Chesterfield's hopes of sitting in a play-off place on Christmas morning were dashed by an explosive Southend United outfit on a miserable Friday evening beside the seaside, as the Spireites crashed to a a 3-0 defeat at Roots Hall - their heaviest of the season so far.
Centre-half Ryan Cresswell volleyed the home side into a 51st minute lead, pouncing on a loose ball in the box with all the instincts of a striker to notch his eighth goal of a fruitful campaign and give the Shrimpers a deserved lead, before Gavin Tomlin met Kevan Hurst's sumptuous cross with a thumping header 10 minutes later. The former Dagenham & Redbridge hitman helped himself to a second in the 70th minute when he beat Tommy Lee to Chris Barker's delicate clip forward and ensure all three points remained in Essex.
Chesterfield made the trip to Southend-On-Sea after a run of four successive wins was halted by a disciplined Burton Albion last Saturday and boss Paul Cook made just one solitary change for the clash at Roots Hall; replacing on-loan Brighton and Hove Albion winger Brennan Dickenson with Luis Boa Morte. Veteran striker Jack Lester was serving the first of his three-game ban for his dismissal against the Brewers, so Scott Boden returned to the bench while Jonathan Wafula was named at the expense of Danny Whitaker.
The Spireites were just two points away from the play-off places before kick-off and a win in Essex would propel them above their hosts into sixth place with 35 points, with York City and Morecambe visiting the Proact Stadium over the festive period. The Shrimpers themselves had embarked on a run of 12-games without defeat though and they were unchanged from the side that fought back from 2-0 down to salvage a point against fellow high-flyers Bradford City.
The going was definitely soft on a heavy pitch under the floodlights following the recent deluge and the home side started quickly, forcing a corner on the far side before Chesterfield-born winger Hurst whipped an effort into the side net inside the opening couple of minutes. Energetic right-back Sean Clohessy was the next to cause mischief as he gallivanted down the flank before sending an inviting cross towards the free-scoring Britt Assombalonga, but thankfully it skipped off the surface and eluded the Watford loanee.
The Liverpudlian's side began to come out of their shell after weathering the initial storm though and it was the former Premier League winner Boa Morte who was inches away from notching his first goal for Town when he tried his luck from range. On 17 minutes, Jay O'Shea skewed another effort off target following some sublime footwork that had enabled him to find space on the edge of the Blues' area while at the other end, captain Sam Hird did magnificently to somehow block the onrushing Marc Laird on the goal-line with Lee well beaten.
By the half-hour mark, MK Dons loanee O'Shea was once again beginning to cause a nuisance of himself in the hole - just like he did at Vale Park - and after a neat exchange in the hosts' half Boa Morte stumbled just as United's defence began to part. Paul Sturrock's men were back on the offensive themselves seven minutes later though, predictably through Assombalonga who raced clear of Nathan Smith before worrying Lee with a sliced cross that looped agonisingly over the crossbar.
As half-time approached, former Port Vale forward Marc Richards was withdrawn as a precaution with a tight hamstring and replaced by Boden, as the game remained delicately poised with the hosts narrowly shading proceedings in what was in truth, a poor half of football. Cook's side would have been content with taking a point back to Whittington Moor and Tendayi Darikwa came closest to giving the visitors the lead when his shot bounced awkwardly in front of Paul Smith, but the ex-Nottingham Forest stopper did well to parry wide.
The opening goal of the game was forthcoming though, but unfortunately for Cook and the travelling contingent it was for the home side who had looked the most likely. Ex-Rotherham centre-back Cresswell is the highest scoring defender in all four divisions of English football and he showed his predatory instincts at the right end after capitalising on Hird's block to slam home a well-executed half-volley.
It was probably no more than Sturrock's side deserved and just 10 minutes later, United doubled their lead with a devastating counter-attack that caught the Spireites cold following another poor set-piece from the visitors. The hosts' direct front pairing of Assombalonga and Tomlin had caused all sorts of problems after the restart and former Dagenham & Redbridge striker Tomlin met Hurst's delightful cross with a powerful header after the Blues had venomously swept forward.
The game looked to be out of reach by the hour, but Town's best chance would go begging soon after when the cataclysmic Smith once again miscued a routine ball forward but O'Shea couldn't angle his overhead kick on target with the keeper in no man's land. And Chesterfield's misery was further compounded 20 minutes from time, when Tomlin helped himself to a second when he beat Lee to Barker's harmless clip into the box.
The score line was almost even more flattering for the home side 10 minutes from time, when Jamaican international Nathan Smith diverted second-half substitute Freddy Eastwood's effort off the line, but the Spireites still succumbed to their heaviest defeat of the season against a rampant Southend who move into fourth following a 13-game unbeaten run.
Chesterfield (4-2-3-1) - Lee; Talbot, Hird (c), Cooper, Smith; Togwell, Randall (Clay 72); Darikwa, Boa Morte (Dickenson 66), O'Shea; Richards (Boden 44).
Subs not used - O'Donnell, Forbes, Wafula, Boden, Townsend.
Bookings - N/A
Goals - N/A
Southend United (4-1-3-2) - Smith; Clohessy, Cresswell, Prosser, Barker (c) (Straker 86); Mkandawire; Laird, Hurst, Timlin; Tomlin (Eastwood 81), Assombalonga (Corr 81).
Subs not used - Martin, Donnelly, Phillips, Bentley.
Bookings - N/A
Goals - Cresswell (51), Tomlin (61, 70)
Referee - Mr. R Lewis
Attendance - 5,273 (217 away)