Southend United playing in a cup final at the iconic home of football always seemed destined to elude the faithful bunch of supporters that have followed the Shrimpers through some very hard times. Even near misses have been somewhat reluctant to head our way since the F.A. introduced an ever changing plethora of minor competitions designed to give its “associate” members a chance to shine, albeit for just one day. A penalty shoot out loss to Notts County in the erstwhile Anglo-Italian Cup in 1993/94 and an LDV area final loss to Brentford in 2000/01 saw the Shrimpers looking on like a kid locked out of a toy shop at Christmas.
Even a spell of sustained success under former player Steve Tilson which saw the club reach two LDV Finals and a League Two play-off Final in an exciting 14 month period saw each occasion savoured, but inevitably diluted by the fact each was held 200 miles away in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.
So would Southend ever get to enjoy a day in the sun at Wembley Stadium? It was looking as far away as ever as the club slipped from one financial crisis to another, transfer embargos, players not getting paid, winding up orders and the very real spectre of administration have dogged recent campaigns. Step forward Paul Sturrock, softly spoken genial Scotsman and the latest man charged with moulding a rag-tag bunch of footballing journeymen and hopeful youngsters into something resembling a football team. The season was unfolding into another campaign of abject disappointment with woeful home form dogging the team from the opening day. However, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was proving a welcome distraction. The early rounds saw AFC Wimbledon, Dagenham and Redbridge and even League One promotion chasers Brentford were comfortably dispatched at Roots Hall. We were then handed an away tie in the semi-final against Oxford United. A 3-3 draw saw the tie go to a penalty shoot out. Sturrock pulled out his trump card a substituted experienced goalkeeper Paul Smith for youngster Daniel Bentley, a stunt that had come off against Bury in the FA Cup a month previously. Again the rookie made the vital save to see the Blues through to the Area Final.
Old adversaries Leyton Orient, of League One, stood in the way of a grand day out for the club and some welcome revenue for the scarily empty club coffers. On a muddy pitch at Brisbane Road, an opportunist goal from Ryan Leonard gave us a slender lead for the home leg. A tense battle looked heading towards the East Londoners when Ben Reeves, a youngster on loan from Southampton, scuffed the ball into the net as injury time commenced. Dramatically and unbelievably the die had been cast and our day had come, Wembley beckoned.
Estimating how many tickets a club averaging gates under 5,000 for the season would or could sell were reduced to plucking numbers from the air. When the first day of sale came though, people came in their droves. Queues redolent of communist era shortages at Moscow’s GUMM stores snaked around the car park and lasted all day. And the day after, and the day after that. It was clear Southend was gearing up for its biggest day out ever. 16,000 were sold before they went on general sale and ended up exceeding the 31,033 tickets sold for the club’s largest ever attendance against then European Champions Liverpool some 34 years previously.
In the run up to the Final, Sturrock had the rug pulled from under him, divested of his opportunity to walk out with his team at Wembley. Dismissed and replaced by Phil Brown, the gentlemanly Scot magnanimously turning down the chairman’s limp olive branch offer of a pseudo mascot role at Wembley.
So the big day finally arrived, coaches, trains and cars headed to North London outnumbering the opposition supporters by more than three to one. Crewe would be stern opposition, they, after all, ended our play-off hopes in clinical fashion the previous season and were acquitting themselves pretty well in the third tier.
Team selection was a hot topic, errant tour-de-force Bilel Mohsni was placed in an unfamiliar centre midfield role. Injured skipper Chris Barker was returned to the side after weeks out. Mark Phillips, battle worn infantryman that had selflessly subjected himself to eight pain killing injections to get us through the Area Final was dumped into a non-laying substitute role. Worse still Ryan Leonard, a hard working unsung hero who had scored the vital Area Final goal, was sat in the stands looking forlornly on. Our recent poor run of form and inevitable nerves manifested as early as the sixth minute. Crewe’s training ground corner was lashed into the net by Luke Murphy and we already had a mountain to climb. Impressive youngster Max Clayton doubled the advantage just after the break and the game was effectively over. A bold double substitution briefly rekindled the dying flame but ultimately it was not to be. In truth Crewe were worthy winners on the day.
My memories of the day are numerous and will remain with me always. Looking back from Bobby Moore’s statue, himself with Southend connections, and seeing a tidal wave of blue humanity coursing down from WembleyPark station was emotive enough in itself. A cornucopia of former players turning up on their own volition with their own tickets was heart warming. Hearing that long term supporters had taken photos of their fathers in their pockets to share the day with them was somehow emblematic of the extended family that is our core support. Furthermore seeing people I had not seen for years and remembering those that had longed for this day to happen but had passed away before a dream had become real were part of a truly memorable occasion. No trophy but plentiful memories that will abide with me.
Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final
Sunday April 7th 2013 – Wembley Stadium
Crewe Alexandra (1) 2 (Murphy 6, Clayton 49)
Southend United (0)0
1. Steve Phillips; 2.Matt Tootle; 3.Harry Davis; 5.Mark Ellis; 14.Kelvin Mellor; 8. Luke Murphy ©; 19. Abdul Osman; 26. Chuks Aneke; 31. Bradden Inman; 7.Max Clayton; 11.Byron Moore.
Subs: 10. A.J. Leitch-Smith (for 7, 83 mins); 12. Oliver Turton; 13. Alan Martin 17. George Ray (for 26, 90 mins); 27. Ryan Colclough (for 31, 69 mins).
1. Paul Smith; 2.Sean Clohessy; 23. Chris Barker; 6. Ryan Cresswell; 16. Luke Prosser; 14. Kevan Hurst; 28. Bilel Mohsni; 29. Tamika Mkandawire; 3. Anthony Straker; 20. Britt Assombalonga; 21. Gavin Tomlin.
Subs: 7. Freddy Eastwood (for 29, 77 mins); 10. Barry Corr (for 23, 57 mins); 15. Mark Phillips; 17. Daniel Bentley; 27. Ben Reeves (for 28, 57 mins).
Yellow Cards: Osman, Clayton (Crewe), Barker, Hurst (Southend).