Southend United supporters have been given a rare dose of excitement after the Shrimpers reached the final of the LDV Vans Trophy. Steven Heath has already booked his ticket
Southend fans leaving Roots Hall after an extraordinary cup success in February may have reflected on the famous quote from John Cleese’s character in the film Clockwise: “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope. That’s what I can’t bear.” After years of largely impotent involvement with their football club, this has come to seem like an apposite motto for the average Shrimpers supporter.
From entering the League in 1920 the team did little and went nowhere. Apart from becoming Fourth Division champions in 1981 we long- suffering fans knew our place and successive teams were happy to oblige and keep us there.
Then, quite suddenly, one sunny afternoon at Gigg Lane in 1991 our world was turned upside down. Ian Benjamin’s goal not only won a game for the Blues but also propelled them into the unknown: the (old) Second Division. Even more incredibly, less than nine months later, 9,458 people saw Kevin Keegan’s New-castle comprehensively drubbed 4-0, so for a few happy hours anyone who cared to tune into a teletext league table could see Southend’s name on top. Of course it didn’t last, dreams hardly ever do. The usual stories of board chicanery (RIP Vic Jobson) and farcically inept management (take a bow, Ronnie Whelan) saw us back in the basement within a decade.
Perhaps the most disastrous legacy of our rise was that it gave us fans, who had once delighted in a 10-1 demolition of Aldershot, delusions of grandeur. So expectations were unrealistically high in August: most of last season’s deadbeats had been given the bum’s rush and a fiery opening display against Cheltenham had this idiot at least opining that the title was as good as ours. Fate knew better, of course, and this has turned out to be probably the most wretched season in Southend’s history. However, for some bizarre reason put the letters LDV in front of a fixture and the strugglers become world-beaters and can’t stop scoring. Two against the Pirates, two against the Swans, three against the Hatters and an incredible four against a QPR team flirting with promotion to the First. And then a southern area final against the Auld Enemy, Colchester United.
This two-legged tie even managed to inspire interest amongst the notoriously apathetic Southend-on-Sea public. Rather than the three men and a dog who had witnessed previous rounds, an almost full house saw the Shrimpers hold Col U 1-1 in the second leg, to win the tie 4-3 on aggregate and thus book a date in Cardiff for the first major cup final in the club’s history. I would have preferred to meet Sheffield Wednesday, but I am sure that the Seaside Final against Blackpool will be a good day out.
Although some may sneer at my enthusiasm for this competition, I should say that many years ago I swore that I would only ever visit Wembley, or its fine Welsh stand-in, if Southend were to play there. This will probably be my only chance to go in this life.
So the hotel in Chepstow is booked and the tickets will be bought. With an initial allocation of 25,000 there will surely be more than enough for those who want them. Sadly, it is unlikely that the town will empty on March 21. So far there is little sign of cup fever in the High Street or on the prom. And I am sure that most of Southend’s football “fans” will be watching “proper” teams, such as Arsenal, Chelsea or West Ham.
Still, I will be there, flying the flag. And, at the moment at least, the result isn’t that important compared to survival in the Football League. And we might just scrape through, although I’m sure the gods have a few more torments up their sleeves for us between now and May 8.
Yet we should look on the bright side – things could be worse. We might be millions of pounds in debt with no assets and our ground could have been sold to property developers. Oh, hang on a minute...
From WSC 206 April 2004. What was happening this month