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Is Spencer Prior one of the greatest 12 figures in SUFC history?


  • Total voters
    55
  • Poll closed .

Yorkshire Blue

Super Moderator
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Joined
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Four places (I think) left to fill and next up is Spencer Prior, albeit a day late in Ron Martin style.
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Separated by over a decade, Spencer Prior had two very different careers with Southend. Either would be sufficient to get him in the Hall of Fame reckoning; combined they surely provide an irresistible case.

Prior's first team career started at Southend at the age of just 17. A local boy, having been born and raised in Rochford, Spinner is one of the greatest players to have come out of the Southend area.

A product of the youth team, he was a centre-forward until Paul Clark, awed at his combination of pace and aerial ability, converted him to centre-half. From there his progress was rapid. A 4-0 defeat at Mansfield in February 1989 prompted manager Dave Webb to wield the axe and go with youth. So for the next game, away at Priestfield, Spinner and another local boy - this time from Wickford via Witham Town (his name escapes me) made their full league debuts. A David Crown goal earned the Shrimpers a point, but the two debutants make it arguably the most significant match in the club's history.

The 1988/89 season was a real struggle for the team, but the introduction of the youngster had an almost immediate impact when it prompted a run of 4 wins in a row (the team only won 9 other games all season) and the teenage Spinner found himself a first team regular before he was even old enough to buy a pint.

For those use to the cagey veteran who got by on his wits, Prior Mk I was a very different player. Raw and pacey - Prior was the quickest player at the club as demonstrated when he was chosen to represent Southend at the Rumbelows Sprint Challenge - and he'd use his long strides to get out of trouble. An attacker would think he was away and all of a sudden out of nowhere would slide a telescopic leg to win the ball and crunch the forward. The slide tackle has all but been made illegal these days, which is a great shame as for defenders as skilful as Prior, it was an art-form. Allied to his pace and slide-tackles, was his aerial ability. At six foot four and with a commanding physique, Prior rarely got beaten in the air.

Whilst results had initially picked up to keep hopes of safety alive, we were still in huge relegation trouble for the final game of the season. We needed to win at home to Chester and hope results went our way. Blackpool (?) trailed 2-0 at half-time, whilst we needed a point. A thumping header from the edge of the area gave Spinner his first goal, but more importantly it looked like saving us from relegation. Alas, a come-back at Blackpool capped by an own goal meant our 1-0 win counted for nothing and the yo-yo years were to continue.

The next season saw Spinner continue where he left off as, paired with Paul Brush, Southend kept an incredible 8 clean sheets in the first 10 league games of the season whilst picking up 25 out of an available 30 points. Having beaten Col Ewe - twice - in the first round of the League Cup (a competition our inbred neighbours were to find themselves ineligible for the following season - once Benji and Peter Daley had relegated them back to the Conference), Southend faced a plum tie against Spurs. This was back in the day when Spurs were pretty good and boasted England legends like Gazza and Gary Lineker. Up against England's number one striker, Prior coped admirably and Southend were desperately unlucky to lose on away goals. If only David Crown's shot had drifted the other side of the post......

Sadly it wasn't to last, as Spinner suffered a sickening injury when Gary Butterworth of Peterborough broke his leg. Spinner was out of action for nearly a year and IMO was never quite the same and gone was that slide tackle. Even so, he went onto be a Premier$hite regular for a number of years, so just think what could have been. Without Prior, Southend stumbled over the finishing line with a 2-1 win at London Road, but our promotion was largely thanks to that blistering start.

The following year, Prior struggled to return from such a serious injury. Prior finally returned at the end of September, marking his return with Southend's first clean sheet of the season (although we'd won our first five games of the season!) but in the new year, Pat Scully (is an international) was signed from Arsenal and Prior found himself on the sidelines. In the meantime, Prior had been involved in some highly memorable matches, such as beating Grimsby 2-0 in the top of the table clash, and being one of the few to play but not to get on the scoresheet in the club record 10-1 thrashing of Aldershot! He did get on the scoresheet at Dean Court, with possibly the greatest header ever - a fantastic diving header past Sammy from well outside the area.

