This was the biggest night in Southend since the pier burnt down more than 30 years ago, and it was another venerable institution that suffered. Sir Alex Ferguson's third decade began as did the previous two, with defeat at a humble ground.
In 1986 it was Oxford United's Manor Ground; in 1996 Southampton's Dell. Last night a full house at Roots Hall, which is destined to follow those arenas into oblivion, enjoyed its most famous occasion as the Carling Cup holders were dethroned.
Freddy Eastwood, a boyhood Manchester United fan who attended Sir Bobby Charlton's soccer schools, scored the superb 27th-minute free-kick which put Southend into the Carling Cup quarter-finals for the first time, but the goalkeeper Darryl Flahavan was the seasiders' hero. He had to make a string of saves, for this was the real deal, a Manchester United XI packed with feted names, not the Kids XI often fielded in this competition.
A nervous frisson had gone around the ground when the teams were announced with the names Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney unexpectedly included.
On the plus side, this meant home supporters would get the chance to see this gifted duo; but the home players would have to mark them, or at least attempt to. That was the expectation. Southend, bottom of the Championship; Manchester United, top of the Premiership. Only 35-year-old Spencer Prior of the home team had top-flight experience; only David Jones of the visitors lacked international recognition.
But Roots Hall offered an uncommon and uncomfortable experience for Sir Alex Ferguson's gilded elite. While the manager had served his dues, playing at Queens Park and managing East Stirling, none of his team had been employed in England's lower leagues. This tight ground, with a small but endlessly committed crowd, poky dressing-rooms and unheralded opposition, was a test of character as much as skill. This was evident in the stands too. It was a fixture for Manchester United's hardcore support. The home of the Shrimpers attracted few of the prawn cocktail brigade.
From the off Southend played as if determined to prove they were not overawed, to themselves as much as anyone else. Slowly Manchester United's greater class began to tell, the reds moving the ball sweetly across the midfield, but with Southend working hard to deny space chances proved elusive.
Then Jones fouled Jamal Campbell-Ryce 25 yards out. Eastwood stepped up to leave Tomasz Kuszczak flapping at cold air and send Roots Hall into ecstasy. "It was a fantastic strike," said Ferguson. "I bet he doesn't score another goal like that in his life."
Manchester United's response was swift, Alan Smith laying a Gabriel Heinze cross back to Jones who struck the far post. But as Southend settled and concentrated anew only Ronaldo penetrated the dark blue wall, bringing the first of many saves from Flahavan after 38 minutes.
Their individual contest continued in the second period as Manchester United laid siege to the Southend goal. Tellingly each effort was from distance. Flahavan also took a boot in the shoulder from Rooney as the forward lunged after the ball. Rooney joined Jones and Steve Hammall in the referee Uriah Rennie's book. The officious Rennie then booked Flahavan, for having his studs changed by Southend's kit man on the pitch
With Eastwood and Efe Sodje missing chances to make the tie safe in the closing stages, Kieran Richardson could have levelled the score in injury time. He failed and, seconds later, Roots Hall exploded with joy. Then came the bizarre sight of the team bottom of the Championship, with one point in 24, doing a lap of honour. But they had deserved it.
Southend United (4-4-2): Flahavan; Hunt (Francis, 13), Sodje, Prior, Hammell; Campbell-Rice, Clarke, Maher, Gower; Eastwood, Hooper (Lawson, 68). Substitutes not used: Wilson, Cole, Moussa.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; O'Shea (Lee, 75), Brown, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo, Jones (Shawcross, 89), Fletcher, Richardson; Smith (Evra, 60), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Heaton (gk), Rose.
Referee: U Rennie (South Yorkshire).Reuse content