Usually, it is London that goes to the seaside. But for one day only, the seaside came to London.
Or so it seemed anyway in the moments before kick-off at Wembley, as over thirty thousand Southend United fans, a veritable blue and white wave of Essex pride, made their presence known. Flags fluttered, tickertape rained down and arms were outstretched in song and exultation.
From our position behind the goal, two rows from the front, it felt like being at the vanguard of a great Southend army, with great ranks and regiments standing alongside to right and left, and row and rows of foot soldiers behind.
This was my first non-international fixture at Wembley and I was impressed at just how many had answered the call of Southend’s first appearance at the national stadium since a mere 6,000 watched a league match against the nomadic Clapton Orient back in the 1930s.
What a display of local pride it was. Of course there were many who had only set foot in Roots Hall once or twice in their life, there were probably others who had never been there at all, but for one day only it didn’t matter how hardcore you had been in the past, just that you were there.
For Mark and his family, it was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime, certainly a once-in-a-generation, opportunity to see their team at the national stadium and how it made me wish that, one day, I might see my team play there too.
Alas, Southend’s grand day out wasn’t concluded with the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. League One Crewe, that great nurturing ground of young players, proved the difference in class between the divisions and were worthy winners on the day.
But the Shrimpers were rightly proud of how their side have made it this far, having beaten AFC Wimbledon, Dagenham and Redbridge, Brentford, Oxford United and Leyton Orient along the way, and also pleased with how their side applied second-half pressure to keep going at two down.
The first few minutes set the pattern for the game as Crewe, backed by just over 10,000 supporters up the other end, tore from the starting block and pinned Southend back in their own half. Keeper Paul Smith, who has been the hero on just about every time I’ve seen him this season, was called upon to block an effort from Max Clayton, but there was little he could do for the goal on six minutes.
Byron Moore rolled his corner out to the edge of the box and captain Luke Murphy swept a shot of perfect placement into the far corner of the net. Murphy, 23, and Clayton, 18, are two of the latest players to drop off the Crewe conveyor belt, following in the example of Rob Jones, Neil Lennon, Robbie Savage and Danny Murphy over the Dario Gradi epoch.
With an average age of just 22, Crewe had clearly been schooled to play a certain way and their neat possession play left Southend starved of the ball and literally chasing the game. As the first-half drew on, it was apparent the Shrimpers’ best openings would come from set-pieces, and Ryan Cresswell headed over when well-placed.
Millwall loanee Tamika Mkandawire also had a similar chance as Southend muscled their way back and ended the half the stronger.
But whatever Phil Brown said in the dressing room was quickly made irrelevant by Crewe’s second on 49 minutes. Clayton, who is surely set to follow Nick Powell and be snapped up by a bigger club, poked in when Moore fed a dangerous ball across the box.
The whole Brown situation had been a little embarrassing for Southend as Paul Sturrock was unceremoniously dumped only to be invited back to take charge of the final. Rightly, Sturrock told the club where to go and said he’d enjoy the match with the fans. It was a bit like playing Where’s Wally and we never did see him.
Southend, firing towards us, gave a comeback their best shot and Brown restocked the cannon by introducing a couple of extra strikers and early enough to potentially make a difference. Sadly it didn’t, though the always-fascinating Bilel Mohsni did have a close-range effort blocked on the line when it seemed easier to score.
So it was Crewe, play-off winners here last season, who prevailed thanks to their latest crop of bright young things.
Next Match: The FA Youth Cup semi-final, first leg between Nottingham Forest and Norwich City on Wednesday night.