Roots Hall celebrates greatest night for years – Southend 2-2 Orient

21 Feb

SIX years of pent-up frustration, heartache and woe was released into the night sky as Southend’s fans spilled onto the pitch to celebrate victory over rivals Orient and a place at Wembley for the first time in 83 years.
Every club, apart from a select few of course, has had its hard-luck stories over the years and the likes of Stockport, Wimbledon, Luton and Chester can probably look down their noses at Blues fans in this respect. I don’t want to come over all “woe is me” here – Liverpool fans do enough of that for all of us – but there can’t be too many more who have suffered so much pain in such a short time. Relegation from the Championship was followed by the horrendous penniless slide down the League One trapdoor three years later. Club legend Steve Tilson’s sacking, the constant broken promises over a new stadium, seemingly endless winding up orders and late payment to staff and players as cash flow issues threatened to kill the club altogether. Then, Paul Sturrock’s reign and stability on the pitch followed by more heartache last year as Southend missed out on a trip to Anfield, then automatic promotion despite racking up 84 points (a total that will almost certainly win it this year) as Crawley and Swindon bought promotion, and more despair after losing in the play-offs against Crewe. And, a couple of months ago, missing out on another plum cup tie after being deservedly beaten by Brentford.
But if Sturrock has been accused of building a team of nearly men, they shrugged off that tag with heart and spirit against Orient. But it didn’t look promising early on as a patched up side of loanees, half-fit defenders and the odd first-teamers held on to their slender first-leg advantage for just eight minutes before Dean Cox’s cross was flicked on by David Mooney into the path of Shaun Batt, who guided the ball past Smith with a finish eerily similar to the one Ryan Leonard had conjured up for Southend two weeks previously. The visitors’ impressive 2,300 following went suitably potty and the rest of the 9,400 in attendance slumped in their seats, no doubt thinking “here we go again”.
Sturrock had set out with a 4-4-1-1, Ben Reeves sitting between the midfield and Britt Assombalonga, but it was clear after half an hour the approach was failing and the manager was brave enough to withdraw Alex Woodyard for Barry Corr to try and get the ball to stick in attack.
Blues created little in the opening half, but did have a chance when Assombalonga set Reeves on his way, but the loanee opted to shoot low from 20 yards rather than slip in Ryan Leonard who was better placed to his left, resulting in a comfortable save from Jamie Jones.
Orient looked comfortable and Shaun Batt was causing problems with his pace, but the return of Phillips and Barker lent a calmness to the back line that has been missing of late, and there were few other chances for the O’s, although David Mooney did send an effort onto the roof of the net.
Southend’s first half goal drought at Roots Hall also showed no sign of ending though, and at half time there was little to cheer for the home fans, who headed to the hopelessly inadequate facilities more used to dealing with crowds of 5,500 in the forlorn hope of getting a beer or a pie.
As in the first match at Brisbane Road, the opening 15 minutes of the second half was Southend’s best spell of the game. When Assombalonga was crudely scythed down by Mattieu Baudry down the left hand channel, it gave the cultured right foot of Kevan Hurst the opportunity to add to his 16 assists this season. As the ball was floated into the far post, Assombalonga got enough on the ball to knock it down to Barry Corr, who thumped a half-volley into the South Stand net off the underside of the bar. Wild celebrations followed, but with 61 minutes on the clock, there was still plenty of time to go.
Assombalonga could have given Blues a cushion from a Clohessy cross just a minute later, but his header was straight at Jones and he took a knock to the head in the process. As play swung to the other end, Shaun Batt forced a save out of Paul Smith from a tight angle.
And then came the panic. For no apparent reason, Blues committed footballing suicide by dropping deep and allowing the visitors to attack. Roots Hall got nervous very quickly, and Lee Cook began to orchestrate proceedings in midfield. The tie-equalling goal came on 72 minutes when a sloppy ball from Ben Reeves caught Sean Clohessy, already heading up the pitch on the charge, out of position. The cross from the left from Leon McSweeney found Mooney unmarked eight-yards from goal, and Paul Smith could not keep out his firm header.
Dean Cox’s fine low cross between back four and Smith was then toed goalwards by Batt, but the Millwall loanee could only watch on as his effort bounced off the top of the crossbar and into the great unwashed behind the goal.
It was probably the visitors’ big chance as they enjoyed possession around Southend’s box but were restricted to long range efforts. As both sets of players tired, penalties looked inevitable as the clock ticked down to the 90th minute. I don’t think too many in the ground had the stomach for that, so it was a good job what happened next, did.
Kevan Hurst bamboozled Baudry on the left flank before showing the presence of mind to look up and square the ball back to the penalty spot where Ben Reeves was waiting. Despite a lunging challenge from an Orient defender, Reeves got there first and, with a bizarre combination of both feet, guided the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
It all went a bit silly. The stadium literally shook with unbridled joy as the 7,000 home fans celebrated wildly. There were limbs everywhere. I personally ended up about five seats along from where I had been sitting. The board had displayed four minutes, but few had seen that as it was being displayed at the very moment the ball fell to Reeves.
Unfortunately, one fan who had perhaps had too much excitement or alcohol, or perhaps he was just a total idiot, decided to run onto the pitch and disrupt the game just as we needed to see it out. As he was escorted away, the entire ground was united in the chant of “wanker” which seemed a surprise to the miscreant, who clearly thought he would be hailed as some sort of hero. Thick as pigshit as well as excitable, then.
As a result, ref Andy Woolmer added an unbearable amount of stoppage time where Orient launched the ball forward in desperation resulting in some important interventions. After five unbearable minutes, Woolmer blew for full time and the fans spilled onto the pitch in celebration.
The party continued long into the night in the Spread and the Railway. Personally, with all the nerves, stress and excitement going back at least three days, I stayed for a glass of water and left, having to drive home to Chelmsford. Some certain other friends of this fanzine had other ideas and were happily dancing on tables and imbibing dubiously coloured spirits long into the night. The next day at work may have been a struggle for them.
But who cares. Southend United will finally be playing in a Wembley final for the first time, having missed out three times in recent years (Anglo Italian cup in the 90s, Brentford in the LDV 2001 and last year’s play-off semi). It will be an historic moment for us all and it will be nice to have the town behind its football club once again. Tinged with sadness for those who cannot be there, loyal Shrimpers like Graham Jolley, Malcolm ‘Harry’ Roberts and Martin Cranmer, all of who passed away recently and would have surely given so much to see their team at the famous stadium.
Come April 7th, about 30,000 of us will be walking down Wembley way, blue as far as the eye can see, flags waving, before watching our team come out for a national final which we have every chance of winning, despite being underdogs again. What an achievement by Paul Sturrock and his team of patched-up battlers. Savour it, as these days do not come along often.


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