INJURY-HIT Southend United missed out on the chance of moving up in to the automatic promotion places with a 2-1 defeat against play off rivals Cheltenham Town at Roots Hall last night.
Without five regular first team starters, Blues conceded two sloppy goals as they sunk down to ninth in the League Two standings.
And it was boyhood Southend fan Paul Benson who helped to pile the misery on his home-town club as he netted the Robins’ second strike.
However, despite the end result, Blues were initially on top and they almost opened the scoring in just the second minute of the match when new loan signing Danny Mayor picked out Ben Reeves inside the penalty area but his low, eight yard shot was blocked by the legs of Cheltenham goalkeeper Scott Brown.
Moments later, Brown easily kept out Barry Corr’s header from Kevan Hurst’s right wing cross.
But, having survived those scares, it was Cheltenham who broke the deadlock with Marlon Pack firing home a penalty.
The spot kick was given by referee Stuart Attwell after a rash and needless challenge from Alex Woodyard on Russ Penn inside the penalty area and Pack fired the resulting spot kick in to the right hand side of the goal with goalkeeper Paul Smith diving in the opposite direction.
With the visitors remaining on top, Penn then cut in from the right flank and fired a low shot in to the side netting but Blues hit back with Mayor again teeing up Reeves who had a near post shot charged down by Brown.
However, Cheltenham were soon back on attack and, in the 31st minute, Jason Taylor had a skimming 30 yard shot parried out by Smith but Luke Prosser, who again captained Southend, was on hand to clear the danger.
Six minutes later, Blues were forced in to making their first substitution of the night as midfielder Marc Laird limped off and was replaced by Britt Assombalonga.
The change saw Reeves drop back in to midfield but, just sixty seconds after the alteration, Cheltenham doubled their lead following a defensive mix up between Mickey Spillane and Smith which enabled the Southend born Paul Benson to score.
Spillane attempted to usher a long ball forward in to the path of Smith but the keeper remained stuck to his line and then missed a tame, toe poked shot from Benson which rolled in to the back of the South Stand net.
The strike handed Benson the 99th goal of his professional career and his first since joining Cheltenham on loan from Swindon Town.
The close range shot also made life incredibly hard for Southend but they attempted to get back in the game at the start of the second half with Corr heading a right wing cross from Hurst straight at Brown and, in the 52nd minute, Assombalonga had a close range effort ruled out for offside.
The striker reacted sharply to fire the ball home from close range after a low shot from Reeves was parried out by Brown but his celebrations were cut short by the assistant referee’s flag.
Moments later, Corr raced through after robbing Michael Hector of possession but he over-hit an attempted pass to Assombalonga and the chance was gone.
In a bid to improve his side, Blues boss Paul Sturrock brought on Ryan Leonard to replace Woodyard in the 64th minute and, eight minutes from time, Caolan Lavery for Mayor.
Lavery created a 90th minute goal when his low, left wing cross picked out Reeves who guided a controlled right footed shot in to the top right hand corner of the net.
But the strike came too late to spark a Southend comeback as Cheltenham hung on to secure all three points.