Tomlin 10, 47
Assombalonga 39, 45
TWO of United’s darkest days under the stewardship of Martin Ling have come at the hands of Southend but history tells a story of hope on the horizon.
Just over a year ago, the Gulls were humbled 4-1 at Roots Hall, a defeat that heralded the start a brilliant run of form that took the club all the way to a play-off semi-final. This time, the score was the same, the performance even worse and the Yellow response will need to be just as good.
Plainmoor was grumbling within 10 minutes, as former Gull Gavin Tomlin opened the scoring with a tidy finish and a quickfire brace from talented youngster Britt Assombalonga had the game wrapped up before half-time.
Tomlin added number four moments after the restart and although substitute Ryan Jarvis momentarily lifted the gloom with a terrific goal on 52 minutes, the mini-revival swiftly ended when captain Lee Mansell was dismissed for a lunge on Assombalonga.
Ling made just one change from the 0-0 draw at Oxford last weekend, restoring Rene Howe to his forward line after his leading scorer missed out through suspension seven days ago. Jarvis subsequently dropped down to the bench.
Goalkeeper Michael Poke was deemed fit enough to take his place among the replacements, leaving Martin Rice to continue as custodian for his full home debut in the Football League. Youngster Conor Thompson was returned to youth-team duties as a result.
Elsewhere, winger Danny Stevens had sufficiently recovered from a groin problem to usurp Saul Halpin from the bench, and Kirtys MacKenzie also had to settle for a place in the stands.
Southend boss Paul Sturrock kept the same side from the goalless draw at home to Port Vale last Saturday. The one change came on the bench, where David Martin came in for young defender Ryan Leonard.
The first hint of a Yellow opening stemmed from a sweeping ball down the line by Joe Oastler but Howe’s hopeful cross was hacked clear. Southend, for their part, sent a long-range free-kick from Kevan Hurst skidding well wide.
United’s opening shot in anger came from the right boot of Craig Easton but the industrious Scot hit the ball high over the bar against his former club.
Sadly for the Gulls, it was a Southend star playing against old employers to make the first impression, as Tomlin robbed Kevin Nicholson in the right channel before cutting inside to slide the ball under the advancing Rice.
Defensively, it was a sloppy goal to concede for the Gulls but credit should go to Tomlin for the tenacity, and his confident finish had annoying familiarity from the terrific loan spell he enjoyed at Plainmoor two seasons ago.
Spurred on by the goal, there was genuine sharpness in the Shrimpers’ play and the frustration of being both threatened at one end and stifled at the other was clear to see in Yellow faces.
The game lulled into a period of comfortable control for the visitors, with the only real excitement a long-range stinger from Marc Laird, which was easy for Rice. For United, the inability to get Nathan Craig involved was clearly a detriment to the passing rhythm that has been vital so far this season.
Rice was next forced to use his fists in beating away a swerving free-kick from Hurst on the half-hour. A gloomy opening third to proceedings was perhaps best summed up by the worrying isolation of Howe in the vanguard.
Southend were creating all the chances and the difficulty rating of shots saved by Rice was rising, this time he got down quickly to his right to gobble up a low drive from Laird. Moments later, Assombalonga should have done better than a shot dragged weakly wide from 15 yards.
As so often happens when ideas are running dry, a set-piece can provide some impetus and Craig’s driven free-kick deflected off the head of Michael Timlin to loop goalwards, and ‘keeper Paul Smith needed the help of Ryan Cresswell to scramble clear.
Within seconds, Southend were 2-0 up and it was hard to argue with that margin. The move started with a volley from Easton skewing off his left foot and the Shrimpers were able to race clear in a flash.
The break was shifted to Assombalonga who ate up the yards before firing in a left-foot effort. Oastler had retreated furthest for the Gulls but his tackle merely diverted the shot over the prostrate Rice, and the ball looped agonisingly into the far corner.
A bad first half turned terrible just one minute before the break as a deep cross from Hurst gave Assombalonga the easiest possible header at the back post. The marking was a shocker and Ling faced a huge half-time to rouse his despondent troops.
Remember Aldershot and that marvellous recovery from 3-0 down to win six weeks ago: that was the simple message across Plainmoor and the manager played his hand with two attacking changes.
Easton and Damon Lathrope were sacrificed, with Craig moving into a central position. Jarvis and Niall Thompson were the men introduced to change the pattern of events.
Unfortunately, neither newbie had touched the ball before Tomlin had made it 4-0, racing on to a pass from Timlin to round Rice, leave Aaron Downes on his backside and slide the ball into an empty net.
Confidence was understandably coursing through Southend and only a tight offside decision prevented Assombalonga from making it five before the game had even reached 50 minutes.
United were heading for humiliation but the enthusiasm of Thompson provided a glimmer of hope, as his tremendous swinging cross was perfect for the run of Jarvis, and the fellow-substitute steered a beautiful first-time finish into the bottom corner.
Despite the bleak circumstances, it was a tremendous goal and at least gave the Yellow Army something to cheer on a disastrous afternoon. Another quick strike from the Gulls and the extraordinary might just be possible.
The lingering hope was extinguished on 57 minutes, however, when Mansell launched into a tackle on Assombalonga and got his timing horribly wrong. Everybody in football knows the United skipper would never intentionally hurt an opponent but it was a poor challenge, and worthy of the red card it received.
Thomas Cruise came on for Billy Bodin to add bite in midfield but this was surely now an exercise in avoiding further pain. Sturrock, meanwhile, had the luxury of bringing on Barry Corr to give Tomlin a rest.
The pace of Thompson was a huge lift to United’s attacking options and the Shrimpers responded by replacing the experienced legs of captain Chris Barker with the freshness of Luke Prosser.
Corr and Ryan Cresswell made token efforts to extend Yellow pain with headers but Rice was equal to the first, and Jarvis hoofed the second away from close to his own goal-line.
To their eternal credit, United toiled to the very end and, if we are to repeat last year’s response to Southend embarrassment, that commitment must be joined by sustained quality in the weeks to come.
Gulls(4-3-3): 13 Martin Rice; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 6 Damon Lathrope (29 Niall Thompson H-T), 18 Craig Easton (8 Ryan Jarvis H-T); 15 Billy Bodin (21 Thomas Cruise 59), 9 Rene Howe, 20 Nathan Craig. Substitutes (not used): 1 Michael Poke (GK), 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 19 Danny Stevens, 23 Ashley Yeoman.
Southend(4-4-2): 1 Paul Smith; 2 Sean Clohessy, 6 Ryan Cresswell, 15 Mark Phillips, 23 Chris Barker (16 Luke Prosser 70) (capt); 14 Kevan Hurst, 27 Tamika Mkandawire, 26 Marc Laird, 8 Michael Timlin; 20 Britt Assombalonga (7 Freddy Eastwood 84), 21 Gavin Tomlin (10 Barry Corr 66). Substitutes (not used): 11 David Martin, 17 Daniel Bentley (GK), 19 John Spicer, 30 Alex Woodyard.
Booked:Barker 62, Phillips 81
Attendance:2,449 (205 away).