the game but not been clinical in front of goal, while Southend had put their opportunities away. That perhaps illustrates why they go into the final weekend needing a win to make automatic promotion while United have their own date with destiny.
No shortage of effort but United never really looked like getting the win they needed from such a big game.Somewhere a fat lady is being restrained as she threatens to break into song. The season now boils down to one game at Vale Park next Saturday. The U's need to win and hope that Crewe lose their last game. It may be out of their own hands now but United still have hope and live to fight another day.
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Report by Chris Williams. Stats by PA Sport