THERE was more action in the referee’s notebook than on the pitch as Southend United progressed to the area semi finals of the Johnstone’s Paint trophy with a 1-0 win at Oxford tonight.

Ryan Hall bagged the only goal of the game with a well placed free-kick in the first half.

But it was referee David Phillips who took centre stage as he brandished a trio of red cards.

The West Sussex based official sent off U’s goalkeeper Wayne Brown early on for handling the ball outside of his penalty area.

And, after the break, Phillips also dismissed Blues midfielder Anthony Grant and Oxford substitute Tom Craddock after a heated exchange between the pair.

Other than that there was little to keep fans entertained at the Kassam Stadium.

However, with two minutes on the clock, a well struck Michael Timlin shot was blocked in front of goal by U’s defender Jake Wright before Ryan Leonard fired the resulting rebound wide of the left post from 18 yards.

Moments later, the recalled Bilel Mohsni fired past the opposite upright from a similar distance after being teed up by a cushioned header from Blair Sturrock.

But the home-side then suffered a huge double blow as their goalkeeper Brown was sent off in the 12th minute of the match when he handled the ball outside of his penalty area to stop Kane Ferdinand reaching Sean Clohessy’s through ball.

Without a substitute goalkeeper on the bench, Oxford were forced to put left winger Asa Hall between the sticks and he could only look on in despair as his name-sake in the Southend attack curled the subsequent free-kick in to the top left hand corner of the net from 20 yards.

Hall then easily kept out a close range header from Ferdinand before he also did well to block a powerfully struck effort from Ryan Leonard with his legs.

The rest of the half remained reasonably scrappy with neither side creating goalscoring chances but, at the start of the second period, Hall scrappily kept out Mohsni’s far post header from Hall’s deep right wing free-kick.

But, in the 56th minute, the game momentarily exploded in to life as referee Phillips again coming to life, showing red cards to both Grant and U’s striker Craddock, who only came on at half-time, for violent conduct.

The duo both raised their hands in a brief but costly altercation following a late Simon Heslop challenge on Ferdinand.

Heslop was booked for his mistimed challenge and Paul Sturrock responded to the red cards by bringing on Liam Dickinson for Sturrock in attack.

Following the change, Timlin fired wide of the left post from long range before Blues had a big let off in the 73rd minute when Deane Smalley broke the offside trap to run through on goal.

His progression was blocked by Luke Daniels but, as the ball broke loose, Mohsni had to react quickly to divert Jon Franks’ follow up to safety.

Franks then forced Daniels in to action with a skimming shot from 25 yards before Blues hit back with Hall having a well struck shot palmed to safety by Hall.

But Hall’s free-kick, which was his fourth goal in four games, was enough to extend his side’s unbeaten run of results to 12 while also moving another step nearer to Wembley.