The following season, Southend's inaugural year in the second tier of English football, Prior was a rock at the back. Dave Webb's exciting young team shook up the division, famously topping it on New Year's Day for a glorious couple of hours having thrashed Newcastle 4-0. Prior was an integral part of this defence, drawing many plaudits. It remains Southend's highest ever finish.

The following season was Prior's last at the club in his first stint. In those two years in the second tier at Southend, he missed just five games - and Southend lost 4 of them. With his contract up, Prior opted to move to premiership Norwich. For Southend, receiving a paltry £250,000 (still one of the biggest transfer fees received) for him, was a bitter blow. In terms of totals transferred for, only Stanley has moved for more during his career.

Away from Southend, Prior carved out an illustrious career, appearing at the heart of the defence for the likes of Norwich, Derby and Leicester. This may not sound impressive, but at the time Prior was with these clubs Norwich were beating Bayern Munich in the Olympic Stadium, Derby were finishing 8th in the Premier$hite and Leicester under Martin O'Neill were highly competitive - including winning the League Cup. From there it was to Man City where having helped them to promotion alongside the Goat, he played his last premier$hite season and proved he is a Shrimper by scoring against Wet Sham. The following season at Cardiff, he helped guide them to the championship play-offs. His final year at Cardiff saw him rarely feature and Cardiff miss out on the play-offs on goals scored.

Spinner was reluctant to drop down to the fourth division - a level he hadn't played in since the 80s, indeed since the historic promotion season of 1990/91 his entire career had been played in the top half of the championship or the premier$hite with the exception of the Colin Murphy season at Roots Hall - however his old team mates Tilly and Brush managed to persuade him and he became one of their best signings.

By now Spinner was a grizzled veteran, relying on his brain where he once relied on his legs. Those legs now creaked and the sight of Prior grimacing became a regular feature. His reassuring presence and wealth of experience at the back however was just what Southend needed. Prior was immense, where his legs couldn't get, he got others to cover. Under his leadership, Adam Barrett became a Southend hero. Tellingly Barrett has never been anywhere near as good since Prior's departure.

Some old pros play for their pension, but that was never Prior. One game at Chester sticks in my mind. Lewis Hunt was on the receiving end on what was appeared to be racial abuse (although this was later denied by Chester). Prior, could have ignored it and kept his head down but being the ultimate team man he wasn't going to let someone get away with doing that to one of his team-mates and confronted the culprit, offering him outside. How big must Lewis Hunt have felt, to know you've got your back covered by a premiership and UEFA Cup veteran like Spencer Prior? When the miscreant refused to back down, Prior was all for going into the stand to sort him out and had to be restrained until the stewards finally dealt with it. Team spirit was mentioned a lot as a reason for our success, but here we had someone with all that experience and all those medals not just buying into it, but leading it.

Tilly tried to ease Prior through the fixture list, resting his legs where he could, but when he rested Spinner we ended up losing to the likes of Mansfield and Boston. An abysmal defeat at Boston must have been the final straw, as from then on Spinner played even if it was twice a week. The result was a 16 match unbeaten run, cruelly ended only in extra time in the LDV Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium. That run included nine clean sheets, ten if you count the first 90 minutes at Cardiff. I have never experienced such confidence in our defence and indeed team to close a game. If we went one-nil up, I felt it was game over. Even if the opposition managed to scramble an equaliser, I had full faith we'd up a gear and re-take the lead. For a year we won every game we led and if we equalised, we'd at least hold onto a point. Towards the end of that run, we played Cambridge who were on their way to the conference. It would normally have been a banana skin and the type of game I'd fear, but I had full faith that we would win. We could have been 3-0 down at half-time (only from dodgy penalties that never were, mind you) I just knew we'd find a way to win. I've never felt so strongly about a game before or since. It might have been Kevin Maher wearing the armband, but that was the Spencer Prior effect and he was the de facto captain even when Maher or Barrett were skipper.

