Saturday, February 06, 2016

Living for the Weekend: Southend United

Matchday tickets for Southend United. I arrived too late for a programme though.
I wouldn’t call myself a regular at Leyton Orient's Brisbane Road, but I have now been to around seven matches over the last two seasons and enjoy my spot near to the half-way line in the East Stand. During a brief spell of convalescence in Chelsea, Jonesy decided that it was time to try another ground.

With it being the closest ground to Jonesy’s house, on Saturday 23rd January we headed over to Roots Hall, the home of Southend United to see them take on Coventry City. 

Worryingly, the night before the match, a colleague of mine had been telling me about how Southend United had moved to a stadium outside of town. Visions of a Ricoh Arena style ground, surrounded by a Tesco Extra and giant car park flashed into my mind, but, as our taxi got closer to the stadium, it was clear this wasn’t the case.

As with most things, getting there wasn’t easy. The prospect of rail replacement buses saw me hop off at Pitsea station to be picked up. For a few moments, in the shadow of the flyover, the washed-out damp air and people trudging acquiescently onto blue busses, I thought I’d been dropped off on the set of a Shaun of the Dead sequel. Thankfully, I was extracted by car and just got stuck in a traffic jam instead, making it to the ground two minutes before kick-off. 

Roots Hall sits nestled in the side of a hill off Victoria Avenue, just a short walk from the town centre. Its unique location and the general appearance really captures the imagination, reminiscent, in the best way possible, of the stadia of yesteryear. After the fear that we may be heading to modern stadium, it was a relief to see a true football league soul still in existence.

Construction of the stadium started in 1952, although the first match did not take place there until 1955. The ground was originally, not too dissimilarly to the Emirates Stadium, built upon a piece of wasteland used for dumping rubbish. Prior to this Southend United had played matches in a stadium actually designed for greyhound racing, but felt a moved was needed as the dog track surrounding the pitch was not conducive for football fans.

The stand that we had seats in, the East stand, was built as a terrace at the same time as the rest of the stadium but was extended in 1966 to ensure that the stand ran the full length of the pitch. It wasn’t converted to seating until much later and towards the back of the stand, some of the older folding seats are still evident and add another air of nostalgia to the ground.

Walking out into the seating of the East stand, moving slowly closer and closer to the pitch, one thing that really does hit you is how narrow the front rows of seats really are meaning that, in order for us to gain access to our seats, which for some reason Jonesy had organised to be in the front row, it meant squeezing past a lot of slightly disgruntled looking regular supporters, removing a small child from my seat and asking an old man to go back to the seat he should be sat in. Once settled though, we were well within earshot of Phil Brown, one of the more forthright managers in the modern game.

When the match finally got underway, the difference in the quality of football was surprisingly large compared to what I’m used to at Leyton Orient. The fluidity of the passing, the ability of players avoid bunching, and the incisiveness of the Southend United attack, meant that it felt like watch Argentina, comparatively speaking.

Spot the ball: The wintry sun sets over Roots Hall, Southend.
The match was not great for Coventry City. After a period of sustained pressure in the washed-out wintry Southend sunset, the Sky Blues’ defence was breached by the Shrimpers’ Payne on 24 minutes. A mere 7 minutes later, Barnett doubled the lead which brought about a second playing of DJ Otzi’s song ‘Hey Baby’ over the PA system. 

After the halftime entertainment of a lady singing ‘Uptown Funk’ on the pitch, flanked by cheerleaders, the players re-emerged for more. The match got much feistier and soon the Shrimpers’ Gary Deegan was red carded for a meaty challenge.

This didn’t really help the Sky Blues as it should have, and, on 61 minutes, a clumsy challenge from the Coventry City ‘keeper gifted Southend United a penalty. Barnett duly dispatched it for his second goal. A slow exodus of Sky Blues fans began and good old DJ Otzi reappeared on the sound system; “oooh, aaah.”

After the game we retreated to the Spread Eagle where there was a positive vibe amongst the happy home fans, relishing their substantial home win. 

Although Jonesy perhaps isn’t as nostalgic about old stadia as I am (he is, after all, an Arsenal fan of the ‘Invincibles’ and now Emirates periods), we did take a moment to reflect on the fact that, even if there are many, many advantages to Southend United moving to a completely new ground at Fossetts Farm, it would be a real shame for the football league to lose another stadium full of soul like Roots Hall.

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