Gavin Tomlin returned to haunt Chesterfield after his brace at Roots Hall, as the 29-year-old forward raced clear to convert an 86th minute winner and steal a scarcely deserved 1-0 win for Southend and put another dent in the Spireites dwindling play-off aspirations. The home side were in command for almost the entirety of the encounter, with Marc Richards rattling the crossbar, but Paul Sturrock's side arrested their recent slump with a smash and grab raid four minutes from time.
Following a monumental effort to clear the snow away from the Proact Stadium beginning at 7.30am ahead of a pitch inspection - which included both manager Paul Cook and chief executive Chris Turner alongside a multitude of volunteers - the surface was deemed playable and after last week's abandonment against Torquay and the Liverpudlian plumped to name an unchanged line-up from the one that comfortably swept aside third placed Northampton a fortnight ago.
That meant that new Ivorian striker Armand Gnanduillet was only visible by enlarge from his blonde mohican in the dugout, in addition to former Norwich City trainee Richard Brindley and Conor Townsend, the latter of which extended his loan spell from Championship outfit Hull. Teenage goalkeeper Josh Barrington was named amongst the substitutes following Richard O'Donnell's loan move to Stockport, while Joanthan Wafula was also on the bench after making his senior bow against the Cobblers.
The Scotsman's side breezed past Chesterfield on a cold Friday evening in December beside the seaside, inflicting their heaviest defeat of the season in a 3-0 win at Roots Hall. However, the Shrimpers have registered just one win in seven games in all competitions since then and sit just one point above the Spireites in eighth. A 2-1 defeat against Brentford in an FA Cup replay at Griffin Park denied the side from Essex a crack at European champions Chelsea in round four this afternoon and instead they had to be content with a trip to an arctic Whittington Moor.
Michael Spillane made his debut for the visitors following his switch from Dagenham & Redbridge, while Ryan Cresswell and Chesterfield-born midfielder Kevan Hurst both returned after missing the defeat against the Bees through injury. Striker Tomlin helped himself to a brace in the same fixture earlier this season, constantly tormenting Town's back four with his raw pace and clever movement and he almost nudged United in front inside five minutes this time after Cresswell's knockdown, only to be thwarted by Tommy Lee.
The 29-year-old forward was intent on causing more mischief in the 12th minute, springing the offside trap and attentions of Liam Cooper but his first touch ran away from him, culminating in the former Yeovil man collapsing into the mountain of snow that had been dumped behind the goal much to the amusement of the vocal support in the Karen Child Stand.
On this bitterly chilly January afternoon it was a lukewarm start, at best, from the hosts and following a neat move from Luggy's side, Hurst miscued an attempted volley high and wide while Jay O'Shea flashed one across the face of the box as the Irish playmaker attempted to instigate some activity in the final third of the pitch. The former MK Dons midfielder forced a corner midway through the first half after Chris Barker's nervy clearance soon after, but for the second time Danny Whitaker's ball in was comfortably headed away at the near post.
Cook's charges were now beginning to move the ball with more conviction on a heavy surface in front of a sea of yellow shirts though and Richards, who was withdrawn on the stroke of half time back at Roots Hall, reminded the Shrimpers of his eye for goal when he sent a powerful effort narrowly over Paul Smith's crossbar. The former Port Vale man was then the target of both Tendayi Darikwa and Whitaker from either flank, but not for the first time the visitors would not relent.
Youngster Craig Clay has recently begun to impose himself on the manager's thoughts after an impressive display at the heart of the midfield against Aidy Boothroyd's side and when he found himself further up the pitch than he's accustomed to, the anchorman almost gave Smith a fright when his left-footed drive bobbled along the surface and into the side-netting. Richards almost went one better four minutes before the break, after a sustained period of pressure culminated in his ferocious free kick thumping the underside of the crossbar with Smith comfortably beaten and the former Nottingham Forest goalkeeper demonstrated strong palms almost immediately afterwards when he beat away the 30-year-old's second attempt.
But in spite of O'Shea's neat exchange with Whitaker, both sides remained goalless heading back into the dressing rooms with the result certainly favouring the visitors. The former Accrington boss would have urged his side to up the tempo after the restart and they started from where they left off in the first half with Whitaker this time seeing his effort angle the wrong side of the upright.
Richards was again denied by the outstretched Smith shortly after, this time from inside this six-yard box after Neal Trotman had headed a deep free kick into a dangerous area and when Southend did venture out of their own half, centre-half Cresswell showed precisely why he is a defender by smashing the ball over Lee's crossbar and indeed out of the ground just shy of the hour mark.
The game had rarely threatened to come to the boil with half an hour to play and with chances at a premium, the Liverpudlian turned to one of his oldest charms in the shape of Jack Lester, who replaced the quiet Darikwa and moved alongside Richards in attack. It was a statement of intent from the 45-year-old, whose side could move within just one point of the play-off places with a win against the Shrimpers, and his side almost conjured the breakthrough but Richards' pass had too much weight for O'Shea after the Irishman had cleverly dummied Sam Hird's ball forward.
The Spireites were now beginning to shift through the gears with Sturrock's side on the back foot, but Whitaker again failed to test Smith from the edge of the box after Richards' clever back heel had given the former Oldham man ample room to pull the trigger. The managerial duo of Cook and Wright were as animated as ever in the technical area as their side were the ones forcing the issue but Richards was penalised for handball after Lester's cutback had found the former Valiant in the six-yard box and O'Shea blazed another over.
But with the final whistle looming, the Shrimpers began to release their shackles in front of an impressive away following of almost 300 and debutant Spillane troubled Lee with a dipping volley from 20 yards. But remarkably, with just six minutes remaining, Tomlin raced clear of Trotman before confidently dispatching past an advancing Lee to steal an unlikely three points for the visitors.
Cook threw on giant Ivorian Gnanduillet to try and rescue a point, but the Shrimpers held on courtesy of Smith's wonderful save from substitute Townsend's magnificent volley to extend the gap to the play-off places to four points.
Chesterfield (4-2-3-1) - Lee; Hird (c), Cooper, Trotman (Gnanduillet 87), Smith; Togwell, Clay; Darikwa (Lester 64), Whitaker (Townsend 81), O'Shea; Richards.
Subs not used - Barrington, Randall, Brindley, Wafula.
Bookings - N/A
Goals - N/A
Southend United - Smith; Clohessy, Phillips, Cresswell, Barker (c); Leonard, Timlin, Spillane, Hurst; Tomlin, Corr.
Subs not used - Straker, Harris, Prosser, Bentley, Spicer, Woodyard, Njie.
Bookings - N/A
Goals - Tomlin (84)
Referee - Mr. Mark Heywood
Attendance - 4, 817 (291 away)