Quite suddenly, one sunny afternoon at Gigg Lane, our world was turned upside down

FAN'S EYE VIEW No 115 Southend United
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Roots Hall was once a sanctuary where a man could be alone. Many a dank Friday evening have I spent standing beneath one of many drips in its rain-lashed West Stand communing with the dozen or so like-minded misanthropes who regularly foregathered there in the hope of catching a glimpse of Greta Garbo whilst being mildly diverted by a collection of muddied oafs indulging in what, at that time, passed for Fourth Division association football in this outpost of empire on the Essex coast.

We were simple folk, largely inured to the team yo-yoing from Fourth Division to Third and back again. A successful season was one where we finished higher than Colchester United. While occasionally enjoying the talents of players like Billy Best or Richard Cadette, more often than not the long suffering diehards had to content themselves with watching Paul Roberts' weekly audition for Billy Smart's circus. One could always enjoy the dyslexic announcer grappling with the English language and battling with the elements and the feedback over the 15 watt PA system that had once provided the sounds in the chairman's Ford Zephyr.

In the frequent playing hiatuses, home fans could play "Spot the Rochdale/Barnsley supporter" or anticipate the excitement of watching the dozing herring gull plummet headfirst off the crossbar during a goalmouth scramble. The really adventurous among us would even take odds on which of the neighbouring flats' windows "Big Roy" McDonough would smash when shooting for goal.

But, quite suddenly, one sunny afternoon at Gigg Lane, our world was turned upside down. That day Ian Benjamin scored a goal that not only won a game for the Blues but also propelled them into the unknown, heady atmosphere of the Second Division. Much rejoicing ensued. Goodbye Darlington, Hartlepool and Colchester! Hello Charlton, Luton and Grimsby!

However, like the cheering crowds of August 1914, we were also, unwittingly, celebrating our impending loss of innocence for, like most silver linings, this one had a bloody great grey cloud wrapped around it.

The first casualty was the traditional, much loved Friday night home game. Teams from the upper echelons, it appeared, were unwilling to forgo the delights of fireside, cocoa and slippers to slither about in the mud at the seaside. Nor was one now able to simply saunter up to the turnstiles at one minute to kick-off and still reach one's regular spot before the sound of the referee's whistle had died away. To gain access it was now necessary to negotiate queues the length of which had only previously been seen snaking from the outside urinals. And once inside all the "regular spots" had been obliterated by plastic seating seemingly designed to house malnourished dwarves.

Most disturbingly of all we sour-faced, taciturn old hands, we few, we happy few who had once thrilled to the 10-1 drubbing of Aldershot in the Leyland-Daf Cup, had to share our stand with strangers who would ask questions like "Who are the team in blue?"

Gone, too, the blue and white knitted scarves and elbow-shattering rattles to be replaced by hordes of portly gents, working towards their first embolisms, squeezed into what were once the preserve of fairly young and fit footballers. The last time I had seen the seams of a Southend shirt under similar stress, it had had a No 10 on the back and contained Keith Mercer...

It is not even as if our higher status has shielded us from the perfidy of managers and players deserting us for the main chance. Consequently the (albeit remote) prospect of reaching the Premier League appalls me.

Surely the true romance of football is to be found in the cameraderie and hopeless optimism of the lower divisions. Is not belonging to a small coterie on an away trip to Hartlepool more edyfying than sporting a Manchester United shirt on a Saturday afternoon's shopping trip to Lakeside?

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