Southend 3, Blades 1 Report: United feel the Payne as play-off hopes take a severe blow
As the game continues to celebrate his creative genius, Sheffield United paid their own perverse tribute to Johan Cruyff.
The late, great Dutchman, who once insisted that “playing football is very simple but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is”, would have been impressed by Nigel Adkins’ pledge to focus on the basics as his team continued its forlorn pursuit of a play-off place.
Unfortunately, from the visitors’ perspective at least, Cruyff’s theory held true.
United’s inability to keep a clean sheet at one end and take chances at the other cost them the game and, now nine points behind Bradford City with only seven fixtures remaining, any realistic prospect of a top six finish too.
Adkins’ charges deserved something from the game and, after Dean Hammond had drawn them level following Tyrone Barnett’s opener for Southend, showed flashes of quality and plenty of desire.
But, against opponents who saw David Worrall and Jack Payne score superb individual efforts following the on-loan midfielder’s intervention, just not enough.
Phil Brown used his programme notes to admit that Adkins had beaten him to the managerial vacancy at Southampton six years ago and exacted revenge in the most brutal style imaginable.
Barnett’s goal was shrouded in controversy - United claimed George Long had been impeded seconds before he converted - but the ones scored by Worrall and Payne were worthy of a much higher stage.
Now eighth in the League One table - five places above their opponents - Brown might be tempted to retract his prediction that Southend are “100 per cent” out of the promotion race.
As United’s coaching staff had warned beforehand, Southend were more than happy to adopt a direct approach. Long, among seven academy graduates in Adkins’ squad, found himself collecting a flurry of high balls during an eventful opening period and so it will have been especially galling to fall behind from a set-piece when Barnett prodded home his 11th goal of the campaign.
The policy of testing a defence’s aerial prowess, however, proved successful for United too with Hammond drawing them level following Ryan Flynn’s delivery towards the far post.
They might have offered wildly differing views of their team’s Championship prospects before kick-off but, as they trooped down the tunnel at the break, both Adkins and Brown were in complete agreement about the wholly preventable nature of both goals.
Defensive frailties have undermined United all term but, in the grand scheme of things, it was their profligacy going forward which was so costly last night.
Che Adams and Billy Sharp missed excellent chances to score before Worrall restored Southend’s advantage and Payne put the contest beyond reach on the stroke of added time.
United recalled Ben Whiteman to the starting eleven when Brayford was diagnosed with a calf problem on the eve of their first visit to Roots Hall since 1996. It is a measure of Adkins’ confidence in the youngster’s talents that he, rather than the more obvious option of Flynn, performed the wing-back role which is so crucial in the visitors’ 3-5-2 system.
Predictably, it was Southend who made most of the early running with Myles Weston trying his luck from distance and Gary Deegan failing to hit the target after meeting Stephen McLaughlin’s corner.
Sandwiched inbetween, Sharp drew a smart reaction save from Dan Bentley but it was not until the 15th minute that either goalkeeper was forced to make a block of note when, after Dean Hammond and Matt Done combined, Flynn saw a close-range effort scrambled clear.
Bentley recovered after being deceived by another Sharp drive and seconds later, in the 29th minute, Southend took full advantage of the reprieve.
Worrall’s free-kick was met by Adam Thompson and, when the ball seemed to squirm from Long’s grasp, Barnett was on hand to poke it across the line.
Southend’s lead lasted less than five minutes. United, having grown in stature as the half progressed, were further aggrieved when Thompson tripped Adams on the edge of the box.
As he continued to press his claims for a penalty, Flynn swept the resulting set-piece towards Hammond who headed home.
Just before the hour, first Adams and then Sharp missed gilt-edged opportunities in quick succession with the latter electing to try and lob the advancing Bentley after finding himself unmarked and through on goal.
At the other end, Long impressed by turning away Worrall’s 30 yard attempt before the midfielder’s perfectly placed finish on the hour left United’s goalkeeper grasping at thin air.
Long denied Barnett as United’s desperate search for an equaliser obliged them to leave gaps at the back.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Conor Sammon were both introduced during the closing stages but it was Payne, weaving past Done before burying a well-placed shot in the back of Long’s net, who had the final word.
Southend United: Bentley, Worrall (Leonard 84), Thompson, Barrett, Coker, McLaughlin (White 77), Deegan, Atkinson, Weston (McQueen 67), Payne, Barnett. Not used: Smith, Hurst, Loza, Malarczyk.
Sheffield United: Long, Basham, Flynn, Coutts (Woolford 88), Sharp, Done, McEveley, Adams, McGahey, Hammond (Calvert-Lewin 73), Whiteman (Sammon 84). Not used: Howard, Reed, Kelly, Brooks.
Referee: Stuart Attwell (Warwickshire).