MANY of Southend United’s fans travelled to Saturday’s crunch clash at Rochdale in fancy dress.

But there can be no disguising the fact the Shrimpers are now facing an uphill struggle to maintain their League One status.

Blues made the long trip to Spotland for their final away game of the season buoyed by beating Burton Albion in the previous encounter.

After all, the victory had ended a 15 match winless streak and seemingly raised the Shrimpers’ spirits and confidence as they continued their fight to beat the drop.

However, Saturday’s showing certainly did not follow on from the exciting win against Burton as Blues never really seemed to spark into life.

And, as a result, Ian Henderson’s close range finish at the start of the second half was enough to secure Rochdale all three points.

The defeat leaves Southend sitting immediately above the relegation zone in 20th place, just ahead of the bottom four on goal difference with one game to go.

Realistically, five teams are still battling to avoid filling three of the remaining relegation spots, but Blues’ task is by far the hardest.

Plymouth, who are one place below the Shrimpers, host second from bottom Scunthorpe United at the weekend, 22nd-placed Walsall head to Shrewsbury and AFC Wimbledon visit rock bottom Bradford City who have already been relegated.

But, in stark contrast to all of their fellow strugglers, the Shrimpers host promotion pushing Sunderland who are currently fourth in the standings.

Sunderland have lost just three League games all season, fewer than any other team at this level while Blues will go into the clash having triumphed just once in 17 outings.

And adding to the Shrimpers’ concerns is their record against the top teams this term.

For Blues have yet to beat a top eight team in the League this season and, if you add cup contests into the equation, Southend have gone 17 games without beating sides in that upper echelons of the table.

Just two points have been taken from a possible 45 against teams in the top eight to further underline the size of the task facing the Shrimpers.

However, all is not lost just yet.

Sunderland seem unlikely to now secure automatic promotion so Saturday’s clash will no longer carry the same significance for them, meaning the intensity of their play may slightly drop.

Key players could also be rested with the play-offs in mind while Southend, have historically at least, tend to pick up points when it is less expected.

But is the current team good enough to do that when it matters most?

Saturday’s showing would suggest not as Blues produced a below par performance just when they needed to be right at their best.

The Shrimpers rarely troubled their hosts and, apart from two routine saves in the first half, Dale goalkeeper Josh Lillis was largely untroubled and untested between the sticks.

A lack of creativity has been a major concern this season, along with a shortage of quality and speed and the ability to shut out opposition attacks.

Boss Kevin Bond opted to change things around at the weekend and raised a few eyebrows with his decision to start Stephen Hendrie ahead of Sam Hart at left wing-back.

Hart has arguably been Blues’ most consistent performer in the past couple of months while Hendrie had not started since January after having surgery on a hernia.

However, the defensive alteration could not do the trick and the Shrimpers have now gone 17 matches without keeping a clean sheet.

That does not bode well for the weekend or for their slight survival hopes.

But, with so much at stake, it is now time for the squad to stand up and be counted, just like the fans have done when times have been tough.

At other clubs, supporters may have turned their back on the team by now but nobody could accuse Blues’ following of that this term.

More than 1,100 of them took advantage of the free coach travel provided for Saturday’s game but their brilliant backing went unrewarded.

However, Saturday represents the final chance for the players to redeem themselves after a nightmare season, packed full of painful moments and setbacks, by avoiding the biggest heartbreak of all - a return to League Two.