Southend United were crowned Kings of Essex after defeating Colchester United 3-0 at Roots Hall.
Anthony Wordsworth made a dream return from injury putting the Blues ahead before goals from Adam Barrett and Sam McQueen put daylight between the sides.
Colchester had defended for their lives for more than hour after losing Alex Gilbey; the midfielder saw red after a two-footed lunge on Ryan Leonard.
This result puts Southend hot on the heels on the play-off pack, making it three consecutive wins on the bounce.
Phil Brown made two alterations from the midweek win over Shrewsbury Town, with Sam McQueen and Tyrone Barnett replacing David Mooney and the injured Noel Hunt in a 5-3-2 formation.
An early booking for Adam Thompson highlighted the passion of this fixture, as players clashed in the middle of the park following the challenge.
Amidst an electric atmosphere at Roots Hall, the early proceedings were scrappy with neither side getting a foot-hold of the game.
The first chance of the game arrived in the 18th minute, as a long throw pumped in to the box by Ryan Leonard, found Stephen Hendrie at the back post.
The Scottish U21 swivelled, turned and flashed an effort that just clipped the outside of the woodwork.
Owen Garven was the first Colchester player to work Dan Bentley a minute later. The player’s effort from the edge of the area was comfortably saved however, after being teed up from a Joe Edwards miskick.
The home side kicked it up a notch of the halfway point of the first half with McQueen and Payne both having chances.
Southend went even closer on 23 minutes, as Thompson got himself to the by-line before finding Hendrie who nodded just wide.
The Blues continued to assert their dominance but clear cut chances were few and far between.
Richard Brindley almost gave the U’s the lead against the run of play with a freak effort on 34’, as his cross turned turn shot rattled the crossbar.
The battle of Essex tensions reached boiling point on 36 minutes as Alex Gilbey was shown a straight red card for a reckless two-footed lunge on Leonard.
Once the aftermath of that incident passed, Southend looked to try and make the man advantage count.
The ball fell to McQueen on 38’ at the far post, but the Saints loanee struck wide of Elliott Parish’s goal.
The shot-stopper then had to be equal to a Payne drive from just inside the box following a well-worked short corner.
Barnett then tried his luck from 25 yards just before half-time, but the U’s last line of defence was to deny the Blues again.
Half-time: Southend United 0-0 Colchester United
Leonard could not shake off the injury sustained from Gilbey’s horror challenge and was replaced by Glen Kamara at the break.
This was to be the midfielder’s debut for Southend, after joining on loan from Arsenal in January.
Luke O’Neill went close to taking the lead on 51 minutes. The wing-back flicked the ball up past a defender before seeing his effort deflected narrowly wide.
Great play from McQueen on the right hand side created an opening for Barnett, but the striker failed to get his effort on target on 53’.
It was all Southend, as they took the game to their retreating arch-rivals.
Anthony Wordsworth entered the field in place of Adam Thompson on the hour-mark, as Phil Brown looked to add more man power to the attack.
That nearly worked a dream as three minutes after the switch, Will Atkinson crossed to the McQueen in the box. The attacking midfielder got up well, but his header missed the target.
The Colchester defenders were resolute in their protection of their goal, and Southend had to be careful they didn’t leave too many gaps at the back.
George Elokobi looped an effort goalwards with just more than 20 minutes to go following a corner; thankfully it hit the top of Bentleys net instead of dropping inside it.
Barnett fashioned an effort from more than 20 yards on 73’, but it was comfortably held by Parrish.
The Roots Hall faithful roared the home side on as they continued to push for a winner; O’Neill went close again with 15 remaining, but his rasping effort missed the corner.
Southend finally got their reward, and it was the returning Wordsworth making a hero’s return on 82 minutes.
The ball fell to the midfielder 20 yards out, who hit an unstoppable peach in to Parrish’s right-hand corner to send Roots Hall in to ecstasy.
Payne nearly doubled the advantage as the game trickled towards injury time, but his shot was deflected wide for a corner.
From the resulting set-piece the game was put to bed as stand-in Captain Fantastic, Adam Barrett headed home from Payne’s corner.
It wasn’t to stop there, Payne yet again involved as he drove at the U’s back-line.
The Blues boy wonder was challenged as Parrish pounced, but the ball fell perfectly to birthday boy McQueen, who capped off a great performance by slotting in to an empty net.
Southend United: Bentley, O’Neill, Barrett ©, Thompson (Wordsworth 60’), Bolger, Hendrie, Atkinson (Worrall 73’), Leonard (Kamara 45’), McQueen, Payne, Barnett.
Subs: Wordsworth, Worrall, Mooney, Smith, Hurst, Deegan, Kamara.
Booked: Thompson (5’)
Colchester United: Parrish, Garvan, Edwards, Elokobi, Gilbey, Porter, Moncu (Ambrose 76’)r, Massey (Briggs 50’), Kent, Eastman, Brindley.
Subs: Briggs, Wright, Lee, Bonne, Barnes, Vincent-Young, Ambrose
Off: Gilbey (36’) – Serious foul play.
Attendance: 10,279 (1,312 visitors)