SOUTHEND United must come from behind if they are to win their play-off semi-final against Crewe Alexandra after losing 1-0 in the first leg at Gresty Road this afternoon.
Adam Dugdale bagged the only goal of the game at the start of the second half as he became the first player to score against Blues in more than eight hours of action.
And that means Paul Sturrock’s side will be playing catch up when the two teams meet again at Roots Hall on Wednesday.
Crewe deserved the narrow advantage and, buoyed by a noisy crowd, they started brightly but initially struggled to create clear cut chances as a well organised Blues back four stood firm.
However, further forward Southend seemed nervous early on and often carelessly conceded possession in the opening exchanges.
That invited pressure back on to Blues and, in the 23rd minute, the highly rated Nick Powell cut in off the left flank and unleashed a curling cross which was diverted to safety by Southend goalkeeper Cameron Belford.
In reply, Michael Timlin then registered the visitors’ first shot of the afternoon on target as his low 25 yard shot was smothered by Crewe keeper Steve Phillips.
The home-side were soon back on top though and, during that spell of pressure, Blues centre-back Mark Phillips picked up what appeared to be quite a nasty shoulder injury while under pressure from A-Jay Leitch-Smith.
After receiving a lengthy spell of treatment, Phillips returned to the pitch but still seemed to be in a lot of discomfort.
Despite that, attention soon turned to other end of the field as Kane Ferdinand headed over a deep right wing cross from Ryan Hall.
Moments later, Crewe replied with Luke Murphy sending a well struck 30 yard shot wide of the left post in the closing action of the first half.
But the Railwaymen were not to be denied for long and, four minutes in to the second period they bagged what proved to be the only goal of the game, with Dugdale netting his fourth goal of the season.
The tall centre-back rose high at the back post, having escaped the attentions of Bilel Mohsni, to head a deep free-kick from Ashley Westwood over the head of Belford and in to the right hand side of the goal.
The headed effort was the first goal Blues had conceded since Good Friday at Bradford City and it was soon followed by a substitution from Sturrock as Ryan Leonard returned to action following a knee injury which had kept him sidelined since January.
Leonard’s arrival came on the hour mark in place of Ferdinand as Southend changed to a 4-4-2 formation with Mohsni moving in to attack, alongside Neil Harris.
After the alteration, Anthony Grant and Ryan Hall both dragged long range efforts wide of the right post.
But, in the 65th minute, only a stunning save from Belford stopped Crewe doubling their lead as the on loan Bury shot-stopper tipped over a powerful shot from Leitch-Smith when he was clean through on goal.
The striker got the better of Phillips to register a rising half volley and that led to the centre-back finally going off with the shoulder injury he suffered in the first half.
He was replaced by Luke Prosser at the heart of the back four and Southend immediately came close to equalising when Mohsni headed Leonard’s right wing cross down in to the path of Timlin whose low drive was smartly saved by the legs of Phillips.
Following that, Blues boss Sturrock made his third and final change of the afternoon in the 73rd minute with Freddy Eastwood replacing Harris up front.
And the new look forward line almost resulted in producing an equaliser when Hall’s right wing cross picked out Mohsni at the back post.
However, the Frenchman could only head over the crossbar from close range when he should have done better.
Hall then had a low 12 yard shot tipped wide of the right post by Phillips but only a superb last ditch challenge from Prosser then stopped Powell scoring at the other end of the field.
That kept Southend in the tie and they again could have levelled in the dying seconds when Timlin failed to connect properly with an excellent pass from Grant before Eastwood’s follow up effort also struck Timlin.