Blues picked up a vital three points as Ashley Nathaniel-George’s solitary strike was enough to earn Southend a 1-0 win against Harrogate Town at the EnviroVent Stadium.
After a goalless first-half, the visitors made the breakthrough after Alan McCormack’s shot was cleared off the line. Emile Acquah went in for the rebound and appeared to be fouled, but it needn’t matter as Nathaniel-George came in to fire the ball home.
Harrogate had moments earlier hit the crossbar through Brendan Kiernan and their top scorer Jack Muldoon had a great chance to level only for his shot to flash across goal as Southend closed the gap on those above them in the relegation fight to just three points.
The victory would have been sweet for Mark Molesley who fielded Southend’s youngest-ever squad when the two sides met on the opening day of the season in September, in which Harrogate handily beat Blues 4-0. How different things were this afternoon.
It was a first-ever visit to Harrogate’s EnviroVent Stadium for Southend United this afternoon and there wasn’t likely to be a more important trip to North Yorkshire for Blues who were in desperate need of a win to keep tabs on those above them outside the relegation zone.
Following Tuesday’s stalemate against Walsall, Mark Molesley made four changes, three of which were enforced. Sam Hart and Timothee Dieng were suspended while Reeco Hackett-Fairchild was injured in training, as Tom Clifford, James Olayinka, Simeon Akinola and Emile Acquah came in.
Southend have found goals hard to come by in recent games, but they began the game on the front foot and forced goalkeeper James Belshaw into action early on when Ashley Nathaniel-George curled an effort on target that needed pushing wide.
Belshaw’s opposite number, Mark Oxley, was required to keep out Josh McPake’s stinging shot before the home side had the ball the back of the net when Aaron Martin bundled home a George Thomson free-kick only for the offside flag to rule it out.
Moments later and Harrogate were denied by a superb double save by Oxley after McPake barged his way through, forcing Oxley to save with his left foot. The rebound bounced off Jack Muldoon and needed Oxley to react quickly to keep the home side at bay.
Right on half-time though and Southend were dealt a huge blow as John White went down with a serious-looking elbow injury after a coming together with Muldoon, requiring lengthy treatment and spelling the end for the captain’s afternoon.
Having started the first-half brightly, Blues repeated the trick in the second and had a glorious chance fall to Akinola. After a mistake at the back by Town, the number nine was one-on-one with Belshaw but he spread himself well to stop the ball from hitting the back of the net.
After barely threatening in the second-half, baring a deflected McPake effort, Harrogate struck the woodwork after some neat play down the left from Muldoon led to Brendan Kieran seeing his first-time shot thunder off Oxley’s crossbar as Southend survived.
That proved to be a pivotal moment as five minutes later Blues broke the deadlock as Nathaniel-George scored the opener. After Alan McCormack’s goalbound shot was cleared off the line, the ball fell to the Southend winger to fire home from close range and put Blues in front.
Southend now had a precious lead to defend and Tyler Cordner, who replaced the injured White at the break, needed to be on full alert as Kiernan’s floated cross looked primed for Mark Beck to nod home before the intervention of Cordner to bundle it wide.
Harrogate continued to press for an equaliser and their top-scorer Muldoon got goalside and mercifully for Blues flashed his shot across the face of goal and wide, and as the 90 minutes ticked over, six minutes added on were shown for Southend to hold on.
And hold on they did as the final whistle blew after seven minutes of stoppage time had elapsed with Blues earning their first win in eight, narrowing the gap to Barrow to just three points going into the Easter weekend.
Harrogate Town XI: Belshaw, Jones, Falkingham (C), Smith, Burrell, Thomson, Martin (Beck 64’), Muldoon, Hall, McPake (Francis 72’), Power (Kiernan 38’). Subs Not Used: Fallowfield, Minter, Williams
Blues XI: Oxley, McCormack (K Taylor 77’), Hobson, Olayinka (Holmes 70’), Akinola, Clifford, Acquah, Nathaniel-George (Bwomono 90+6’), Demetriou, Ferguson, White (C)(Cordner 46’). Subs Not Used: Seaden, Goodship, Mellis
Referee: Leigh Doughty
Assistants: Robert Merchant & Craig Taylor
Fourth Official: Shaun Hudson
Harrogate Town: None
Southend United: Ashely Nathaniel-George 69’
Harrogate Town: Connor Hall 87’
Southend United: Jason Demetriou 44’, Alan McCormack 63’, Shaun Hobson 67’, Ashley Nathaniel-George 90+2’