Play it to me one more time
If I could turn back time and relive ninety minutes from my back catalogue, you might be somewhat surprised by my choice…
Southend United 0-1 Bristol Rovers
League Two – Saturday, December 20, 2003
AT FIRST GLANCE it would seem quite odd to followers of both the Shrimpers or Gas Heads how this docile affair could possibly register as my most memorable match. Neither club was setting the world alight or there anything too out of the ordinary about Southend frustratingly losing at home. Nevertheless, the events of that fateful afternoon one Saturday before Christmas will be etched in my mind eternally.
To that point, Southend United had endured a dire season. Blues’ were second from bottom in the Football League and had shown little sign of any upward movement.
I was joined at the match by customary sidekick from that time, Ed, and my dad. The old man had been under the weather of late, the hospital was about to carry out some tests. However unappealing a meeting of two lowly League 2 clubs might sound, he was looking forward to getting out of the house and briefly taking his mind off it all.
We parked the car at Prittlewell railway station and took the short walk to Roots Hall Stadium. It was clear that dad was struggling a little but he was in good form. “Can you walk alongside me?” he asked Ed. “Are you struggling Tony?” Ed asked inquisitively, “No, I just don’t want the passing cars to splash me,” he responded. Dad went on to tell us about the procedure the hospital was to undertake upon him, in the way only an old man could. “They’re gonna put a camera inside me,” he told us. “Ain’t you worried?” Ed asked curiously, “I’m not worried about the camera, but concerned about the camera crew,” he jovially responded.
After a quick pint, we took out seats in the East Stand, just behind the visitors’ dugout. Already something was peculiar about the encounter. Both teams were playing in away kits. Rovers a black and yellow number, while Southend bizarrely sported a post-box red shirt.
Dad took a bag of Humbugs out of his coat pocket. We looked at him expectantly as he unwrapped one of the sweets and popped it in his mouth. “I would give you one, but I’ve only got sixteen left,” He said, and returning the bag to his pocket, we could see the tight-fisted old git meant it too!
Southend started brightly, but after a couple of early chances had gone begging, Bristol Rovers midfielder Dave Savage beat Shrimpers goalkeeper Daryl Flahaven following good work from Wayne Carlisle and Lewis Haldane to fired the visitors ahead – bloody typical!
Southend huffed and puffed, but continued to dominate without making too much headway. After 24 minutes they were presented with a glorious opportunity. Goalscorer Savage fouled Tes Bramble and whistler Keith Hill had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. Up stepped Mark Gower – unfortunately, his truly awful spot-kick was easily rebuffed by Rovers’ keeper Kevin Miller, prompting an exclamation of “Your mother could have hit that harder,” from the old man.
The half time cuppa went down well on what was a cold blustery day. As we supped on the steaming brew, the old man waxed lyrical about the past. I can’t remember what anecdote’s the old boy selected for our interval entertainment, but I’m sure it started with “Have I ever told you about,” and ended with “I saw him play at West Ham,” – I’ve no doubt he’d told us it at least 100 times!
Southend continued to dominate during the second period. As the game ebbed but hardly flowed, I found myself nervously fiddling with my mobile phone. Despite our ‘nothing gets in the way of football’ rule, I had met this girl from the West Midlands a couple of weeks previous. I was head over heels and desperate to hear her voice, as I had not seen her for several days. Much to Ed’s dismay, I called her as the match proceeded in front of us. The old man was inquisitive as to who it was “Just a girl I know,” I answered sketchily. I should have been more informative about the recipient of my call. After standing by me through several disastrous relationships, and indeed been my rock through a divorce, it will always pain me that I did not explain in more detail how special she was and more so that he would never get to meet her.
As the game approached its conclusion, Southend was awarded another penalty. Rovers’ defender Christian Edwards handled, and to add insult to injury was sent-off after picking up his second booking of the afternoon. Regrettably, but as a Southend supporter perhaps not surprisingly, lightning was about to strike twice. Drew Broughton’s penalty troubled the ball boys more so than Rovers’ custodian Miller and another chance had gone west, although thinking back, perhaps it was more north-east?
Rovers’ held firm to secure the points. The final whistle drew the usual chorus of booing from the disgruntled home crowd; however, today this was coupled with a quite extraordinary incident. As we got up from our seats, one of the Bristol Rovers entourage, who we believed to be the physiotherapist, began to make obscene gestures in our general direction. Now Ed didn’t need a second invitation to have a pop back. Already somewhat agitated that Southend had managed to annihilate another opportunity to pull themselves away from the foot of the league, he suggested in no uncertain terms that both the physio and for that matter anyone out there from West of Reading, should ‘go forth and multiply’ preferably in the general direction of Wales. Unfortunately, local ‘Bobby’ PC Dickie Spooner oversaw this. I recall Dad asking me “Where’s Ed?” as I pointed towards him being frogmarched along the cinder track and out of the ground. This was something of an achievement, even by Ed’s standards, as I had never seen someone thrown out of a football match after it had already finished!
We met up with a dishevelled Ed outside the stadium and walked back to the car, trying to piece together what had gone wrong, and as ever failing to come up with any conclusive answers.
Southend’s next match was on Boxing Day away at Cambridge United. A goal from Leon Constantine would secure three precious points and spearhead a scramble away from the foot of the football league. I had a ticket for that festive fixture but never made it to the Abbey Stadium. At around ten in the evening, Christmas Day, Dad’s heart called time and our lives changed forever.
Southend United eased clear of the relegation zone. They would also reach the LDV Van’s Final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, although there would be no fairytale finish as the Shrimpers first major cup final ended in a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Blackpool. Things did improve for the club though, and indeed me. Two successive promotions and memorable cup-ties with Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.
Meanwhile, remember that phone call. Well, I married Victoria. We now have three beautiful children Alfie, Stanley and Oliver who attend football with me whenever possible.
However, throughout those highs and more recently, once again low’s, something or should I say someone is missing. How the kids would have loved his stories about playing for Clapton, Ernie Gregory and sitting on the railway bridge watching Leytonstone. We heard them all that afternoon as we did every time Dad accompanied us to a match. Bristol Rovers victory on December 20, 2003, was unremarkable to the vast majority of the 3,771 crowd at Roots Hall, but how I would love to relive that day, just one more time.
Southend United: Flahaven, McSweeney (Husbands), Wilson, Hunt (Warren), Cort, Maher, Smith, Gower, Knightly (Broughton), Constantine, Bramble Subs not used: Emberson, Jenkins
Bristol Rovers: Miller, Anderson, Boxall, Edwards, Barrett, Hyde, Savage, Williams (Gilroy), Carlisle, Agogo, Haldane (Quinn) Subs not used: Clarke, Parker, Austin.