Caution. That’s the message I was conveying before the game yesterday.
These are the games you slip up on, are they not? You win a couple of matches, a side comes to the Bank who don’t want to be beaten and we flatter to deceive, usually drawing or, even worse, losing.
On paper, they looked alright too. Mark Milligan has captained Australia at the World Cup; Simon Cox has played a lot of football in the Championship and Elvis Bwomono and Charlie Kelman are both being eyed by bigger clubs. Surely, this was the banana skin that would bring us crashing down to reality.
We’ve been playing well but the squad is already being tested by the schedule. Jason Shackell came in at the back, not because anyone had to be dropped but because Mickey has been struggling a little since pre-season. That pushed Bozzy into midfield, a move that I felt gave us less mobility last season.
However, alongside Joe Morrell that change certainly worked. Whether we’re a thin squad or not, we do have some real quality in the first 15 or so. We have versatility, vigour and commitment and, with the greatest of respect, Southend lacked at least two of those qualities.
Not that you’d know from the opening exchanges. This might sound a bit like a fan trying to be gracious, but I didn’t think there was an awful lot between us in the first 20 minutes or so. As predicted, they looked to knock the ball around nicely and had a couple of players who looked a real danger. I particularly liked Isaac Hutchinson at number 36, plus both full backs. It was a combination of two of those players which forced the first corner of the game, smashed off the outside of the post by Sam Mantom.
Whilst Southend had possession and didn’t have penetration, you always felt we had a clear-cut chance in us somewhere. Tyler Walker is a very different number nine to Big John and his awareness and pace caused real problems for the Shrimpers. Every ball into the channel had them scrabbling backwards and whilst John’s approach would be to get under it, bring it down and bring others into play, Tyler wants to get around the back and either cross or get at goal.
We’ve also got nice creativity in the middle of the park now too, Joe Morrell is already a player I feel is hugely underrated, he’s busier than a postman at Christmas and does the ugly stuff as well as the finer crafting. I’m very, very surprised he’s dipped out of the Championship and I predict within three years he’ll be a regular in the Wales side; he’s got that much potential.
We could wax lyrical about Jack Payne all day and he was certainly the type of player that Southend didn’t have. That industry between the halfway line and Southend’s box meant we were hard to defend against. In one move he can have the ball spread forward, he can switch play, or he can drive on himself. It all screams ‘creativity’ although it took half and hour for it to come to fruition.
When the goals did come, they looked very familiar indeed. We’d won three or four free kicks in wide positions around the area and each one had been dealt with by the Southend central defence, so I wasn’t that hopeful when we got yet another after Tyler Walker was fouled. Walker does draw fouls well; he’s not one to go down easily but in order to handle him opponents are often drawn outside the rules.
Jorge Grant whipped a lovely ball in, words I’ll type a hundred times this season, and Jason Shackell opened his account with a high, looping header. Right there and then, the game was won.
Why? Because one or two Southend players had their heads drop, because our players got the injection of belief and because Kevin Bond was 15 minutes away from a rash double substitution.
The Imps looked like adding a second quite quickly. Harry Toffolo has proven stepping up to League One in no challenge at all and his low ball just evaded the boot of Tyler Walker, then Jack Payne lashed a 20-yard drive wide of the goal. Southend did get a chance, Simon Cox picking up a loose ball and getting a half-volley away, only for Josh Vickers to hold comfortably.
Within a minute of that glimmer of hope, all fire in the Shrimpers bellies was extinguished. Milligan was the offender this time, conceding a free kick on the left flank. A clever ball by Jorge Grant found Harry Toffolo and he drove into the area, got a lucky deflection and slid the ball into the right-hand side of Bishop’s goal. 2-0 and it really was game over.
That seems to be a short review of the first half, but outside of the goals, neither side had any real clear-cut chances. Both made nice passes in spells, ours were more penetrative and theirs were not.
What the game needed after half time, from a Southend point of view, was a goal. If they’d got one back at 2-0, perhaps things might have changed. They felt they had a (weak) penalty shout just before half time, but it was a spot-kick just after that defined the second period.
Before that, a double change for the Blues and one I felt immediately broke up any rhythm they had. Charlie Kelman, the young lad who bagged twice in midweek, was taken off as was Mantom, the lad who hit the post. Manchester United’s Ethan Hamilton made his debut and Stephen Humphrys came on in his Halloween mask. It broke up any cohesion they had as a side, Humphrys was only notable because of the mask for the rest of the half.
Before we’d seen them begin to crumble though, Tyler Walker was fouled in the area. I thought Shaughnessy might have been lucky to stay on the field, when a striker is bearing down on the six-yard box from any angle it’s surely a goalscoring opportunity. Perhaps, had it been in the last minute and not the 46th, he would have walked. Perhaps.
Referee Andy Haines had a good afternoon all around I thought and it would be a fool who vehemently argued for Shaughnessy to be dismissed; I’ve seen players sent off for less but as Walker smashed his penalty down the middle it seemed Southend had been punished enough.