Having tried Yorkshire and the north-east in search of cup romance this season, I decided to branch out and go ‘round the mountain’ to that county they call Lancashire in search of some evidence that there was still some life in the 139-year old competition. As you can tell from the title of this post, I was left disappointed. Again.
I’d only known Mark a week - he was, like me, a trainee on the Daily Mail scheme (last year’s cohort) and, like me, had spent time at the Yorkshire Post. More significantly to Saturday’s activities, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Southend supporter and last Sunday, over coffee and Guinness, we had arranged a rendez-vu in Preston for this FA Cup first round tie. It was not a rendez-vu that Ian Fleming would have wrote about, but it was Saturday football nonetheless.
I didn’t know much about Deepdale, and had never set foot in Preston, but I did recall that the National Football Museum was sited there. Thinking this was too good to miss, I looked at earlier trains over the Pennines. In the nick of time, I remembered that the National Football Museum had actually been moved to Manchester. That could have been embarrassing - arriving for the game at 11am, discovering the place was boarded up and having to kill four hours in a town that, it’s fair to say, didn’t have a lot going for it.
The train I did get was like an A-Z of northern gloom. It called at Bradford, Halifax, Burnley, Accrington and Blackburn - the scenery in between these places was often stunning, the places themselves significantly less so. In Accrington, to take one example, the only point of interest I could see was a Tesco Metro. It’s always a bad sign when ubiquitous Tesco can’t be bothered to open a proper supermarket. Also it seems enshrined in law that whenever train passengers pass through Accrington, some bright wag has to do the milk commercial and shout: “Accrington Stanley? Who are they?” “EXACTLY.” Thanks, never heard that one before.
And the chugger was made worse by inevitable gobshite Blackpool-bound stag party, necking bottles of Bud and Corona at five to eleven in the morning and talking in loud voices so that EVERYONE knew that their lives were one long episode of The Inbetweeners. I looked appreciatively skywards when the conductor forced them all to cough up £25 each for replacement tickets. This considerable dent into their beer budget quietened them down very nicely.
Mark had brought his mum along for the occasion - all the way from Southend - which was a nice touch. They’d also brought a spare shirt for me, the first time in years that I’ve worn the colours of a team other than Boston or England! A little weird and a little sad. We used to play Southend regularly, back in the rapidly fading memories of the League Days. One of Mark’s friends, when informed I was a Boston fan, placed a genial hand on my shoulder and said: “You have my deepest sympathies!”
Deepdale is an immaculate venue, with four tall and contemporary stands and exemplary facilities. Southend are having a great season, keeping Crawley and the Fat Scottish Bastard off the top of League Two, but I was still impressed by the number of travelling fans who’d made the long journey from Essex. I’d say between 4-500 had made the trip, emphasizing the massive difference between League Two support and Conference North support, despite being only two rungs on the ladder. They also outsung the home fans throughout the game.
Although the match ended up in a replay, and there were no goals, it was a very exciting affair which had Mark a quivering wreck and his mother extolling the virtues of football tension as a weight-loss treatment. North End, who have faded badly after a bright start in League One, dominated the first-half and but for the heroics of goalkeeper Luke Daniels, Southend would have been well behind. Peter Gilbert at left-back was run ragged and his nightmare half culminated when he fouled Paul Coutts in the area.
Barry Nicholson stepped up to convert the penalty for Preston but succeeded only in ballooning the ball into the massive ‘no man’s land’ of empty seats separating us from the home fans. At this point, I had the feeling it would be Southend’s day and was proved right.
They dominated the second-half, after manager Paul Sturrock tinkered with the formation and introduced cult hero Bilel Mohsni. The greasy-haired Frenchman was apparently spotted playing in a park and didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived at the club (or so the chant goes). Roaming around the midfield and supporting the forward line, he was outstanding and could have nicked the game for the visitors. Unfortunately for him, Britain’s Brainiest Footballer Clarke Carlisle stood in his way - Preston’s centre-back was simply immense.
The silky Ryan Hall, who had been a match-winner in the week’s earlier games against Oxford United and, erm, Oxford United, came close with a couple of set-pieces but couldn’t break the deadlock. Not to worry, the Southend players soaked up the richly-deserved applause at the final whistle and will no doubt start as favourites in the replay.
Next Match: The long-awaited trip to the Northolme to play noisy neighbours Gainsborough Trinity next Saturday