The Iron made it a club record 20 games without defeat despite letting a half-time lead slip against Southend United at Glanford Park.United made the perfect start when the recalled Matt Sparrow blasted them into a third minute lead, and doubled their advantage shortly before the break when Sam Winnall diverted in Gary McSheffrey’s goal-bound free-kick.
However, they were pegged back just after the hour-mark when John Egan produced a goal of the season contender with an outstanding volley from 35 yards.
That goal shook the Iron, and the Southend comeback was complete seven minutes later when John White notched his first career goal with a miscued cross.
Despite the disappointment, United’s unbeaten sequence now betters the one set by Nigel Adkins’ side during the 2006/2007 season – a campaign which culminated with the Iron being crowned as League One champions.
It also sees them remain within a point of league leaders Chesterfield, after the Spireites were held away to AFC Wimbledon.
United manager Russ Wilcox made three changes from the side held to a 1-1 draw by 10-man Northampton Town on Saturday, as McSheffrey, Sparrow and Terry Hawkridge returned to the starting line-up.
They took the places of Andy Dawson, Sean McAllister and Hakeeb Adelakun respectively, with McAllister missing out through injury. The absence of the 26-year-old midfielder from the squad did free up a space on the bench however, with former Iron loanee James Alabi stepping into the void having completed a temporary switch back to Glanford Park earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, Southend boss Phil Brown opted for two alterations from the line-up which began the Shrimpers’ 2-1 weekend defeat away to Morecambe. Those switches saw recalls for Conor Clifford and Marc Laird in place of Anthony Straker and Michael Timlin, as the Roots Hall outfit reverted to a 4-5-1 set-up.
The match began in a fragmented fashion, with three free-kicks split between the two sides within the opening 90 seconds. However, barely seconds later United went in front when Sparrow pounced on a loose ball inside the area and emphatically fired home.
Having cleared their lines from a Southend set-piece, the Iron broke down the right with Madden, who pulled back across goal to Winnall. The striker was unable to manoeuvre the space to create a shooting opportunity for himself, but unselfishly laid into the path of the Iron favourite who lashed past Shrimpers goalkeeper Daniel Bentley with just three minutes gone.
That goal represented the perfect start for United, and instantly settled both the team and the home fans; allowing the Iron to express themselves confidently during the early stages. Such confidence almost led to United doubling their advantage just four minutes later, but a deflected Dave Syers drive from Hawkridge’s free-kick was denied by the combination of the crossbar and the linesman flagging for offside.
The away side then began to steadily feel their way into the contest, and around the 15-minute mark dogged play in midfield saw them slowly claw their way up the pitch without posing any real danger to the Iron defence.
Instead it was the hosts who continued to look most likely to extend their lead, with the energy of Madden in attack causing genuine concern for the visiting defence. It was to be a combination of the Irishman and strike-partner Sam Winnall which pressurised goalkeeper Bentley into unconvincingly punching away a cross from the left in the 18th minute, but the onrushing Syers was just unable to connect with the bouncing ball – allowing Southend to clear.
Four minutes later it was Southend’s turn to threaten when a quickly taken free-kick presented former Iron Kevan Hurst with the opportunity to shoot from distance. The 28-year-old stung Sam Slocombe’s palms with the element of surprise, but the United captain reacted well to claim the ball at the second time of asking.
United responded, and only a stunning 24th minute stop from Bentley stopped the home side from extending their lead. Hawkridge moved into space down the right flank before swinging across an inch-perfect ball onto the head of Winnall; the Iron’s leading marksman doing everything right only to see Bentley sprawl low to his left to tip the goal-bound effort around the post.
The game had an increasingly feisty edge to it as it moved past the half-hour mark, and a full-blooded challenge by Ben Coker on Hawkridge was met with fury by the majority in the stands. However, referee Mark Brown took his time over the decision, before issuing Coker with both a booking and a stern warning.
Unsurprisingly, given the number of fouls awarded throughout an ill-tempered opening period, it would be from a free-kick that United did finally extend their lead 8 minutes before the interval. A left-footed set-piece swung in from midway inside the Southend half by Gary McSheffrey was left to carry on its natural course before bouncing past a watching Bentley, with Winnall deemed to have got the faintest touch on the ball to register his 19th strike of the campaign.
The Iron then displayed a self-belief fostered by their impressive unbeaten run by successfully managing the remaining minutes of the half with minimal drama, as David Mirfin led by example to thwart Southend’s attempts to reduce the deficit; allowing United to take their two-goal advantage into the interval.
