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Southend United 0, Gillingham 1
AFTER going two months without defeat, Southend United suffered their second reverse in the space of four days at Roots Hall this afternoon, losing 1-0 to promotion rivals Gillingham.
Former Billericay Town winger Chris Whelpdale bagged the only goal of the game in front of Blues' biggest home crowd of the season so far.
And, although Paul Sturrock's side improved significantly after the break, they were unable to net an equaliser with substitute Barry Corr wasting their best chances to score.
That meant Whelpdale's second minuted strike proved to be the difference between the two teams.
The 23-year-old winger out muscled Chris Barker to meet a chipped free-kick forward from full-back Joe Martin and, with Blues goalkeeper Paul Smith rooted to his line, Whelpdale was able to guide his fifth goal of the season in to the bottom left hand corner of the North Bank net.
The Gills, who had played just once since December 15 before visiting Southend, looked fresher in the opening exchanges and remained on top for the majority of the first half.
As a result former Blues skipper Adam Barrett soon fired wide of the left post before the hosts almost levelled when a left wing corner from Kevan Hurst dropped to Tamika Mkandawire at the near post.
But the midfielder, who was making the last appearance of his loan spell from Millwall, was quickly closed down and saw his six yard shot blocked by the covering Gills defenders.
However, the visitors almost extended their lead in the 16th minute when uncertainty between Ryan Cresswell and Smith allowed the lively Myles Weston to sprint through.
But his attempted chip was clawed to safety by a back-pedalling Smith.
The former Brentford goalkeeper then did well to parry out a well struck shot from Barrett and Blues dug deep to ensure they remained just a goal down at half-time.
During the interval, boss Sturrock made a change with Corr coming on to replace Marc Laird, who suffered a nasty facial injury during the first 45 minutes.
And the alteration helped to get Blues back on top and, with 56 minutes on the clock, the fit again Britt Assombalonga, saw a 12 yard shot impressively diverted over the crossbar by Gillingham defender Leon Legge.
Moments later, a stunning 30 yard shot from Kevan Hurst was tipped over the crossbar in fine fashion by visiting goalkeeper Stuart Nelson.
But, with 59 minutes on the clock, the Gills had a huge let off when Gavin Tomlin burst in to the right hand side of the penalty area before delivering a cross in to the path of Corr who, with the goal gaping, sent an instinctive volley over the crossbar.
In a bid to stem the Southend pressure, Gillingham's animated manager Martin Allen soon made a double substitution with Charlie Lee replacing Whelpdale and Danny Jackman coming on for Adam Birchall.
That made the Kent club a little more solid but Blues soon began to pile on more pressure with Hurst firing over from 12 yards after Luke Prosser's long throw from the left hand side had been flicked on by Cresswell.
Shortly after that and, with 75 minutes on the clock, Blues made their second change with Freddy Eastwood replacing Assombalonga before Scott Donnelly also came on in place of Mkandawire.
But sandwiched in between the chances came a big chance for Gills when Weston sprinted through and fired a low 12 yard shot against the foot of the left post.
Southend attempted to make the miss increase in significance and pushed Cresswell up front for the final few minutes.
He soon headed a left wing cross from Prosser just wide of the left post and, in the dying seconds, Corr seemed destined to net a late equaliser for the home-side.
However, his six yard shot was blocked by Legge to ensure Gillingham grabbed their second 1-0 win of the season against Southend and moved back to the top of the League Two table.