Words John Edwards; Pictures Jonathan Moore
IT was always going to be one of Altrincham's toughest tests so far, but Phil Parkinson's side gained a pass with distinction in all departments as they further reinforced their standing as the Vanarama National League's form team by extending their unbeaten run to 10 games.
The Alty boss was adamant a searching examination awaited the Robins against a Southend side who would have been marginally above us at kick-off but for their 10-point deduction.
So it proved, but how his magnificent players rose to the challenge in front of 2,000-plus Alty fans in a pulsating contest that went the Robins' way due to a stronger will to win and a sharper cutting edge that supplied crucial goals from Justin Amaluzor and Justin Donawa.
The challenge off the pitch was in choosing a Harvey Nichols man of the match. It went to the ever-industrious Isaac Marriott, and there could be few complaints after yet another phenomenally-energetic contribution by the little midfielder, but there must have been consideration for the claims of Jake Cooper, imperious at the heart of a rock-solid defence, Elliot Osborne, consistently outstanding alongside Marriott, Amaluzor, for his powerful running, and Chris Conn-Clarke, who had a hand in both goals.
The first clear-cut chance of a lively, action-packed first half fell to Southend, and they really should have made it count, as striker Harry Cardwell won the aerial duel for a left-wing cross in the 39th minute but planted a close-range header wide of the left post.
Alty's best opening so far materialised two minutes later, when Amaluzor's low left-wing delivery just eluded Dior Angus' outstretched boot but appeared to have arrived perfectly for Alex Newby at the far post. Newby looked certain to score from point-blank range, only for left-back Nathan Ralph to hurl himself in the way and block the winger's goalbound effort.
Ethan Ross had been largely untroubled up to this point, but how he responded when he was put to the test in the 53rd minute. The ball broke to Cardwell little more than eight yards out, and the striker could not have wished for a better connection as he lashed a ferocious shot that Ross somehow tipped over the bar with an astonishingly quick reflex reaction.
Alty showed the Southend striker how it should be done in the 58th minute, as Conn-Clarke cut across the edge of the area and picked out Newby on the right for a pinpoint low cross that Amaluzor forced over the line from a couple of yards out.
The deadlock broken, Alty came under pressure from a Southend side eager to restore parity, but with Cooper determined to repel every raid alongside the ever-impressive Lewis Baines and Lewis Banks and Eddy Jones both equal to the task either side of them, there was no way through.
As a bonus, fit-again Regan Linney entered the fray as a 65th-minute substitute and showed he has lost none of his sharpness or purposeful running, but it wasn't until the 88th minute that Alty could start breathing easy in the knowledge the points were safely in the bag.
When Conn-Clarke received the ball on the left flank deep inside the Southend half, it looked for all the world as if he would take it towards the corner flag to run down the clock. Instead, he accelerated inside, leaving a shadowing defender in his wake, and shaped to shoot before threading a pass through to substitute Donawa, who cleverly lifted a shot over advancing keeper David Martin and into the net.
What a performance by Alty. It was never plain sailing, but they showed an abundance of grit, energy and resilience, as well as style and cohesion, to win the day. Could there have been a better combination of qualities to mark the visit of legendary former Robins boss Tony Sanders? It's a safe bet to say he would have approved.
Delighted with the result. We knew it would be a battle and we came out on top and felt we deserved the win - Phil Parkinson
Harvey Nichols Man Of The Match
Alty Ross; Banks, E.Jones, Baines, Osborne, Marriott (c), Conn-Clarke, Amaluzor (Ja.Jones, 81'), Angus (Donawa, 74'), Cooper, Newby (Linney, 65'). Subs not used: Wilson, Sithole.
Southend Martin; Scott-Morriss, Ralph (c), Kensdale, Bridge, Husin, Cardwell, Fonguck (Mooney, 69'), Kanu (Wood, 89'), Kabongolo, Coker. Subs not used: McDonald.
Goals Amaluzor (Newby) 58', Donawa (Conn-Clarke) 88'
Officials Michael Crusham | Tom Cooke & Andrew Daniels | Ben Tomlinson
Attendance 2,558 (476 away)
We head for Hampshire on Saturday to take on Eastleigh in the Vanarama National League. Tickets are available online here for the Silverlake Stadium clash.