MANAGER Peter Jackson screamed with relief and delight as Town's hardest earned home win of the season gave them a precious points cushion on the chasing pack.

Pawel Abbott's ingenious overhead kick after 29 minutes (his first goal since signing permanently for the club) proved enough to overcome Southend's powerful challenge - but only just.

The visitors hit the bar through Mark Bentley and pushed Efe Sodje's gritty defence all the way to the wire in a nerve-jangling second half spell which had 10,000-plus Town fans on the edge of their seats.

A fourth clean sheet in seven matches, however, extended Town's McAlpine sequence to five wins and a draw in their last six outings and provided an ideal boost to Jackson's bid for a third Manager of the Month award.

"Southend deserve a lot of credit as one of the better sides we have seen at the McAlpine this season, but we showed tremendous character to stick to the task and pick up a massive win for this club," said Jackson.

"It wasn't a day when we were allowed to produce our best football, but at this stage of the season it's all about results and I'm delighted for the players that they managed to pick up a big three points.

"The table now looks very good and results elsewhere have given us a big lift, but the chance to win promotion automatically - which would be a huge achievement for everyone connected with the club - is entirely in our own hands.

"If we keep on doing the things which we have been doing, then we could have a big party to attend next month."

Jackson looked anxious at times on the touchline as Town conceded possession too easily for a long spell in the second half, but he greeted every one of his players as they left the pitch at the end following a hearty standing ovation from the fans.

"I thought the three centre-backs did excellently, Jon Worthington was simply outstanding in midfield and Danny Schofield worked extremely hard, but everyone dug in to get us the win we needed and now we can be full of confidence as we look ahead," added Jackson.

With red shirts seemingly everywhere, Southend set up two solid banks of four right from the off and Town had to be at their slickest to even suggest they were going to break down the opposition.

What gave Town the edge was their never-say-die attitude and this was exemplified by Worthington in the centre of midfield, who almost ran himself to a standstill.

He enjoyed a ding-dong battle with Bentley and Lewis Hunt in the middle and received willing support from Tony Carss and Danny Schofield, whose skills were the pick in a first half of quite limited opportunities.

An Abbott backheel for Schofield presented Town with their first real chance, while Efe Sodje's long ball had keeper Darryl Flahavan racing to the edge of the box to clear from Andy Booth.

Sodje nodded wide from a corner at close range before Jackson's men got the break they needed with something out of nothing on 29 minutes.

It came from a Carss throw-in on the right and Booth appeared to be pushed as he nodded the ball on.

Abbott, reacting quickly, hooked the ball over the challenging Leon Cort and into the far corner, much to the surprise of the bemused Flahaven.

Southend's best effort at goal was a twice-taken 20-yard free-kick from Mark Gower which Rachubka was right behind, but they made a strong start to the second period and Sodje had to be at his best to clear the danger when Gower fired across the box from a clear position on the right.

Schofield twice went close as Town looked for the breathing space of a second goal - the second from a smashing forward surge by Worthington - while the best opportunity was created by Abbott for Booth on 52 minutes.

Stretching the defence down the right, Abbott found Booth near the edge of the area and he chested down superbly before unleashing a thunderous volley which Flahavan somehow blocked at close range.

It looked like Town might pay for that miss as on-loan winger Carl Pettefer curled in a shot which Rachubka had to push around his lefthand post, while Bentley lined up a free-kick which he smashed inches over the bar with Rachubka struggling to cover.

The same player went closer still on 63 minutes when his quickly-taken set piece crashed down and out off the bar, while substitute Tes Bramble caused plenty of problems with his pace and strength after replacing Pettefer.

Steve Yates - with one brilliant block - Sodje and young Mirfin remained strong, however, and there were even late chances for Andy Holdsworth and Schofield to maybe extend Town's advantage.

One proved enough, though, and that was full credit to Town's battling spirit.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Jon Worthington

This was the hardest Town have had to work for a home win all season and no-one poured in more sweat than Worthington. Five minutes from time he was still ploughing through tackles when confronted by many red shirts. Cracking effort

The superbly executed overhead kick by Pawel Abbott which left keeper Darryl Flahavan rooted after 29 minutes and extended Town's home sequence to five wins and a draw in their last six McAlpine matches.

HOW THEY RATED: Paul Rachubka Had a big stroke of luck when Bentley's free-kick came back off the bar. Saved smartly from Pettefer's drive Rating: 7/10

Andy Holdsworth Excellent in the first half, pushing forward and rarely missing a pass. Had a second-half shot blocked in the box. Rating: 7/10

Anthony Lloyd One or two scary moments early on but responded with typical grit in the second half and came through well Rating: 7/10

Steve Yates Was an influential steadying factor when Town couldn't hold the ball. One outstanding block in the box Rating: 7/10

Efe Sodje Had a bruising battle with Broughton and attacked the ball well. Made some vital blocks and clearances. Solid Rating: 7/10

David Mirfin Strong in the challenge and clattered Pettefer so hard he had to go off. Teed up a great chance for Schofield Rating: 7/10

Jon Worthington Grafted hard from first minute to last and took the sponsors' bubbly as man-of-the-match for his efforts. Gritty show Rating: 8/10

Tony Carss Delivered another string of teasing free-kicks but worked hard as the ball was often hoofed high in midfield, breaking play Rating: 7/10

Danny Schofield His skills shone out in the first half, but he didn't get the same sort of service in the second. Worked hard Rating: 7/10

Andy Booth Should have scored the 99th goal of his Town career when put through by Abbott in the second half. Tireless Rating: 7/10

Pawel Abbott Willing worker and produced the sort of inspirational moment you need to win very tight matches like this Rating: 7/10

Subs used: Town: None. Southend: Bramble for Pettefer 57.

Subs not used: Town: McAliskey, Scott, Harkins, Edwards, Senior. Southend: Emberson, Stuart, Jenkins, Wilson.

Scorer: Town: Abbott 29 mins.

Referee: Eddie Ilderton (Tyne & Wear).

Bookings: Town: Mirfin. Southend: Broughton.

Shots on target: Town 2, Southend 3.

Corners: Town 3, Southend 4.

Caught offside: Town 5, Southend 0.

Free-kicks awarded: Town: 15, Southend 11.

Attendance: 10,680 (Away: 282).