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Southend United 2, Crewe Alexandra 2 (Crewe win 3-2 on aggregate)
SOUTHEND United’s promotion dreams were shattered by Crewe Alexandra at Roots Hall tonight.
Blues, who were battling to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg, twice fought back to grab a 2-2 draw.
But it was not enough to extend Paul Sturrock’s side season as Crewe hung on to secure a 3-2 win on aggregate and a place in the Wembley final at the end of the month.
Southend were below par in the first half and Crewe began to take advantage with Lee Bell shooting over from 30 yards in the eighth minute of the match.
Blues responded with Bilel Mohsni charging down the left flank and teeing up Elliot Benyon but the recalled striker saw his shot blocked inside the penalty area by Railwaymen centre-back Adam Dugdale amid appeals for handball.
Referee Darren Drysdale waved away Southend’s shouts for a penalty before Sean Clohessy fired a 20 yard shot over the crossbar after Ryan Hall’s left wing corner had been cleared in to his path.
But, having survived the double scare, the visitors broke the deadlock in the 24th minute, with Leitch-Smith on target.
The move was started by Ashley Westwood who worked his way past Anthony Grant and Michael Timlin in the centre of the park before passing the ball out to Leitch-Smith on the left hand side.
The lively striker immediately cut inside Sean Clohessy and fired a fine 18 yard shot in to the bottom right hand corner of the net.
Blues momentarily thought they had equalised in the 32nd minute when Hall’s low shot was parried out by Phillips and Freddy Eastwood slammed home the rebound.
But the six yard shot was correctly ruled out for offside.
After that, Southend were forced in to making their first substitution of the evening when Peter Gilbert, who had been struggling to be fit for the game, limped off injured and was replaced at left-back by Lee Hills.
However, just moments after the change, Crewe should have doubled their lead when a terrible attempted clearance from Cameron Belford sliced in to the path of Byron Moore.
He raced clean through on goal but, with just the on loan Bury shot-stopper to beat, the winger could only fire over the crossbar from close range Blues then had another huge let off in the 39th minute when Leitch-Smith raced through and saw his six yard shot blocked by the body of the advancing Belford.
Crewe remained on top at the start of the second period with Moore having a powerful 25 yard half volley tipped over by the home-side’s keeper.
Powell then saw a swerving shot fly inches over the crossbar before Blues also threatened in the 54th minute as a well struck effort from Timlin bounced back off the left post.
In a bid to get back to create further chances for his side, Southend boss Sturrock soon made his second change of the night with Neil Harris coming on for Benyon.
Harris’ arrival saw Blues line-up in a more attacking formation with Mohsni pushing further forward.
And that led to Southend enjoying a sustained period of pressure, during which Eastwood struck the inside of the right post with a low, left footed shot from 25 yards.
But the home-side were not to be denied for long and they equalised in the 64th minute when Crewe keeper Phillips failed to a right wing cross from Chris Barker and Harris was on hand to slot the rebound in to a gaping goal from eight yards.
Blues continued to push forward in a bid to level the tie but, in a bid from the pressure, Crewe mounted a neatly constructed counter-attack which resulted in Powell firing wide from a narrow angle.
As a result, Southend still remained in the tie and they could have levelled in the 84th minute when Mohsni headed Hills’ left wing cross straight at Phillips from 12 yards.
Crewe immediately made the miss increase in significance when substitute Max Clayton cut in to the right hand side of the penalty area before tucking a low left footed shot in to the bottom right hand corner of the net.
That seemed to have killed the tie off but Blues still managed to fight back and equalised again just two minutes later when a brilliantly chipped right wing cross from Hall picked out Barker who headed home at the back post.
It was the defender’s first goal in 10 years but, despite four minutes of added on time, Southend could not find the third goal they needed to take the tie to extra time as their hopes of returning to League One ended for another season.