BY PETER MILES
In his second full season in charge of Southend United, Phil Brown knew he had to deliver promotion. The bulk of last season’s squad was retained and augmented by the arrival of journeyman winger Myles Weston, David Worrall – twice a previous promotion winner – and Gary Deegan, a fearsome midfielder who rapidly gained cult status at Roots Hall. Hugely muscular thighs squeezed into improbably small shorts and a Viking beard meant Deegan would be noticed not only for his tenacious tackling and pin point passing. Worrall was a conundrum. Brown saw fit to leave him on the bench pretty much throughout the first quarter of the season despite some eye catching bursts as a substitute. Once he had gained a berth on the right flank Worrall was mesmeric, speedy and dogged. But why did Brown take so long to see what we all saw?
Goalkeeper Dan Bentley affirmed what we already knew: that we had one of the best young keepers in the country on our books. Firstly, the youngster – once on Arsenal’s books – broke Mervyn Cawston’s 34-year-old clean sheet record for home league matches (10) then the number of unbeaten minutes when he surpassed the figure of 981 minutes from the clubs’ legendary 1980/81 Division Four championship win when Cawston conceded only six goals at home all season. Not content with that, Bentley then set new records for home and away matches as well when a run of eight successive clean sheets bought 725 minutes without conceding a goal of any sort. That was until Morecambe scored in the fourth minute of the last game of the League campaign. Ah Morecambe, a perennial thorn in the side for us. A win against the mid-table Lancastrians would see Southend gloriously take the third automatic promotion place at the expense of Bury and Wycombe. Well that was the plan.
Dan Bentley – a young goalkeeper with huge potential
The stellar run in April that produced 21 points from seven league matches without even conceding a single goal saw the Blues snatch third place from a good Bury side when the match at Gigg Lane was restaged following a previous abandonment. The match was won by a magical free kick from David Worrall, a Bury lad, and against the club that launched his career. It was also his first free kick for Southend. More poignant still was the devastating news that Worrall had been keeping the news of the tragic death of his baby only a couple of weeks previously out of the public domain. A remarkable demonstration of personal courage and fortitude.
So to the Globe Arena and a glorious promotion party on the last day of season. But this, being Southend, was the easy route and obviously we couldn’t possibly do that. In reality Morecambe are a pain in the ass; in our nine previous League meetings we had only mustered one draw and a staggering eight defeats. Chalk up defeat number nine and a silent and endless journey home. The only positive from the day was a magnificent away following of 2,223 for one of those rare occasions when the home supporters are outnumbered by the visiting contingent. It was also fair play to Bury, who had been there or thereabouts all season and are a very decent side under Dave Flitcroft.
Another youth academy product has proven to be a real dilemma for Phil Brown this season. Jack Payne, dubbed “little Messi” by his academy teammates for his one footed quicksilver style, has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign at Roots Hall. Neither a winger or a forward and played in central midfield his diminutive stature has counted against him in the hurly burly of League Two, the youngster is a genuine example of the “fantastista” role. More effective in a 4-4-1-1 playing just behind a central pivot, Payne has lead some League Two defences a merry dance this season and has chipped with a healthy eight goals. The dilemma for Brown in accommodating the exciting youngster leaves Corr up front on his own a role that clearly impacts the Irishman’s proficiency in front of goal. The signing in January of two young forwards on loan, Joe Pigott from Charlton and Jake Cassidy from Wolves, gave Corr the support he craved and the goals began to flow again for the Wicklow man. The mercurial Payne provided several impact performances from the bench. As a tough run in beckoned, Brown was left with a major problem in defence; Adam Thompson, a youngster released by Watford, had exceeded expectation with some manful displays at centre back but was out with a savagely dislocated shoulder and the long serving Luke Prosser also succumbed to injury. Brown pulled off a crowd pleasing re-signing of former captain and double promotion winner Adam Barrett after his release from Gillingham. Now 35 and a Southend fan to boot, you knew he would be giving it everything he had in the final ten matches. Cian Bolger was to be his partner at the back, himself out of the side for a long period due to a penchant for reckless challenges, red cards and fatal errors. Barrett was, as expected, quite magnificent but his impact on his young cohort was wonderfully evident. Gone was the error prone bag of nerves and in came a new mature, still rugged but far more effective defender. During his galvanising spell back in the heart of Southend’s defence, Adam Barrett chalked up his 300th appearance for his hometown club.
