Those who believe the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy has little value or purpose should have been in the away end at Leyton Orient on Tuesday night.
It’s had many kooky sponsors over the years and it’s sometimes an ill-fitting inconvenience in an already marathon season (even Boston used to field weakened teams in it), but, for me, it’s growing in significance all the time.
It’s amazing the kind of effect a glimpse of the Wembley arch on the metaphorical horizon can have on a lower league club. Take Southend, for instance, who had 2,000 fans in East London on a wet and freezing cold Tuesday night this week to see if they could get a little closer to the Home of Football.
They could, as Ryan Leonard’s second-half goal on the turf of their bitter rivals Orient installed them as favourites for the final entering the home second leg of this southern area final on February 20.
Being the only Southend fans I know, it was in order to meet Mark and Steph I crammed on to the sweaty rush hour Central Line after work on Tuesday to get out to Brisbane Road. There’s not a wealth of nice eateries on Leyton High Street but me and Steph did come across a Turkish cafe close to the ground that did a fine kebab wrap for £2.99 and that satisfied the post-shift munchies. It was also preferable to standing around on a street corner in the rain eating a tray of manky chips.
We had excellent seats towards the front of the old main stand, which serves as the away area at Orient and, with its wooden seats and claustrophobic concourses feels very out of place compared to the modernity of the rest of the ground.
When Leonard scored early in the second-half, I put a foot up on the seat in front to get a better view of the Southend celebrations and went right through it!
Aside from those who decided to take that a step further and rip the seats out entirely, Southend’s travelling support was a credit to their club. Noisy and passionate, they put the home fans to shame. Orient, the higher level club, contributed little to the sense of occasion and there were empty seats on all three home sides of the ground.
As I’ve seen a few times before in this competition, those in attendance were rewarded with a really good game. In the same way he single-handedly denied Brentford in the FA Cup replay a few weeks back, Southend keeper Paul Smith once again excelled and his five brilliant saves protected the slender advantage.
His first came in the first-half when he dived down to his left to deny David Mooney, who was five yards out and really should have done better. And at the end of the first 45, Smith denied Mooney again from a close-range effort.
Southend had won a few set-pieces but generally, lone striker Britt Assombalonga was left to plough a lone furrow. It seemed like all the players were ploughing at times, as the pitch was in a dreadful condition.
The Shrimpers enjoyed their best spell immediately after half-time, with Ben Reeves pushed forward a little more to help Assombalonga (I don’t think I’ll ever get fed up of writing that name out). Sean Clohessy waded through the mud on the left flank and delivered it right in to Leonard’s path to score what proved to be the match winner. The celebrations were great all around us.
It was then just a case of hanging on as Orient loaded the artillery. But first, Kevan Hurst nearly doubled the away goal advantage, but his shot hit the outside of the post.
With ten to play, Mooney misfired again - clean through and with just Smith to beat, he tried a lob which dropped onto the roof of the net. They would come closer in the eight minutes (there was a delay as Southend’s Michael Timlin was stretchered off) of stoppage time, when Mooney struck the underside of the crossbar. Fortune favoured the blues and the ball dropped on the right side of the goal line.
Wembley beckons for Southend. They can almost smell the £8 burgers...
Next Match: England v Brazil at Wembley