FOR the first time this season, Southend United played out a goalless draw at Roots Hall on Friday night as they were unable to find a way past Newport County.
Earlier on in the campaign, the Shrimpers had produced their poorest performance so far when suffering a 3-1 defeat against the Welshmen.
But, while the latest encounter between the two teams, lacked that level of excitement, it did show that Blues have now became a far tougher team to play against.
Since that setback in Wales, boss Phil Brown has made his side far more solid and harder to break down.
The work-rate also remains impressive and any team facing the Shrimpers will not be in for an easy 90 minutes.
That was again shown at Roots Hall on Friday night on a very testing pitch which set the tone for the style of the game.
To their credit, Blues did try to pass the ball around but it was a night for the ugly side of football to shine – not free-flowing football.
After a uneventful start to the game, Southend began to have the better of the first half and visiting goalkeeper Lenny Pidgeley pulled off a trio of fine saves.
The shot-stopper denied Will Atkinson, Barry Corr and Lee Barnard in quick succession to frustrate the Shrimpers and ensure his side were not going to be beaten.
But, at the other end of the field, Newport wasted the game’s best chance to score when Robbie Willmott failed to convert a penalty at the start of the second half.
The County wing back seemed to select power over precision and that resulted in the worst spot-kick I have seen in 24 years of watching Southend as his effort flew high and wide of the goal before probably landing somewhere down the A127!
After that let-off, Blues found it hard to get back into the game and never really looked like scoring in the remainder of the match.
Freddy Eastwood certainly made a difference when he came on and could now have far more of a part to play in the Shrimpers’ push for promotion.
The popular striker started the season in fine form before a knee injury forced him to the sidelines and, since regaining full fitness, he’s been unable to work his way back into the side.
But, with Cauley Woodrow now having returned to Fulham, Eastwood has risen back up the pecking order.
And his cameo on Friday night showed he is clearly fired up to make the most of any more chances coming his way.
Another striker back at the club after a successful first spell – Barnard – was given the nod from the start ahead of Eastwood for the Newport clash but the game showed that it is going to take the former Tottenham Hotspur trainee time to find his best form.
Barnard had not played a first team match since April 2013 before returning to Blues a fortnight ago and is clearly still waiting for that match sharpness to return.
He lined up alongside Corr against Newport, but the Irishman went off with double vision and his fitness will now also come under scrutiny this week ahead of Saturday’s visit to Mansfield.
But somehow or other before the showdown with the Stags, boss Brown must find a way of making the Shrimpers far more of a threat in the final third of the pitch.
Blues have now scored just once in their last three games and their 35 goals in 28 league games this term in the second lowest in the top nine teams at this level.
Brown and captain John White both pointed to a lack of composure in front of goal during their post-match interviews and, at times, the team have shown a real cutting edge this term.
Chesterfield and Millwall were both brushed aside with relative ease as seven goals flew into the back of the net.
However, Brown and his coaching team will now be pondering how to make that happen on a more consistent basis.
It will prove to be a tricky dilemma too as a more attacking formation or style of play could well make his side more open, easier to break down and that could well result in more goals being conceded – similar to what happened at Newport last October.
On the whole, Blues have been superb at the back this season.
But, as Friday night again showed, it could well be finding the right formula and combinations at the other end of the field that will ultimately determine Southend’s destiny this season.