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Despite the agony, progress has been made for Southend United this season
SOUTHEND United’s play-off campaign came to a premature and painful conclusion against Burton Albion at Roots Hall on Saturday.
Blues’ hopes of a Wembley return and promotion back into League One were shattered by the Brewers’ 3-2 win on aggregate.
And the narrow defeat, which came after Burton secured a 2-2 draw in an enthralling and entertaining second leg, will be incredibly difficult for anyone connected with the club to deal with.
For many weeks – and maybe even months – they will be analysing the usual ifs, buts and maybes.
But once those wounds start to heal and it becomes possible to take a step back from Saturday’s heart-wrenching setback, then the progress the team has made during this current campaign will really start to come to the fore.
At the beginning of the season, expectations were low following the departures of Sean Clohessy, Ryan Cresswell, Gavin Tomlin and Britt Assombalonga and, with a long-standing transfer embargo in place, a push at promotion was only deemed as a possibility by the most optimistic of supporters.
However, boss Phil Brown put together a strong squad which was strengthened by loan signings throughout the campaign and the basis of a fine League Two side is now in place.
That bodes well for the future, but for that to be successful Blues need to keep hold of their prized assets during the summer.
Goalkeeper Daniel Bentley and midfielder Ryan Leonard are likely to attract interest from elsewhere, while impressive loanees John Egan and Jakub Sokolik could also not be returning to Roots Hall.
Brown could therefore be required to slightly rebuild but, even if the current squad can be maintained, then improvements will still need to be made, especially in the final third of the pitch.
Blues have struggled to consistently hit the back of the net this term and their final tally of 56 league goals has only been lower just twice in the past 10 years.
On both of those occasions, the Shrimpers were relegated and Southend do need to discover more creative qualities if they are to avoid missing out again next season.
To emphasise that point even further, Barry Corr’s tally of 13 goals was the lowest for a Blues’ top scorer since 2009 and only twice in the past 10 years has there been a smaller return leading the way.
Defensively the Shrimpers have been superb this term though and so, too, have the energy levels, the fitness and the organisation of the side.
That was not enough to succeed against the Brewers as the breaks went the way of the visitors, who also made the most of the opportunities coming their way.
Blues dug deep at the weekend to put their fans through a whirlwind of emotions.
But, in hindsight, it could well have been their inability to score in the first leg against a Burton team who played with 10-men for half an hour, that shattered their promotion dreams.
Set pieces also proved decisive as the Shrimpers struggled from dead ball deliveries whereas Burton scored twice from theirs on Saturday.
Their substitutes were also able to make more of an impact than Southend’s but none of that should distract from Blues’ achievements this term.
Above all else, the spirit of the club which was ripped apart during severe financial problems a few years ago is now definitely returning to Roots Hall.
And the atmosphere at Saturday’s game was easily the best for quite some time.
But that togetherness and forward momentum now needs to be continued.
After all, Blues endured exactly the same feeling – and ironically the same two score-lines – when being beaten by Crewe Alexandra in the 2012 play-offs.
However, that team was then ripped apart and left the Shrimpers having to rebuild.
That cannot afford to happen again and the challenge now facing Southend United is to make this season the start of something successful rather than the end.