Underwhelming Harrogate Town fail to produce required response as slump continues with Southend United defeat
Harrogate Town served up another underwhelming performance on home soil as they were turned over by relegation-threatened Southend United.
For all the talk in recent weeks of the Sulphurites being determined to continue to fight for a top-seven finish and still having plenty to play for this season, there was little evidence of that being the case at Wetherby Road on Saturday afternoon.
Following a run of three defeats in four and a disappointing one-goal loss to Morecambe last time out, a positive reaction was required in order to get the club moving in the right direction once again.
Town could hardly have wished for a better fixture to attempt to do just that, the struggling Shrimpers arriving in North Yorkshire without a win in seven matches and having managed just one goal - a penalty - during more than 650 minutes of football.
But, the Essex outfit were able to find the net in open play for the first time since February 24, Ashley Nathaniel-George's 69th-minute close-range strike condemning their hosts to an eighth 1-0 defeat of the campaign.
Heads went down at that point and, quite simply, Harrogate didn't do enough to try and get back into the contest.
In truth, they were below-par across the park, but, just as was the case against Morecambe last time out, it was their inability to take their chances in front of goal which ultimately ensured they finished up empty-handed.
And, not for the first time this term, manager Simon Weaver was left wondering what might have been, lamenting a lack of creativity and a failure to take those opportunities which did materialise.
"We've reached a level now where people aren't just going to gift you goals as readily, we can't always rely on other teams making mistakes, especially when they are fighting for their lives - like Southend," he said.
"At this level, people aren't going to gift you as many chances, so you've got to take them when they do come. We need more cutting edge.
"This is an honest group, but it's about being more than just honest, we can't just get by on being fast and furious and in people's faces, we've got to see more incisive play.
"There wasn't a sustained spell of pressure, but there were enough moments to be able to capitalise on, to be able to score. Brendan Kiernan hit the bar, Jack Muldoon has got in behind where you expect him to score - he will disappointed with that - and Josh McPake should score [in the first half].
"We didn't show enough composure. You've got to convert chances and for the last few weeks, that has been the difference."
Town weren't great at the other end of the field either. They looked fairly comfortable during the first half, but the second period saw sloppiness and uncertainty creep into their work in and around their own penalty area.
"I couldn't really fault the first half, but second half we dropped back five or 10 yards defensively and lost a few headers and it seemed to send a chill throughout the team," Weaver added.
"The last few games have shown that we've got a mistake in us [at the back]. We had another moment where we didn't defend well enough.
"It was a disappointing goal to concede because you've just got to switch on. We said at half-time, even if it's 0-0 heading into the last few minutes, I'm sure we'll have a chance, just make sure we don't have that lapse at the back, but unfortunately we did."
After an extremely uneventful opening quarter-of-an-hour, Southend were first to threaten when Nathaniel-George took aim from just outside the box and drew a good save out of James Belshaw.
From the resulting corner, Josh McPake countered at pace down the home right, skinned a defender and stung the palms of United custodian Mark Oxley.
Town thought they had broken through on 23 minutes as the ball was bundled over the line from close range following George Thomson’s inviting right-wing free-kick, but the raising of the assistant referee’s flag cut short their celebrations.
Harrogate should however have taken the lead moments later when McPake attacked Southend’s back-line with real purpose once again and somehow forced his way through a cluster of defenders just inside the penalty area.
The ball broke kindly for the Rangers loanee, who looked certain to open the scoring, only for Oxley to stick out a leg and save superbly before recovering to thwart Jack Muldoon on the rebound.
Josh Falkingham then headed Simon Power’s cross from the right over the cross-bar, though with half-time approaching the game started to drift.
Town began the second period sluggishly and Warren Burrell's 53rd-minute mistake let Simeon Akinola in on goal, forcing Belshaw to dash off his line and rescue his team with a brave bit of goalkeeping.
With the home defence all at sea, Southend continued to look a threat until Harrogate seemingly got their act together around the hour-mark.
And, following a decent spell in the ascendancy, their first incisive bit of passing football ended with Jack Muldoon pulling the ball back from close to the byline on the left for substitute Brendan Kiernan to prod a first-time effort against the cross-bar.
Disaster then struck in the 69th minute after the Shrimpers broke and, after Emile Acquah seemed certain to put the ball in the net from close range, Nathaniel-George eventually did.
The response to falling behind was not a positive one, with Town heads visibly dropping.
There was a good chance for Mark Beck to nod in Kiernan's hanging cross from the left at the far post, however the Sulphurites' big number nine waited too long, allowing a defender the opportunity to nip in and head the ball behind.
An even better opportunity presented itself on 83 minutes when Dan Jones fizzed a low pass into the box and Muldoon took a tidy first touch to open up the goal, only to drag his left-footed finish across the face and well wide.
Defeat sees Town drop to 15th in the League Two standings.