Southend have been on the up under Steve Tilson and hope to abandon their Roots in search of more success. But the visitors for this pseudo-derby also have a manager anxious to make an impression, Csaba Abrahall reports
In The Football Grounds of Great Britain, Simon Inglis paints a romantic picture of the rebirth of Roots Hall as a football stadium in the 1950s. With funding provided by the supporters’ club and labour by the players and manager, it rose out of the rubbish dump that sat on the site previously used by the club before the First World War. Fifty years on, it is not without its shortcomings. Parking’s a bugger and it has a shabby, disjointed exterior, but it’s easy to overlook these inadequacies in the light of such an uncommon history.
But it’s a history that’s set to be left behind. A planning application for a £25 million, 22,000-seat stadium with leisure and retail add-ons was submitted in October. Southend expect to leave Roots Hall for a site at Fossetts Farm, north of town, by 2008.
While it is a proposal not lacking support, opposition does exist. Given that the current capacity has so far proved sufficient in the club’s first season in the second tier since 1997, there is a fear that the majority of seats will be empty most of the time. There are plenty of examples proving the “If you build it, they will come” theory elsewhere but, in an area where many traditionally prefer to head off to West Ham, it’s a genuine concern not addressed in the one-sided discussion on the club’s website. Instead, worried visitors to the site are reassured that, yes, there will indeed be opening and closing ceremonies.
As I take my seat for today’s visit of Ipswich, it is clear that, behind its unpromising façade, Roots Hall is a perfectly functional and attractive ground. For 30 years up to 1988 the League’s most recently built venue, it is much tidier inside than out, its four compact stands blending satisfyingly.
But, as Fossetts Farm objectors point out, a stadium always looks at its best when full, as it is today. Many casual fans have apparently fallen for the fixture’s dubious claims to be a derby. Separated by 50 miles and contrasting histories, there is insufficient familiarity between Southend and Ipswich to provoke serious rivalry.
Ipswich are struggling to recover from the financial catastrophe brought about by their time in the Premiership. Southend, after a desperate period in the basement division that saw them get through five managers in 2003, are on the up under Steve Tilson, who has since won two promotions. Tilson is now linked with any reasonable vacancy that arises and was high on Ipswich’s wish list in the summer. His board has so far refused to countenance his departure, while a number of other chairmen seek to emulate their success by appointing their own young, inexperienced managers. Jim Magilton, Ipswich’s example of the type, may have cause to thank Tilson for helping him get the job.
In with the home support in the West Stand, I have a couple of pillars in my eyeline but a clear enough view of the game’s first talking point, when striker Matt Harrold follows through on Ipswich keeper Lewis Price in the opening minute. Price goes down and – a week after the Petr Cech and Carlo Cudicini incidents at Reading – he receives no sympathy from the crowd. He limps on for a few minutes but a cracked rib forces him to call it a day. Soon he’s sharing the magic sponge with the hamstrung Jon Macken.
The enforced changes actually leave Ipswich with the line-up that many of their fans would have selected to start. Price has conceded eight goals in a week; Macken is a game but non-scoring, and therefore fairly pointless, striker on loan from Palace. Their replacements are youthful but reasonably established. Shane Supple has been first choice in goal for much of the year and Billy Clarke is currently the cause of some excitement, boasting a comic-book name and a season to match, having already scored two late winners after coming off the bench.
Southend’s own Roy of the Rovers is, of course, Freddy Eastwood. Despite his annual salary of £100,000, he is keen to maintain his Romany lifestyle, but faces eviction from his mobile home after neglecting to seek planning permission for it. The Ipswich fans sing “Where’s your caravan?” and it could almost be deemed a genuine question. The affair can only have increased his celebrity and impartial observers might struggle to pick out any other Southend players. So, it appears, might Eastwood’s colleagues. Every pass forward seeks him out and, though he makes a valiant attempt, there is a limit to what he can do on his own. Harrold is a peripheral figure – perhaps unsettled by the visiting support’s rather harsh cries of “Wanker!” that now follow him everywhere – and Mark Gower’s and Simon Francis’s delivery from the flanks is woeful. As a result Southend fail to capitalise on ample possession.
