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Southend United 0-0 Liverpool - The night Roots Hall roared!

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Brian Jeeves recalls a defining moment from his time on the Roots Hall terraces.

Saturday 6th January 1979 was to be, up until that point, the most exciting day of my fledgling existence. From the moment, Southend United’s unsung hero Andy Polycarpou dispatched the winner past old adversaries Watford in an FA Cup second round replay, all I talked and indeed thought about was the visit to Roots Hall of European Champions Liverpool.

There was no disputing it, certainly not on the playground at Holt Farm Juniors or for that matter probably any other school in the surrounding districts. Whatever the 1970’s equivalent of Twitter trending was, Southend United were it!

All of a sudden, everyone supported them. West Ham, Arsenal and Spurs scarves were back in the bottom draw. Blue and White adorned the town’s shop windows and tickets for the big match were like gold dust.  Around thirty thousand punters were expected through the turnstiles, the biggest audience to watch Southend since back in 1956, when Manchester City had somehow withstood a Shrimpers barrage in the Roots Hall mud to steal an undeserved 1-0 victory, largely, I might add, due to the brilliance of Ex-German paratrooper Bert Trautmann in their goal. However, all that was almost three decades ago, cup fever had undoubtedly returned to the Essex Riviera, and to be honest, if you hadn’t caught it you must have been living on the moon!

Anyway, despite Roots Hall being embraced with the rare warmth of optimism, a howling northerly wind brought snow to the seaside, and lots of it. Attempts to get the pitch playable were thwarted, thus to my bitter disappointment the game was put back to Wednesday 10th January, now the new day pencilled in to be the most exciting of my life!

The extended wait seemed like a lifetime. Come that fateful day the tension was unbearable.  All I could think about in class was Liverpool’s unlikely downfall (which made a change from daydreaming about Susan Levitt!) Schoolwork and football became scrambled into one (OK, nothing too unusual there!) as my overactive mind struggled to cope with it all. As far as I was concerned, at the Battle of Hastings, Kenny Dalglish got an arrow in his eye, 12x12= Graeme Souness and I’m pretty sure that Emlyn Hughes was responsible for starting the Great Fire of London. Four o’clock could not come quick enough!

When it did, Dad was waiting at the school gates for me. Despite still being three and a half hours until kick-off, we went straight to Roots Hall. By half past four, we were in the ground, along with some five thousand other early birds. We picked a vantage point by the perimeter wall just to the left of the goal on the old South Bank, a huge terrace without a roof. We always stood here, whatever the weather. It was the cheapest part of the ground; the old man was always keen to save a bob or two, even if it meant being soaked, frozen or both, in the process.

As kick-off slowly approached, the crowd built up, as did a clutch of ugly looking snow clouds, directly above Roots Hall. Soon, a flurry had turned into a blizzard. Southend’s youth team players were charged with the task of clearing the pitch as best they could while the grounds man repainted lines blue. One of the Shrimpers youngsters, Garry Nelson, was pelted with snowballs after some of his colleges let slip to the travelling Kopites in the North Bank that he was an Evertonian.

Just before half past seven the wait was over, and not a moment too soon! My fingers and feet were freezing, the sight of the players running out onto the white covered pitch made me forget all that. The old man held me up on the wall to get a better glimpse of the action, how he managed to keep me there for the whole match is a miracle in itself, a real sign of how heroic a dad can be without being recognised for it.

The snow covered pitch was a great leveller. Southend largely held their own as the First Division giants struggled to gain any kind of authority. Blues custodian, Mervyn Cawston, was largely untroubled although I do recall him turning an effort from Dalglish over the bar.

Nevertheless, Southend were not to be denied a famous result and a deserved replay at Anfield. Indeed, had the treacherous pitch allowed Shrimpers leading scorer Derrick Parker some composure, perhaps a second game would not have been necessary. Although looking back, perhaps the quick thinking of Liverpool and England goalkeeper Ray Clemence who raced from his goal to hack the ball clear, might well have saved our bacon, I’m not sure we’d have survived had some sixteen thousand  stood behind us on the South Bank surged forward to celebrate a Southend goal.

At the final whistle, ever-enthusiastic Shrimpers manager Dave Smith urged the crowd, numbered at a record 31,033 to follow his lead and applaud the team from the pitch, which they did in spades. My body felt numb, probably a mixture of the cold and disbelief that my beloved Southend United, an average Third Division outfit had matched the best team in Europe blow for blow.

I returned to school the next day bursting with pride. The few sceptical kids (probably jealous because they didn’t get a ticket) who’d claimed Southend would lose 15-0, were sent packing with their tales between their legs, to me, Southend United were by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.

Liverpool would win the replay by three goals to nil, but Southend were far from disgraced. They had firmly established themselves on the football map. Surely, now the locals would flock to Roots Hall in their droves.

Sadly, it was a map that took almost some 26,000 people off course. After that incredible night waltzing in the snow with the Champions of Europe, Southend’s next home match, a 2-0 triumph over Chesterfield was witness by only 4,322. I was there, in my usual spot on the South Bank with dad, but now our place on that Roots Hall terrace was somewhat more spacious. How soon the fickle faction had forgotten the lads who’d performed so admirably against arguably the best team English football has ever produced!

Southend United; Mervyn Cawston, Micky Stead, Steve Yates, Micky Laverick, Tony Hadley, Alan Moody, Colin Morris, Ronnie Pountney, Derrick Parker, Phil Dudley, Gerry Fell. Substitute; John Walker

Liverpool; Ray Clemence, Phil Neal, Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Ray Kennedy, Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish, Jimmy Case, David Fairclough, Terry McDermott, Graeme Souness. Substitute; Steve Heighway

Attendance; 31,033