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Tuesday 8th January 2013 ko 19.45

Football League Trophy Southern Area Semi-Final

OXFORD UNITED 3 (Marsh 15 Craddock 31 Rigg 89)

SOUTHEND UNITED 3 (Corr 6 59 Clohessy 55)

No Extra Time Southend won 5-3 on penalties

Att 2,882 (356 away)

Entry £10

Programme £2 (reduced size) including Oxford Mail

I wonder where in this competition the Wembley Care Point exists. Many clubs enter this competition saying “There’s a Wembley Final at the end of this,” but don’t really mean it, and a near-reserve team plays in front of a couple of thousand spectators paying reduced price tickets. Yesterday’s game proves the point, about half the normal attendance, even when offered cheap tickets. So Southend find themselves just a double-legged semi-final away from Wembley, but despite Oxford playing nowhere near a full-strength team it was difficult to see what options manager Chris Wilder had.

Two players were rested, Peter Leven (knee) and Michael Duberry (age 37, and recovering from neck injury). Michael Raynes replaced Duberry, and the bench featured Liam Davis recovering from injury. With only one fit central midfielder, Simon Heslop, Tony Capaldi joined him moving in from the left. Sean Rigg took his place on the left, whilst up front first year professional Tyrone Marsh replaced the cup-tied loanee Justin Richards.

It looked like it couldn’t work, but after a shaky start, Barry Corr heading home from a free kick to open the scoring, work it did, mainly when young Marsh worked out that his raw pace scared the living daylights out of the two centre halves. He was first to Rigg’s parried shot to equalise, for his first professional goal. Soon enough Tom Craddock’s delicate lob gave United the lead against a near full-strength opposition, but half time proved to be pivotal.

After the break Marsh rapidly ran out of steam, but even with few chancve being created, Oxford looked comfortable until for me the turning point of the game. It was a mistake by the player with most to lose. Left back Luke O’Brien’s contract expires in a few days, and with 2 other left backs on the books then last thing he wanted was to fail properly with Mike Timlin’s crossfield ball, and Sean Clohessy pounced to smash home from 18 yards. You watched the enormity of it all dawn on him as the Southend players celebrated. He attempted salvation with a whipped cross that was almost turned past Paul Smith in the Shrimpers’ goal, before he was quickly withdrawn in favour of Liam Davis. I wonder whether it will be his last appearance for the club. By that time Corr had given the visitors the lead again, via a thumping shot from 18 yards.

It was nothing if not entertaining, but the cobbled-together home team, looked down and out, until another odd substitution changes things again. Centre half Harry Worley, despite having the likes of Chelsea and Leicester on his CV, cannot buy an appearance at present but was thrown on with 10 minutes left, and he created enough chaos at a corner for Sean Rigg to arrive late to nod home to send the tie to penalties.

Before that, there was enough time for the bizarre sight of an obviously furious Southend keeper Paul Smith being substituted for his reserve, Daniel Bentley as it was he who’d saved two penalties during Southend’s successful shootout, after their FA Cup second round tie at home to Bury. I suspect there was an element of kidology in Paul Sturrrock’s thinking but whatever the truth, it worked as the young keeper made the only successful save, blocking Alfie Potter’s weak spot kick. No doubt Ryan Clarke will ponder the three Southend efforts that squirmed underneath him, but I doubt he’ll feel quite as lousy as the unfortunate O’Brien.

But for all the excellent entertainment on show, and the fact that this was a quarter-final of sorts, I never got the impression that it all meant as much as it should have done. I’m still not sure at what point it would.