Southend and Crewe both go into Sunday’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final looking to win the competition for the first time.
Both go into the game knowing where they’re likely to be playing next season. Crewe are by now 17 points clear of the League 1 relegation zone, and loving life in the top half of the table, while Southend’s draw at home against Fleetwood on Easter Monday further damaged their League 2 play-off hopes.
The Essex club were runners-up in this competition for two seasons in a row, losing both finals the Millennium Stadium in 2004 and 2005, but Sunday will be their first ever appearance in a Wembley final. Southend have already sold over 30,000 tickets for the final, meaning they look set to break the record for the most number of Southend fans at a game, which was set in a 1979 match against Liverpool.
Crewe fans are visiting Wembley for the second time in less than a year, and they return with very happy memories from their last visit. Last May the Railwaymen beat Cheltenham 2-0 in the League 2 play-off final, and despite losing big names in the summer they have succeeded in League 1 thanks to some shrewd signings and their traditional, passing and attacking style of play.
In order to qualify for Wembley in 2012 the Alex beat Southend on aggregate in the semi-finals. Now the Shrimpers are looking for revenge.
The biggest story in the build-up to Sunday’s final has been Southend’s maddening managerial situation. Paul Sturrock has had to struggle with financial troubles and on-field heartaches in his three years at Southend, but having led the team to Wembley he was dismissed by the club.
Bizarrely, despite being sacked he was offered the chance to lead the team out at the national stadium but Sturrock kept his dignity and showed self-respect by refusing the offer.
He will be sat in the stands on Sunday among the fans while the new boss, former Hull and Preston manager Phil Brown takes charge of the team. It’s a strange situation to say the least but just like his Crewe counterpart Steve Davis, the tanned Geordie knows what it takes to win at Wembley, having managed Hull to a Championship play-off final win in 2008.
Crewe are undoubtedly pre-match favourites. They are one of the form teams in League 1 with just one loss in their last six games, and they have been playing entertaining football throughout the season. They have a technical midfield and strikers who can grab a goal, not least Mathias Pogba, who is a contender for signing of the season in League 1. Mathias, who is the brother of Juventus’s Paul Pogba, joined the club from Wrexham in the summer, where he had impressed the previous season, and has taken to League 1 like a duck to water.
Crewe are favourites but their defence will give Southend hope. They have only kept two clean sheets in their last 15 games and although they’re not leaking hundreds of goals, they struggle to last 90 minutes without conceding.
Southend are off form going into the final, with just two wins in their last 12 games. But in Congolese striker Britt Assombalonga they have a player who can change a game in the blink of an eye. The youngster is on loan from Watford and has impressed massively while at the Shrimpers. His strike partner Gavin Tomlin is also one to keep an eye on for the Crewe defence.
Central midfielder Bilel Mohsni is vital for Southend. The temperamental Tunisian has a reputation as an unreliable player, capable of breath-taking brilliance as well as baffling stupidity. He is as likely to put in a mesmerising performance on Sunday as he is to get sent off. His partner Tamika Mkandawire needs to be forceful in the midfield battle if Southend are to get a foothold in Wembley’s wide open spaces. Paul Smith in goal is as dependable as any keeper in League 2.
The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final tends to guarantee goals and excitement. The 2013 final should be no different.
It is likely to be a tight game, with chances for both sides. But Steve Davis’s team will relish playing on the Wembley turf, and the large pitch should favour their expansive style of play. I expect the League 1 team to triumph on Sunday and win the trophy for the first time in the club’s history.