ALEX SMITHIES pulled off a penalty save as Town won at Southend in December, but was unable to repeat the feat as Lee Clark’s side were beaten in the return fixture.
Both Tom Clarke, the player penalised for handball, and his manager claimed referee Colin Webster’s 63rd-minute decision was harsh.
But former Spurs striker Lee Barnard, twice a thorn in Town’s side when on loan at Crewe last season, made no mistake.
As Smithies went to his left, the ball was firmly drilled the other way, and play-off chasers Southend were on their way to an 11th win in 14 matches.
They will look to Town to do them a favour at Scunthorpe on Friday, but Clark’s side will have to find much more of a cutting edge if they are to claim a third straight away win.
Clear-cur chances were scarce on Saturday, when too many passes went astray and pace merchants Anthony Pilkington, Gary Roberts, Danny Cadamarteri and Lionel Ainsworth struggled to make an impression against the well-organised visitors.
Southend, who looked far better than they had done at Roots Hall just before Christmas, fielded three no-nonsense centre-backs in captain Adam Barrett, Peter Clarke and Dorian Dervite, the Frenchman on loan from Tottenham.
Simon Francis and Franck Moussa, from Belgium, were the men out wide, and Town found the going tough.
After an initial flurry by the home side, when Cadamarteri had a shot blocked by Clarke and another saved by Steve Mildenhall, Southend started to dictate, and in the remainder of the first half, there was precious little for home fans in the 12,203 to get excited about.
It was more a question of whether Southend could be kept out as Theo Robinson had a cross-cum-shot held by Smithies, Clarke headed just wide from Moussa’s corner and on-loan Liverpool defender Martin Kelly, making his home debut at left-back, cleared from Damian Scannell.
Andy Butler then blocked Robinson’s shot before, in time added on, Alan McCormack’s drive flew just over.
Hopes of a better second half were raised when Mildenhall had to stretch to palm away Pilkington’s low shot just four minutes in.Related content
But Southend should have taken the lead just a minute later when Robinson beat Smithies to a loose ball just outside the Town penalty area.
The on-loan Watford man forced his way past Butler but with Tom Clarke the only man back, contrived to shoot wide with the goal gaping.
Town continued to look vulnerable as Dervite was left unmarked to meet Francis’s free-kick, however his header failed to test Smithies.
Whistler Webster waved away Town’s penalty appeals when Roberts tumbled after beating Dervite soon after, and there was further frustration when Ainsworth worked his way into the area and shot low, only for Clarke to divert the ball for a corner.
Good interplay between Francis, Scannell and Robinson ended with Moussa’s hooked effort bring held by Smithies, and it was a whipped cross from the same player which brought Southend their breakthrough spot kick.
There was certainly contact, but a posse of Town players claimed it was a case of ball to hand.
Barnard duly made it nine goals for the season and Southend set about protecting their lead by getting men behind the ball and slowing the game by fair means and foul.
Town failed to respond with any real tempo, although Cadamarteri’s 69th-minute shot on the turn was saved while substitute Andy Booth headed wide from Nathan Clarke’s long throw in the 71st minute.
Smithies pulled off a smart 83rd-minute reaction save from Robinson, feeling the force of Barnard’s boot as he smothered a follow-up effort, while back at the other end, Butler headed wide from Michael Collins’ deep cross before Mildenhall got down well to save from Roberts and Pilkington’s last-gasp lofted free-kick was all too easily held by Mildenhall.