Adam Barrett now a three time promotion winner with the club he supports
Graham Westley’s Stevenage were the play off semi final opponents we possibly would have chosen given a free pick despite a 4-2 reversal earlier in the season at their place when Bentley played injudiciously with a known thigh injury. A workmanlike 1-1 draw at the Lamex was largely unremarkable with the notable exception of the horrific clash of heads between Michael Timlin and Bira Dembele. Timlin was left with a nasty jagged cut so deep it was evident the medics could even see his skull. Dembele was concussed and lasted only to half time. Timlin needed 22 stitches and our most influential midfielder would be missing the vital home leg. Or so we thought. Donning a rugby scrum cap that he had bought for a fiver, he gritted his teeth and bossed the second leg. In fairness to Stevenage they took it to extra time but in the additional period they visibly wilted. Southend’s impressive energy and fitness (credit to the appointment of ex-Southend rugby prop Mark Williams as conditioning coach) saw the visitors battered in extra time. Stephen McLaughlin, a Donegal man on loan from Nottingham Forest got on the end of a searching cross from the skipper John White to hand Southend the lead. Right at the death the roof came off of Roots Hall when Timlin, who else, scored a quite superb third. In 39 years of support I scarcely remember such an enormous pop than that afforded to Timlin’s goal, not only because of the unbridled ecstasy of a winning goal but the appreciation of a true and selfless warrior.
Michael Timlin – a true gladiator but worryingly out of contract
So to the play-off final, 20,000 tickets were sold in seven days with much gnashing of teeth over online transaction fees and postal charges. Wembley was cloudy and overcast, but once inside, the Southend faithful struck up a hell of a din. The game was tight with few chances created. One that did come our way – Corr’s towering header in the first half – was chalked off for a minor indiscretion from Bolger as the cross came over. The second half saw Southend on top and a clear penalty was denied when Wycombe’s left back Jacobson pushed Corr to the ground. It truly beggars belief that neither referee nor linesman interpreted the incident as a clear foul in the area. Towards the end of the ninety minutes, Southend yet again had cause to thank young Bentley in goal; a superhuman tip over the bar preventing Aaron Pierre’s goal bound header from sealing the result.
Extra time ensued, and on 95 minutes, Weston’s casualness near his own area prompted Timlin to foul a Wycombe player to prevent further damage. Left back Joe Jacobson’s free kick cleared the wall and thudded against the bar only to ping down onto the back of Bentley, back onto the bar and critically over the line. A heartbreaking way to concede a goal in any game let alone a play-off final.
But then with just twenty seconds of the two added minutes at the end of extra time remaining, one of those moments happened that turn your whole world upside down and even allow a somewhat world weary 46-year-old to go temporarily crazy! Myles Weston created the opening, atoning for his earlier lapse, and completing an end of campaign renaissance for a man I had cruelly, albeit flippantly, dubbed “Weston Super Mare” earlier in the season for his fruitless dribbles and lack lustre performances. The languid Antiguan ghosted past a tiring Marcus Bean and delivered a questioning cross. The ball fell to Joe Pigott, a kid seemingly bereft of confidence since an initial burst of six goals dried up, his left footed swinger guided the ball into the corner of the Wycombe net.
The lottery of penalties panned out gloriously for the men from Essex, Coker initially seeing his kick hit the feet of Lynch, before Bentley again took centre stage saving first from the veteran Matt Bloomfield and then decisively from Sam Wood. John White lifted the somewhat spurious trophy for play off victory and wild celebrations began in earnest.
Team lifting the Play off trophy
Many will point to Brown’s points tally of 84 (our third best in history if you convert pre 1982/3 seasons to three points for a win) being “usually” good enough for automatic promotion. His critics, myself among them, will point to concerns throughout the season. The biggest concern for me was the failure to gain automatic promotion with a squad depth far more evident than at any point in the last nine years when owner Ron Martin and the club’s financial issues manifested in regular and shameful court appearances for unpaid bills. Brown’s predecessor in the role, the eminently likeable Paul Sturrock, would have craved the seasoned professionals left on the sidelines unable to command a place even on the bench. With the club seemingly on a sounder financial footing, note the acquisition of the former David Beckham Academy London Soccerdome (costing £2 million for purchase, transport and re-erection and currently lying in pieces like a complicated jigsaw puzzle at the training ground) Brown has had funds made available to bring in players when has needed them. It might to be Brown’s chagrin that most Southend fans would consider the spine and heartbeat of the team as Corr, Timlin, Luke Prosser and Ryan Leonard all bought to Southend by the genial and underrated Scot. It is a real concern that the club has yet to tie down both Timlin and Corr to new deals. Brown himself has also stalled on his own new deal “it’s in the hands of my lawyer” being his somewhat terse reaction to negotiations.
Putting concerns aside about untimely formation changes and baffling substitutions, Brown has got the promotion the club craved. With an under 21 side in place for next season to bridge the gap between our highly successful and well run academy to the first team, and a “promised” June statement from Ron Martin regarding the much delayed new stadium at Fossetts Farm, the future is beginning to look a little brighter for the Shrimpers. At the risk of damaging my well honed curmudgeonly outlook for all things Southend related, hell, I even enjoyed the open top bus parade for finishing fifth, so typically Brown, down on the seafront. To that end, I’ll raise a glass to a fine and memorable campaign and proffer an unusually open mind to the coming months in League One.