SOUTHEND United paid the penalty for poor finishing as another encounter ultimately ended in frustration for the Shrimpers.

Blues produced a vastly improved display at Tranmere Rovers on Friday night and seemed set for a much-needed three points when Tom Hopper fired them in front early on.

However, the visitors wasted a succession of clear cut chances to double their lead and ultimately paid the price late on when Paul Mullin netted from the spot just five minutes from time.

Yet, unlike for much of the season, there were plenty of positives for Blues this time, none more so than the return of Hopper.

The striker suffered a serious cruciate ligament injury in October 2018 which had kept him out for almost a year before he played the final 19 minutes of last Saturday’s defeat to AFC Wimbledon.

But Hopper stepped up his comeback by starting at Tranmere and immediately reminded everyone exactly what Blues had been missing.

The 25-year-old netted seven goals in 14 starts prior to being sidelined and he took just nine minutes to hit the back of the net at Prenton Park as he coolly fired home an excellent through ball from Simon Cox.

However, it was not just Hopper’s goal which caught the eye during his impressive display and his work-rate, ability to hold the ball up and bring others into play with aerial flick-ons and passes also added an extra dimension to the attack.

That contributed to a vastly improved team display which saw Blues piling on the pressure and creating a number of opportunities in front of goal.

However, crucially the Shrimpers were unable to score a second goal while on top with Timothee Dieng, Stephen McLaughlin and Simon Cox all wasting good chances to score and Isaac Hutchinson having another effort tipped over by Tranmere goalkeeper Scott Davies.

But, after those chances went begging, a familiar feeling of dejection returned as Nathan Ralph was adjudged to have brought down Tranmere substitute Mullin in the box.

And Mullin made the most of the opportunity by gleefully firing his 12 yard shot into the roof of the net to ensure the game ended all-square.

The frustrating finale was tough for the Shrimpers to take as Gary Waddock’s side definitely deserved more than a solitary point.

Yet they only had themselves to blame after such wastefulness in the final third.

Blues, who remain second from bottom in the standings, are also in need of victories as they bid to bounce back from their horrific start to the season.

But there were signs of promise on Friday.

The Shrimpers looked far more spirited, the players certainly gave their all and the team also looked far more compact and harder to break down.

Nathan Bishop – who was a late replacement for Mark Oxley between the sticks – had very little to do while what appeared to be a slightly unusual centre-back pairing of Joe Shaughnessy and Mark Milligan comfortably dealt with what came their way.

But this level of performance must consistently be repeated, alongside a more clinical edge, if Blues are to achieve what currently appears to be a steep challenge and stay up.

One improved, more determined display means little at this stage, especially against a side who also look like they could struggle to survive.

However, the display did suggest the Shrimpers are capable of more than they have shown so far and that is exactly what will be needed to survive.

As has previously been detailed on these pages, Blues will need close to play-off form to beat the drop which will be quite some transformation for a team who have triumphed just once in 13 League games and have taken only five points from a possible 39.

The Shrimpers are now also facing an incredibly tough run of fixtures just at a time where they cannot really afford to lose more ground.

After all, Blues are already eight points from safety with a far worse goal difference to those above them.

And, just like last year, staying up is the name of the game.

To boost the chances of that happening, the Shrimpers simply must also sort the managerial position this week.

For the ongoing uncertainty is far from ideal and leaves Blues without the stability needed for a greater chance of consistent form.