Roots Hall hoping for giant-killing: Shrimpers' fans consumed by frenzy as United visit stirs up old memories

Southend are bottom of the Championship but up for the Premiership leaders' Carling Cup visit tonight
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The Independent Football

Given the opponents in Southend United's home Carling Cup fourth-round match tonight - none other than the Premiership leaders, Manchester United - it is hardly surprising that the subject of tickets has been a touchy one for many of the club's fans this past week.

The regular market held in the club's car park contained a number of frustrated supporters last Thursday, just two days after some fans had queued overnight to ensure attendance at a cup tie that promises to rival the FA Cup meeting with Liverpool in 1979, when the then European champions required a replay at Anfield to progress.

John, positioned behind a stall selling a bewildering mixture of CDs and electrical equipment, responded with alacrity on the subject of the forthcoming game as fellow stallholders loaded boxes of fruit and veg into large white vans standing in the directors' parking bays. Old Trafford this wasn't. "Why, have you got any tickets?" he said with a broad grin. "I could do with a couple."

Unlike many others, this stallholder did not love Southend enough to spend six hours standing in line, but he knows more than one man who did. Some supporters were waiting for tickets even before the end of Tuesday's home game against Hull City, each with the required stub in hand.

"We heard there were three Chinese lads in the queue," John said. "They were there for five hours, and when they got to the front they found out they needed stubs and they didn't have any."

There were no such problems for Paul FitzGerald, the vice-chairman of the club's supporters trust, who saw his first Southend game 40 years ago - a home win against Barnsley, and he has still got the programme. Although he works in Ireland in the week, this season-ticket holder was able to delegate the task of queuing to his 19-year-old son, John, who will be sitting alongside him in the South Upper stand behind one of the goals tonight.

"Am I excited? Oh God, yeah," he said. "I think it will be just lovely to see live quality football at Roots Hall. We know they won't be putting up a full-strength side, but we've heard rumours that Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo will be on the bench."

Father and son have known many lean years as followers, but the last couple of seasons have been glorious as Southend, under the guidance of their former favourite Steve Tilson, have won the League Two play-off final and the League One title in successive campaigns. Although the players are finding life tough in the Championship, where they are currently bottom, FitzGerald has been more than pleased at the improved quality of opposition at Roots Hall.

"We have already had a number of teams here who haven't come for years," he said. "Tilson has done a great job."

FitzGerald was one of the club record crowd of 31,003 who crammed into Roots Hall to see the Liverpool of Kenny Dalglish and Emlyn Hughes 27 years ago. "It was a snowy night, and some of the fans were queuing to get in until half-time. A lot of people climbed in."

Tonight's fixture has generated a similar frenzy of activity around the club, although the town itself appeared serenely oblivious to the forthcoming attraction on Thursday.

Down by the seafront - where that Southend smell of fish, chips and vinegar mingles with the salt air - the sun gleamed on sandbanks recently relinquished by the tide and the funfair stood silent, its big wheel stilled. Posters alongside the cavernous "Sunspot" amusement arcade advertised only the rival entertainment being lined up at Cliffs Pavilion, where Glenn Miller's nephew, John, has brought his tribute band to provoke pre-War memories with a selection of numbers that includes "In The Mood", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", Tuxedo Junction" and "V for Victory". A man in an adidas tracksuit ran past, fag in hand. Strange place, Southend.

United are the Shrimpers' most illustrious opponents since the Liverpool side of '79, although as Tilson is at pains to point out, tonight's match - which is going out live on Sky TV - is not necessarily their most important. "The play-off final and beating Swansea to get promotion last year were bigger games than this. But it's a fantastic game, a fantastic draw for us. As a player you want to play against the best.

"It's just a shame we are not in our new stadium yet because we would definitely have filled it at 22,000 capacity. I think we could have sold out three times over.' The decade-long saga of the club's planned move from a ground with a current capacity of just over 12,000 to a multimillion pound stadium at the Fossetts Farm site reached what many supporters hoped was a significant stage in May when the club chairman, Ron Martin, announced that the scheme was going ahead. Plans have been submitted, but there are still doubts about whether the council will grant permission.

Such lingering worries will be pushed to the back of Southend's collective mind tonight, however, and Tilson already has plans of a different kind in mind concerning the manager who has just celebrated 20 years in charge of Manchester United.

"I collect memorabilia," he said. "So I've got a couple of photos I'm going to get Sir Alex to sign straight away..."

Tilson has taken exception to the claims of United's Rio Ferdinand that he is the best table tennis player in the English game. As a former national league player who represented Essex, the Southend manager begs to differ, and has offered to play Ferdinand for charity - "a week of his wages against a week of mine".

Someone suggested that he might like to play Ferdinand to decide the tie if it went to penalties. "I'll have that!" he exclaimed with a big smile.

You get the feeling, however, that a decider may not be needed tonight.

The Eastwood threat A fistful of goals

* One man Sir Alex Ferguson will have made sure to acquaint his defenders with before tonight's match is Freddie Eastwood, the 23-year-old striker who has been scoring for fun since he arrived at Roots Hall in October 2004.

Eastwood, who comes from a family of travellers and now lives in Basildon, scored a hat-trick on his debut, the first of which came after 7.7sec - not surprisingly, a club record.

He went on to score 24 goals in a season in which Southend won promotion to League One via the play-offs, scoring the decisive goal in the semi-final against Northampton, and the first in a 2-0 win over Lincoln in the final.

Last season Southend won the League One title on the back of another healthy goal tally of 25 from Eastwood, who has already scored nine in the current campaign even though Southend are bottom of the Championship.

Derby offered £1m in the close season, but were turned down. WBA, Southampton, Coventry, Ipswich, Norwich, Stoke and Crystal Palace have all made enquiries. But for now this shy, quietly spoken player is Southend's pride and joy. "He's the best forward we've had since Stan Collymore," says Chris Phillips, a lifelong Southend fan who covers the club for the local Evening Echo.

If Eastwood does score tonight, he is likely to have mixed feelings - he is a lifelong Manchester United fan.

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