SWANNY’S MATCH VERDICT: Posh 1, Southend 4: The mother of all reality checks for feeble Peterborough United

Posh centre-back Ryan Tafazolli cuts a dejected figure as Southend players celebrate their second goal. Photo: Joe Dent/Theposh.com.

Posh centre-back Ryan Tafazolli cuts a dejected figure as Southend players celebrate their second goal. Photo: Joe Dent/Theposh.com.

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Mark Tyer should have stood in the technical area and eaten a pie. Anything to deflect attention from this feeble Peterborough United performance.

The bare facts state Posh are just five points from a play-off place with 13 games to go. In theory a far from insurmountable gap. In reality - and my goodness this was the mother of all reality checks - Posh have as much chance of promotion from League One this season as Wayne Shaw has of winning a slimmer of the year prize.

Posh midfielder Martin Samuelsen is tracked by Southend's Michael Timlin. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

Posh midfielder Martin Samuelsen is tracked by Southend's Michael Timlin. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

Southend arrived at the ABAX Stadium just three points ahead of Posh. They left it with a 4-1 win under their belts and the certain knowledge they won’t have an easier contest all season. The Shrimpers were stronger, fitter, faster, more experienced, more skilful and better organised than a Posh side who meekly accepted their fate once deservedly falling behind on the stroke of half time.

To his credit manager Grant McCann, a man who should have more than enough goodwill in the bank to ride out the Posh equivalent of storm Doris, didn’t try and hide behind the absence of three midfielders who would enliven better sides than his. His post-match media meeting contained an apology, a promise of improvement (shouldn’t be difficult) and a plea for everyone, players and fans, to stick together at such a difficult time. That last bit sounded like a funeral soundbite, quite possibly to mark the passing of play-off chances for another season at least.

Teams don’t tend to get promoted by winning six of their first 17 home matches, by conceding four goals at home twice in three weeks, by lacking fight as well as flair, or by failing to employ a single striker who looks capable of out-playing even the most cumbersome of League One defences. If a physically powerful Southend had a weakness last night (February 21) it was a lack of pace at the heart of their defence, yet aside from a couple of awkward moments against Craig Mackail-Smith in the first 10 minutes, and a flurry of activity when the game was gone at 3-0, Posh rarely looked likely to score.

A lack of attacking confidence has been obvious for months (some Posh fans still boo their most creative player), but a rugged defence and an excellent young goalkeeper had papered over the cracks. Worryingly that defence has started to look fragile, never more so than last night when the sheer physique of 35 year-old strike Marc-Antoine Fortune caused panic in the home ranks, most noticably to stand-in (one assumes) skipper Jack Baldwin.

The third Southend goal is greeted with disbelief by Posh manager Grant McCann and players Craig Mackail-Smith and Paul Taylor. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

The third Southend goal is greeted with disbelief by Posh manager Grant McCann and players Craig Mackail-Smith and Paul Taylor. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

Baldwin was a strange selection. Out of action since November 22, the central defender looked understandably rusty. He wasn’t a necessary pick as Dominic Ball, a pacy, calm individual, had performed well since his arrival in January (Posh were a goalkeeping error away from a probably clean sheet away from home last week), but it was one apparently made for nostalgic reasons with McCann recalling how well his team had done for a time before Christmas with Baldwin, Ryan Tafazolli and Michael Bostwick as their defensive axis.

Nostalgia may also help explain Mackail-Smith’s presence at the club, although he at least guarantees attributes that should be a basic requirement of a professional footballer, namely heart and desire.

Twice Mackail-Smith ran behind the Southend defence in the opening stages. On the first occasion strike partner Junior Morias saw his shot well blocked by visiting defender Adam Thompson and on the second occasion Mackail-Smith’s shot was deflected behind for a corner.

But Posh soon fizzled out as an attacking force. The midfield diamond was back with Bostwick, ignoring any remaining frailty in his recently broken jaw, at the base and teenagers Leo Da Silva Lopes and Martin Samuelsen either side of him. And what a frustrating pair of performers the youngsters were as an insistence on taking extra, unnecessary touches often caused any attacking momentum to be lost. Predictably only two fine Marcus Maddison shots from outside the area caused visiting ‘keeper Ted Smith any alarm.

Posh midfielder Michael Bostwick challenges Southend's Simon Cox. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

Posh midfielder Michael Bostwick challenges Southend's Simon Cox. Photo: Joe Dent/theposh.com.

Southend’s natural superiority gradually became obvious. Ryan Leonard missed a good chance from a free-kick, while Bostwick, Baldwin and Tafazolli blocked goal-bound efforts before the inevitable goal arrived in first-half injury time.

Fortune was given far too much time to deliver a cross which was glanced home by right-back Jason Demetriou, off the inside of a post and over the line just before Luke McGee could grab it, or so a well-placed assistant referee decided.

And that was the catalyst for a second-half display which was defensively shambolic throughout. A flick-on from a goal-kick enabled Fortune to outpace Baldwin to convert goal number two just after the hour mark, a woeful pass inside his own area (and a disturbing lack of effort to rectify his mistake) from Michael Smith enabled Anthony Wordsworth to slot home number three four minutes later and an inability to defend a throw-in, to match substitute Nile Ranger’s determination, or to track Michael Timlin’s run ensured Southend finished the match with a fourth goal in added time.

McGee was also forced to save well from Theo Robinson after that Southend substitute had been given the freedom of the penalty area.

Posh rallied at 3-0 down as a shot from substitute Paul Taylor was headed off the line by Leonard before a fine pass from Maddison was finished off in style by replacament striker Tom Nichols 10 minutes from time.

Surprisingly McCann declined to send on the remaining striker or attacking midfielder available on the substitutes’ bench to try and force an unlikely comeback. Taylor’s late shot was fumbled onto the woodwork by Smith who did rather better when dealing with a vicious, swerving free-kick strike from Maddison, but it was far too little too late for a Posh side whose ambitions for the rest of the season might involve getting to 50 points (it might take a while given the forthcoming fixtures) and finishing above Northampton Town for the 10th year in a row (not a given as Cobblers drew away at Southend last weekend).

Collapsing for the second season in a row just as season ticket renewal forms are being prepared won’t help chairman Darragh MacAnthony’s mood either.

Posh: Luke McGee, Michael Smith, Andrew Hughes, Jack Baldwin, Ryan Tafazolli, Michael Bostwick, Leo Da Silva Lopes, Martin Samuelsen (sub Paul Taylor, 66 mins), Marcus Maddison, Craig Mackail-Smith, Junior Morias (sub Tom Nichols, 57 mins). Unused substitutes: Lee Angol, Brad Inman, Dominic Ball, Mark Tyler, Jerome Binnom-Williams.

Southend: Ted Smith, Jason Demetriou, Adam Thompson, Ryan Innis, Ben Coker, Michael Timlin, Ryan Leonard, Anthony Wordsworth, Jermiane McGlashan (sub Theo Robinson 68 mins), Simon Cox (sub Nile Ranger, 74 mins), Marc-Antoine Fortune (sub Luke O’Neill, 84 mins). Unused substitutes: Josh Bexon, John White, Luke Amos, Frank Nouble.

Goals: Posh - Nichols (80 mins).

Southend - Demetriou (45 mins), Fortune (61 mins), Wordsworth (66 mins), Timlin (90 + 1 min).

Cautions: Southend - Cox (foul)

Referee: Geoff Eltringham 8

Attendance: 4,957 (577 Southend).