Ultimately our slow start cost us the title. The disappointment was soon forgotten when we reached the play-offs for the first time in our history. Prior was quietly immense throughout as we didn't concede a single goal in the entire 300 minutes. Others may have got the plaudits for being more spectacular, but Prior was invariably in the right place at the right time and his organisational skills were criminally under appreciated.

The 2004/05 play-off success provided the springboard for the legendary 2005/06 season. Amazingly this would be the second time in his Southend career that Prior was involved in consecutive promotions. We waited 90 odd years to get to the second tier and Prior helped us do it twice in his eight years with the first team. Incredible.

The legs were creaking more than ever by now, and Spinner had a limited role, but in half the games he played he ensured a clean sheet. Of particular importance was a spell in December. Earlier in the season we'd won a club record 8 games in a row, but these were founded on our goalscoring exploits as we didn't keep a single clean sheet until the 8th game. Now the goals were drying up we needed something to keep us back on track and restore the confidence. So in came Prior and in 4 games before Christmas we conceded just a single goal and ground out four draws. It wasn't pretty, but it was vital. Soon that luck turned. Then in early January Tilly swooped for Efe Sodje. Barrett was switched to left-back and Sodje was paired with Spinner to provide a formidable defence. Just one goal was conceded in five games and it was at this stage that we opened a decisive lead, one we weren't to relinquish.

Prior getting injured at the end of February was the start of a wobble, but fortunately we had enough of a lead that we were able to close out the season as champions despite our uncertain finish. It was Spencer Prior's fourth promotion with the club and with the possible exception of top-scorer, Freddy Eastwood, no-one deserved the champions medal more.

Spinner was persuaded to delay his move to Australia for one last season. It was a tough ask on his body, but his experience was critical. Whilst Peter Clarke was signed at great expense to try and replace him, Prior showed himself to be irreplaceable. Spinner's finest hour (and a half) was in the League Cup. The team had been conceding goals at the rate of three a game prior to the game, yet Prior returned to combine once more with Efe Sodje to limit Rooney and Ronaldo to long range efforts that were never likely to test the keeper. It was a masterful display of organisation combined with an immense performance in the air. Like he had over 15 years earlier, he'd been up against England's finest striker of the time and had come out on top.

In the next round, that defence which a few games earlier in his absence had been conceding three goals a game, now shut out Spurs for 90 minutes (and it should have been 120 minutes but for an off-side goal).

Sadly his fitness limited his appearances and with them our chances of survival. A last minute sub appearance in the final home game of the season (naturally we had already conceded three goals) when we were already down was a sad way for a Southend legend to bow out, but it gave him the ovation he so richly deserved.

His stats may not appear at first that impressive, but there's barely a club record he wasn't involved in, be it most promotions (4, a record shared with Paul Clark); biggest win (10-1); furthest in the FA Cup (5th round), League Cup (Quarter-finals) and LDV (Finalists), highest finish (12th in Div 2), most prestigous trophy (Division 3 champions), most consecutive wins (8) longest unbeaten run (16), best cup win (v Man U).

But there is so much more to Prior than just those stats, as mindblowing as they are. Those last two two promotions were founded on a rock solid defence and as far as I'm concerned it was Prior who sorted out that defence. The best centre-half that I've seen in a Southend shirt, I just can't see us getting promoted from the 4th, let alone the 3rd without him. Personally I'd have him in the Hall of Fame for that alone. His earlier spell at the club and career away from Roots Hall just strengthen the case further.

Looking at my original criteria of making an impact, displaying greatness and leaving a legacy, I'd suggest he ticks every box. He won honours both with the club and as the most high profile graduate of the Southend youth system since Peter Taylor. He might not have been particularly a fan's favourite and maybe it is still too soon for people to realise what he gave to this club, but there have been few better or more successful players in the club's long history.


Spencer Prior
Southend United 1989-1993, 2004-07
Total Appearances 245
Goals: 6
Promotions: 4 (1989/90, 1990/91, 2004/05, 2005/06)
Relegations: 2 (1988/89, 2006/07)
 
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