After a steady beginning to the resumption of play, it was the away side who forged a way forward first when neat interplay between skipper White and Hurst almost saw the pair move behind the Iron backline in the 51st minute. However, United reacted well to regroup and force the Shrimpers away from goal.
It was the visitors on the attack again four minutes later, and Matt Sparrow became the first Iron player to enter the book for bringing down Ryan Leonard as he charged through midfield. From Coker’s resultant free-kick, the physical Barry Corr caused sufficient problems to earn his side a corner but the subsequent flag-kick was collected with ease by Slocombe.
That prompted Southend manager Brown to make his first change of the evening as he introduced Straker in place of Atkinson on 57 minutes, with the Shrimpers having enjoyed the better of the exchanges at the start of the second period. Next to enter the fray was Freddy Eastwood five minutes later in place of Corr, with the away side looking to take advantage of their positive start.
They were to do just that on 62 minutes, but the goal owed little to tactical alterations and everything to a piece of individual brilliance. There appeared to be little obvious danger with the ball bouncing around in midfield, but centre-back Egan had other ideas; running onto the ball before striking a stunning effort on the volley from all of 35-yards over Slocombe and into the net to give his side a way back into the contest.
Although the nature of the goal was out of the blue, it had been coming, and Iron boss Wilcox responded by calling upon substitute Adelakun to replace Hawkridge on 66 minutes – with the pace of the youngster set to test the cautioned Coker down the right.
That change would come too late to prevent Southend levelling things within four minutes however, and once again the goal came from nothing. This time it was White who cantered down the right-wing before swinging a ball into the area, only to see his delivery evade the grasp of Slocombe as it somehow found the top-corner to cancel out United’s first half work.
Understandably, United seemed rattled by conceding two goals so unexpectedly within a matter of minutes, and were struggling to retain possession against a now buoyant Shrimpers outfit. In an attempt to regain control of proceedings, Wilcox made his second change with 15 minutes left to play by introducing Alabi in place of Winnall.
United appeared determined to rebuild their lead, but such positivity was leaving them open to the prospect of the counter-attack – making for a finely poised ending to the game. With 12 minutes remaining a McSheffrey corner found the head of Mirfin, but the centre-back was only able to nod down into the path of Bentley who stooped low to gather.
The match then entered a relative lull briefly following the drama of the previous half an hour, with Southend rolling the dice for the final time by bringing on Timlin to replace Clifford for the remaining 9 minutes.
The away side continued to look dangerous, but found themselves denied from going in front by some resilient Iron defending as they pushed for what was once an improbable winner.
It was the visitors who now seemed most likely to steal all three points, and with three minutes remaining tested United’s resolve once more as they bombarded their penalty-area with a succession of corner’s and throw-in’s. Once again, the hosts stood firm, doing just enough to remain level.
As the game moved into four minutes of additional time, the Iron had ambitious calls for a late penalty turned down when McSheffrey’s cross struck a back-tracking Southend defender in the area after composed work from Adelakun on the right.
Barely moments later they had a second claim; this time Adelakun weaving his way into the box before firing against his man leading to further calls for a penalty. Once again, referee Brown waved away their claims, and with that effectively ended United’s bid of taking all three points – blowing for full-time shortly after.
The result sees the Iron remain behind two points clear of fourth-placed Burton Albion with just ten games of the regular season now remaining as they look to secure a return to League One at the first time of asking.
Next up for United as they continue that bid is an arduous 600-mile round-trip to face play-off hopefuls Plymouth Argyle at Home Park on Saturday – a team which the Iron defeated 1-0 at Glanford Park back in September.
Scunthorpe United: Slocombe (capt.); Williams, Mirfin, Canavan, Nolan; McSheffrey, Sparrow, Syers, Hawkridge (Adelakun, 66); Madden, Winnall (Alabi, 75).
Substitutes not used: Severn, Ribeiro, Dawson, Waterfall, Hayes.
Southend United: Bentley; Coker, Egan, Phillips, White (capt.); Hurst, Clifford (Timlin, 81), Laird, Leonard, Atkinson (Straker, 57); Corr (Eastwood, 61).
Substitutes not used: Smith, Payne, Sokolik, Barnard.
Referee: Mark Brown (East Yorkshire)
Attendance: 3018 (157 away).