Rain begins to lash down. That the game is poor should not come as a surprise. Ipswich have suffered a second run of three straight defeats to send them plummeting down the table towards their hosts. Southend are without a league win since victory over Sunderland here two months ago forced Niall Quinn to patch things up with Roy Keane. Confidence is low all round.
The visitors eventually start to pass the ball with some purpose and mark their improvement with the opening goal. Jaime Peters, a winger brimming with unfulfilled promise, escapes Steven Hammell and floats in a cross that Clarke, squeezing his slight frame in between two defenders, heads back across goal and into the corner. As the Ipswich fans note, it is “1-0 to the Tractor Boys!”, a chant that, used as a riposte to the agriculture-themed heckles of fans of big-city clubs, was once clever and ironic. Now, used indiscriminately, it isn’t.
With the half almost up, Eastwood bursts clear of the characteristically absent Ipswich back line only to drive the ball firmly into the advertising hoardings – a “diabolical” miss, as my neighbour observes. Even so, it stirs the hitherto subdued crowd, Southend maintain the pressure and Ipswich are thankful for the half-time whistle.
The fans are still shaking their heads over Eastwood’s aberration when Southend return to the field a couple of minutes early. If it’s a plan to concentrate their minds and end their recent habit of conceding straight after the interval, it’s one in need of reassessment, as Ipswich treble their advantage within five minutes. First, Sylvain Legwinski – who you think may not fancy this kind of game but is in fact an imperious presence in midfield – is left alone on the edge of the area to size up a dropping ball and volley it low into the bottom corner. Then Francis shirks a challenge in the opposition penalty area, Ipswich break quickly and Alan Lee has all afternoon to dispatch the ball between Darryl Flahavan’s legs.
Southend look set for a pasting. They are a shambles, their choice of flash silver shirt numbers looking like an act of misplaced hubris of which an England team would be proud. Roots Hall wallows in despondency. Eastwood – who, it turns out, is unwell – goes off to profound indifference in a reshuffle that baffles the increasingly angry crowd. But Tilson’s reorganisation has an immediate effect. Southend put in their best five minutes of the game and Francis – just moved up front to much derision – twists and turns before hitting a shot that wrong-foots Supple and finds its way in.
With 25 minutes left Ipswich, traumatised by the memory of chucking away a 2‑0 lead against Preston in midweek, lose all composure. Had Peter Clarke’s free header gone in rather than hit the inside of the post, Southend could reasonably have expected to retrieve a point. As it is, Supple dives on the loose ball, Southend give a collective defeatist shrug and Ipswich see out the game comfortably, though somehow finding enough life left in it to rack up six bookings.
So Ipswich triumph in the ersatz derby and Magilton, with clearly superior tools at his disposal, prevails over Tilson. But it has been a contest defined as much by mistakes as invention. Southend’s effort is declared, damningly, to be “like watching Leyton Orient” and they will certainly need to be much better to escape the relegation zone.
The realisation that I’m leaving Roots Hall for possibly the final time is the cause of some regret. I first came here as an Ipswich fan in 1992, when our last-minute winner continued a run of good form that was to lead to promotion and provoked a pitch invasion in which Southend fans took part happily. It was a joyous day, unambiguous confirmation that this was how I should spend my Saturday afternoons – a defining moment in my life as a football fan. For the Southend supporters, the usual emotional attachment to their home must be enhanced by the special way in which it came into being, and the sense of loss at leaving Roots Hall would, I imagine, be far greater. But the club suggest the Fossetts Farm development would immediately double their turnover and realistically it is a move that must be made.
With the current period of success drawing them here in ever-increasing numbers, Southend’s fans are, in a way, paying for the new stadium, just as they funded Roots Hall half a century ago. If Eastwood and Tilson could be persuaded to put on the hard hats and start laying some bricks, perhaps Fossetts Farm would soon feel like home.
From WSC 238 December 2006. What was happening this month