Southend United’s fighting spirit went unrewarded at the Kassam Stadium on Saturday afternoon as they ended February with a narrow 2-1 defeat away at Oxford United.
Goals from the duo of James Henry and Matty Taylor, either side of Lewis Gard’s, left Blues with a sour taste after showing a lot of battling qualities.
The return of Gard would’ve delighted boss Sol Campbell as he put in a positive performance in the 70 minutes he featured, especially as it was the former St Thomas Moore pupil who marked his return from over 16 months out injured with an ACL with the equalising goal.
He was one of two changes Campbell made to his starting line-up along with 20-year-old Eren Kinali who came in for his second start of the season, his fifth appearance in total. Out went the injured Sam Mantom and Mile Mitchell-Nelson, who dropped to the bench.
For Karl Robinson’s Oxford, they too made a couple of changes from their midweek victory against Accrington Stanley, as Anthony Forde and Mark Sykes returned for Sam Long and George Thorne.
Blues quickly settled into the game, were stifling their hosts and the in-form Henry and Taylor. However the deadlock was broken, very much out of nothing, in the 17th minute, with the two aforementioned players involved.
A cross from the right-hand side wasn’t collected and when Taylor attempted to loop the ball with his back to goal over Blues’ goalkeeper Patrik Gunnarsson, the Brentford loanee pulled on his yellow shirt prompting the referee to point to the spot. Henry stepped up and slotted the ball the opposite side of Gunnarsson’s dive to put the hosts ahead.
Stephen McLaughlin was quick to try and restore the parity that the opening half an hour of the contest had portrayed, as his free-kick from distance forced a good stop from Simon Eastwood who parried away to his right.
Gard was showing some neat touches in midfield on his first taste of League One football since April 2018 and Blues were showing promising signs in the opposition’s final third. A succession of corners were followed by some high crosses which were caught in the strong winds around the Kassam Stadium and almost caused a defensive mix up.
And it was Sol Campbell’s side who headed into the break in the ascendancy, and probably frustrated at being behind… or so they thought it might be!
Four minutes before break the ball was in the Oxford net only for the assistant referee to flag it offside. Mark Milligan played the ball in the left-hand channel for Charlie Kelman who finished confidently, but the goal was ruled out.
But the luck changed right on the stroke of half-time as that man Gard marked his return in terrific fashion with the equalising goal, and the first that Oxford had conceded in three previous outings.
Milligan found Clifford whose cross was deflected on target and saved by Eastwood, but Gard was on hand to bury the rebound and bring Blues back on level terms.
Blues carried on where they ended the first half early in the second as Kinali tested Us keeper Eastwood with a 25-yard effort.
And when a couple of strong challenges went in, the first from Gorrin on Milligan which was deemed worthy of just a yellow card, and then McLaughlin on Marcus Browne, the game started to open up more and the home supporters began to find their voices. Typically the Southend faithful, 485 strong of them, were showing off their vocal chords all game and with good reason after the encouraging signs from their team.
Chances dried up for a 15 minute spell with the onus very much on the home side who came into the game off of three straight victories in which they had scored nine goals.
They did muster a couple of glorious opportunities, though, with 20 minutes remaining. The first came from a left-wing cross which zipped in front of Gunnarsson’s goal and out for a throw-in on the far side. Substitute Dan Agyei then fired into the side-netting after collecting the ball with his back to goal, turning but shooting, thankfully, wide of the target.
Teenage striker Kelman cut in from the left channel for Blues but saw his shot go straight at Eastwood from a tight angle before Henry hit one straight at Gunnarsson.
But for all Blues’ spirit and with six minutes remaining, Oxford grabbed the winner as Taylor popped up with a terrific finish at the back post. A cross from the right found its way to the striker who scored his sixth goal in four games on the turn, finding the far corner past the outstretched arms of Gunnarsson.
Next up for Blues, the visit of Bristol Rovers at Roots Hall.
Oxford United XI: Eastwood, Ruffels, Dickie (C), Moore, Gorrin (Agyei 56'), Brannagan, Taylor, Forde (Long 86'), Henry, Sykes (Mackie 90'), Browne. Subs Not Used: Stevens, Hanson, Thorne, Kelly.
Blues XI: Gunnarsson, Bwomono, Milligan, Dieng (C), McLaughlin (Barratt 63'), Gard (Hutchinson 69'), Shaughnessy, Kelman, Clifford, Egbri (Goodship 76'), Kinali. Subs Not Used: Seaden, Rush, Acquah, Mitchell-Nelson.
Referee: Lee Swabey
Assistants: Louis Marks & Ryan Whitaker
Fourth Official: Daniel Cook
Oxford United: Henry 17', Taylor 84'
Southend United: Gard 45'
Oxford United: Gorrin 51'
Southend United: McLaughlin 54'
Attendance: 7,451 (485 Away Fans)