Player of the Year: Mark Phillips
Leading Scorer: Ryan Hall (14)
In the first part of a four part series, I take a look at Southend United who are aiming to attempt their 2005 efforts when they saw off the Cobblers in a two legged semi final before beating Lincoln City in the final after extra time…
Heading the playoffs this season is Southend United, who ended the season in the highest place available for the end of season lottery. Usually the team finishing in fourth is labelled as favourites for promotion but only one club, since Southend did it themselves in 2005, has won the League Two playoffs after finishing the season in fourth place. That includes none in the last three seasons with Gillingham (5th), Dagenham (7th) and Stevenage (6th) taking home the glory so there’s no gurantee at all that Paul Sturrock will be the manager celebrating on the hallowed turf of Wembley at the end of the month.
Sturrock worked wonders just to finish in mid-table with the Shrimpers last season having only four professionals in the squad at one point during that pre-season and they started this season with real purpose, winning three of their opening five games and inflicting Port Vale’s first league defeat on them with a 3-2 success at Vale Park to close out the month.
The Shrimpers were even better in September and Sturrock was named Manager of the Month with his side winning four, drawing one and losing one in a superb spell that saw them climb to the top of the table with resounding victories away at Rotherham (4-0) and at home to Shrewsbury (3-0).
Form continued to hold through October and November as a thirteen match unbeaten run, finally ended by Cheltenham Town, kept them right in the mix for automatic promotion. It wasn’t just in the league either – the Shrimpers fought through to the area semi-finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and past League One side Preston North End after a replay in the FA Cup. That particular run would end at North End’s league rivals Oldham in mid-December, a result sandwiched between two league defeats – the one at Cheltenham and at home to Bradford.
But after ending 2011 with a 4-1 hammering of Wimbledon, United picked up seven points from the opening three games of 2012, including a 5-2 victory at Sixfields that saw Liam Dickinson and Bilel Mohsni both score braces. But as the year fully kicked into gear, there were a few wobbles and Southend were suddenly battling to keep their place in the top three.
A key moment came in the February trip to Sturrock’s former club Plymouth Argyle. With Southend leading 2-0 with just four minutes to go, Argyle hit back to draw 2-2 and that led to a home defeat by Rotherham that left them looking over their shoulders nervously. The inconsistent form continued to play a part in United’s run-in with five wins in twelve games that followed the Plymouth draw.
Something was needed to spark the side back into life and it was perfect timing for a returning hero to make his mark. Freddy Eastwood, who score forty nine goals in one hundred and eleven games for the club between 2004 and 2007, signed back on loan from Coventry City and netted his first goal since returning to Roots Hall in a much needed 4-0 win over Cheltenham.
Eastwood scored again in the next home game, a 2-0 victory against Wimbledon but there was still a lot of work to be done if they were to get back into the top three. A late surge saw them put them right in contention, though, and a decent point at Torquay United was followed by back-to-back wins to set up a last day of the season where they could potentially pip Crawley and the Gulls for third spot.
But despite a 2-0 win over relegated Macclesfield Town on Saturday it wasn’t to be as Crawley won their match at Accrington to make it academic and to condemn the Shrimpers to the nerves and drama of the playoffs.
Looking ahead to them is Southend fan Mark Kendrick (@MarkKendrick79) who gives us his thoughts below…
Did you expect to be in a playoff position when you started this season?
I thought with our summer additions like Neil Harris we were on for a top 7 finish. Sturrock has a good record in our league and impressed massively last season despite only takin over the team a few weeks before the season started with four professionals on the books.
What have been the key moments in achieving a playoff spot?
I would say the key moment was our run over September, October and November where we went 18 games without defeat. We looked very solid and getting wins where otherwise we’d drop points.
Who have been the key men?
Having Mark Philips, who was voted player of the season on Saturday, fit this season was like a new signing after spending all last season out injured. He has been like a rock at the back and always caused trouble when venturing up for a corner. Think he got 8 goals this season. Mohsni, who has too much talent to be playing at this level, has been great playing wherever required on the pitch. He has scored some good goals and wound up lots of opposition fans with his erratic behaviour. Just wish he would stay focused all season. Other key men have been Ryan Hall, ever reliable Sean Clohessy, Anthony Grant, Michael Timlin impressed whilst on loan from Swindon and joined perm, Cameron Belford and Freddy Eastwood whose return lifted everyone.
Which team would you want to avoid in the final should you make it?
Torquay. Had a tough 0-0 draw with them a few weeks ago.
Finally, will you be promoted?!
If we carry on this form of 4 wins and a draw with no goals conceded into the playoffs then we can only hope.