Mark Carrington scored twice as MK Dons revived their League 1 play-off hopes with an ultimately comfortable win over Southend at stadiummk.
The talented young midfielder, brought into the side for the suspended Stephen Gleeson, firmly staked his claim for a regular place with two well-taken goals in a solid performance from Paul Ince's side. On-loan Tottenham winger Andros Townsend slammed home a third for good measure, before substitute Matt Paterson bagged a late consolation for the visitors.
It was an excellent response from Ince's eighth-placed team following last week's 5-0 defeat at Carlisle, and one that allowed them to make some ground on that crucial fourth play-off spot. They now host seventh-placed Millwall on Tuesday in a massive game for both sides in their respective pursuits of Huddersfield in sixth. A win would put the Dons right back in the mix, while defeat would leave them potentially eight points adrift.
The need for a win was obvious before kick-off, Ince insisting nothing else would do in his pre-match comments, and the Dons boss was boosted by the return of David McCracken and Danny Woodards to his defence.
Dean Lewington headed a Peter Leven free-kick straight at Steve Mildenhall in a lively opening, but the Dons were thankful to their own goalkeeper on 14 minutes - Willy Gueret saving marvellously from Scott Vernon at point-blank range in the box. It was the first in a serious of poor misses from Vernon, two of which were followed almost immediately by Dons goals - Carrington delivering the first on 18 minutes.
Lewington's pass for the returning Jermaine Easter looked to have taken the Dons marksman too wide for him to threaten the goal, but he showed great poise to hold off Pat Baldwin before feeding the arriving Carrington to slot past Mildenhall.
Southend, to their credit, responded with vigour - primarily through the right foot of full-back Simon Francis, who smacked the upright with a terrific free-kick and only just failed to find the diving head of Jean-Francois Christophe with a deadly cross. Luke Chadwick threatened to extend the Dons' lead with a well-guided shot that Jean-Yves Mvoto jabbed just round the post. But five minutes before the break, Vernon was again denied by Gueret after he'd seized on a Francis Laurent touch that deceived McCracken inside the box.
It was an even battle in the first period, but once the Dons took control of the midfield area - Leven back to his energetic best in the heart of it - Southend never looked likely to get back into the game. Carrington bagged the all-important second just four minutes after the interval, collecting a pass from Lewington after good work between him and Townsend to rifle home from 14 yards. Easter claimed the slightest of touches but nobody was taking it away from Carrington, who celebrated his third goal against the Shrimpers in two games against them.
The cushion allowed Ince to remove McCracken, playing his first game since Stockport two weeks ago, but it did little to disturb the home side's rhythm. Mark Carrington celebrates his second goal.
Townsend and Easter all worried Mildenhall before the highly-rated Southend 'keeper produced a wonderful save to deny James Tunnicliffe. The home debutant, on loan from Brighton, thought he'd capped it with a goal when he got on the end of the latest in a string of brilliant Leven deliveries, but watched in disbelief as his effort was clawed out of the corner.
Damian Scannell fired over after a dangerous run in a rare Southend attack before Vernon's nightmare continued - the former Colchester front-man fluffing his lines from barely four yards as Scannell centred from the right. As with the first goal, the error was compounded within seconds as Easter escaped in behind Baldwin, forced a stretching save from Mildenhall and Townsend swept home the rebound.
Andros Townsend slams home the third late on. &nbsp; Paterson's consolation, snatched after both Tunnicliffe and substitute Luke Howell had failed to clear a ball in the Dons box, visibly annoyed Ince as he hurled his water bottle into the dugout. But ultimately, the response he'd demanded from his players had been delievered.
MK Dons (4-4-2): Gueret; Woodards (Howell 80), Tunnicliffe, McCracken (Stirling 66), Lewington (c); Townsend, Carrington, Leven, Chadwick; Easter (Gobern 83), Wilbraham.
Subs not used: Davis, Morgan, Randall, Flanagan.
Goals: Carrington 18, 49; Townsend 80
Southend United (4-4-2): Mildenhall; Francis, Mvoto, Baldwin, Barrett (c); Scannell, Christophe (Moussa 82), McCormack, Watt (Freedman 82); Vernon, Laurent (Paterson 71).
Subs not used: Jack, Malone, Sankofa, Spencer. Goals: Paterson 89 Booked: McCormack, Christophe
Attendance: 9,801 (594 away)
Referee: Lee Mason (Lancashire)