FA Cup memories: Blues put Lions’ light out
Southend had gone into the hat with the big boys for the third round draw for the second year in succession, having won at Morecambe (the only time ever) in the first round and at Chesterfield in the second. Naturally, seeing the likes of Spurs, west ham, Man Utd and Arsenal represented in the velvet bag, the draw against Championship strugglers Millwall was a little disappointing at first, but this was soon forgotten and there was enough intrigue about the fixture for anticipation to build ahead of kick off.
The AAS boys had pushed the boat out for this one, taking advantage of reduced prices to book an Executive Box for this one, enjoying the somewhat rustic charms of Southend United’s corporate hospitality. Just down the corridor, TV chef Greg Wallace, a Millwall fan, had decided to eschew the delights of the North Bank on a cold January afternoon, and what was to follow would surely give him food for thought.
The Lions had sacked manager Steve Lomas on Boxing Day and were on a run of five matches without a win as they headed to Roots Hall on 4 January. Neil Harris, who had left Southend the previous summer, had taken temporary charge alongside Scott Fitzgerald but there had been no immediate bounceback – their first game of 2014 had ended with a 3-1 home defeat to Leicester City on New Year’s Day – and festive spirit was in short supply in Bermondsey.
Indeed the Millwall supporters as always travelled to Roots Hall in decent numbers but they were not their usual boisterous selves and it was the Southend fans in the bigger than usual 7,923 crowd that sensed an upset and were making the noise as the game got underway on an overcast afternoon.
The visitors’ line-up featured Southend’s pantomime villain of the decade, Nicky Bailey, whose every touch was booed by the home supporters. The midfielder had been a fans favourite among the Shrimpers faithful until his infamous forcing of a transfer in 2008, but it was the Southend midfield trio of Atkinson, Leonard, and Peckham-born Timlin who stole the show and completely dominated the game.
The game was 21 minutes old when John White received the ball on the right and put in a deep cross for Barry Corr to rise and flick the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of David Forde’s net, right in front of the visiting supporters.
It was a deserved lead but within a few minutes, the Shrimpers’ tempo was disrupted when the lights went out and the floodlights failed. Around 20 nervous minutes went by, with supporters in the North West corner shining their phone torches onto the pitch to bring some comic relief to the situation.
When the lights came back on, things didn’t improve for the South Londoners. With the first half drawing to a close, striker Jermaine Easter jumped two footed onto Ben Coker’s back as the full-back slid to put a ball out for a throw in deep inside his own half. There’s something about these incidents which make a touchline lunge more likely to draw the referee towards his back pocket and so it proved, the Lions were a goal down and a man down heading into the break.
Or so they thought. But Southend fans, already boisterous and smelling blood, were in raptures in stoppage-time as Atkinson intercepted a wayward Bailey header deep inside Southend terrority and continued his run. Some delightful one-touch play between Corr and Timlin then released Atkinson beyond a static defence and he finished with a delightful dink over Forde before wheeling away for a knee slide celebration in the north-west corner.
The rain started to lash down, the visitors now had a mountain to climb and Holloway’s men did not have the stomach for the fight – a cardinal sin in the eyes of Millwall supporters. On 57 minutes, Michael Timlin banished any niggling doubts about Southend’s ability to see the game out by smashing in from just inside a now sodden penalty area after Ben Coker’s cross had been half-cleared into his path.
The cliché about the type of supporter that generally frequents executive boxes meanwhile was ringing true. While our group had greeted every goal by jumping around, hugging each other and accidentally punching the very low roof, the people in the box to our left (we were the closest to the away fans) looked at us like you would expect someone to look at a two-headed rhinoceros walking down Southend High Street in a suit and tie.
Southend did take their eye off the ball halfway through the second half and Martyn Woolford’s volleyed finish reminded us we were up against Championship opposition, but there was no rally from the tamed Lions and indeed Ryan Leonard added a fourth in added time, steering a curling shot home after collecting Barry Corr’s clever pass and bursting past the one-paced Danny Shittu.
One thing I noticed when reading back about this game was the continuity in the Southend side. Of the side that started that afternoon’s match, four are still at the club almost four years later which is rare in these times of two-year contracts and managerial upheaval. Only two of that XI failed to play more than 100 games for Southend. You can say what you like about Phil Brown, but he offers nothing if not a settled side.
Southend were drawn at home again in the fourth round against Premier League Hull, which created plenty of headlines as Phil Brown went toe-to-toe with the club he manager a few years previously. However, there was to be no repeat performance, as two well-taken goals from Matty Fryatt saw off the Shrimpers and ended our interest in the competition. Since then, there have been first-round exits against Chester, Scunthorpe and Millwall, who took their revenge last season.
That first Millwall match though will live long in the memory and after the hospitality of the executive box gave way to the more earthy conviviality of the Spread, there was a happy evening ahead for the Shrimpers fans. With a mid-table League One season looking likely, what we wouldn’t give now for some long overdue cup tonic.