The backlash to Southend United’s new kit, an off the peg low-grade template that is available without the badge and some minor bespoke elements on the back for £15 from Sports Direct, was surprisingly fearsome. Some fans on the supporters’ message board ShrimperZone even called for the Commercial Director (a genuine supporter himself) to resign – perhaps oblivious to the fact that his hard work had netted the club a record sponsorship deal probably worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, putting him more in line for a raise than a disciplinary hearing.
The fact the sponsor was Paddy Power, an outspoken betting company with a history of brash PR stunts aimed at a certain type of young Fosters’ drinking males, further put people’s backs up with perhaps more justification. The lurch from two successive charity shirt sponsors (Amy May Trust and Prostate Cancer UK) to arguably the most notorious gambling company operating in the UK is going some, and the social media response suggests most see through their #SaveTheShirt campaign’s claim to be bringing football back to the fans given that research has found that gambling has become endemic in a certain demographic of supporters.
However what is, on the face of it, an overreaction by a vocal section of the fan base has deeper roots. Ironically, Southend United are currently paying a heavy price for gambling recklessly themselves. During the 2016-18 period, ‘name’ players like Anton Ferdinand, Simon Cox, Michael Kightly, Michael Turner and Rob Kiernan were procured in the hope that promotion to the Championship – and a subsequent jump in TV revenue from £680,000 to around £4.5million – would swiftly follow.
Blues did trouble the promotion contenders in that first season, but ultimately failed to gain a playoff place on the last day of the season. With an ageing squad, the club’s fortunes have since slipped and rumours have surfaced of players being paid late and there have been difficulties signing decent players because the budget has been used up. League One clubs are only allowed to spend 60% of turnover on player wages, and the latest accounts suggest that Blues are likely to be right at
With no chief executive at the helm – another possible attempt to save money – even the most fundamental basics that fans expect appear on the surface to be being neglected, with pre-season friendlies and the annual club Meet The Blues Day organised late, in addition to the kit launch not occurring until ten days before the start of the 2019/20 season. This may not be the fault the club, but there is little communication so fans naturally fill these voids with speculation. Manager Kevin Bond – whose initial appointment smacked of cost-cutting given his lack of UK managerial experience but who since redeemed himself in the eyes of many by keeping the stricken club in League One by the barest of margins – is reluctant to engage with media on transfer targets, adding to the frustration felt by supporters.
There is a sense that the club is slowly dying. Most fans don’t like to question or look too deeply into the means of chairman Ron Martin, who on the face of it is a relatively small-time property developer, yet has been propping up the clubs losses for several years, and the amount owed to him stands at around £13million. His plans for a new stadium at Fossetts Farm, from where he hopes he will earn his money back, grow more grandiose (and hence complex and unrealistic) by the year, possibly as a result of his need for more and more revenue to recoup the losses he is making. In the meantime, Roots Hall, an atmospheric old ground steeped in history, is crumbling and there is little motivation or means for the club to provide any more than essential maintenance.
And of course there is the wider issue of the criminal distribution of TV money which threatens to destroy the English game, with top clubs swimming in riches while those at the bottom scrap for the crumbs they are fed by the all-powerful Premier League, strategically starved of cash by the game’s failing governing bodies. The slow strangulation of the lower divisions, which began as a thinly veiled ploy with the formation of the Premier League 1992, is showing signs of finally claiming victims. Bolton and Bury are in absolute turmoil. Coventry are starting the season without a ground, and several lower league clubs are struggling to pay their players on time. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the club felt they needed to jump into bed with a partner as immoral as Paddy Power. But it doesn’t mean the supporters, alienated more by every passing week, have to like it. Of course, football fans can forgive an awful lot off the pitch, almost everything, as long as they have a winning team on it. But the signs are that last season, one of the worst in living memory for the Shrimpers, is about to be repeated. True, expectations are lower given the 19 th -place finish, and if the manager pays the price, there won’t be the emotional heartache that was felt so deeply by supporters when Chris Powell had to depart in March. But there have only been three new signings, and already there are signs that last season’s unprecedented and immeasurably damaging injury crisis is going to linger into a second campaign. Those who missed a large chunk of last season are still showing no sign of returning. There has been a setback for Tom Hopper, whose absence was arguably the most influential, meaning he won’t be back in a blue, sponsorless shirt for at least a few more months yet. Talisman, best player and top goalscorer, Simon Cox, will miss the start of the season. And worst of all, the budget is already spent, with the club claiming that at times last season there was £20,000 worth of wages sitting on the treatment table every week. The team is leaning heavily on youngsters, who are promising but raw, inconsistent and lack the nous and game management experience that is so essential at this level.
Summer should be a time for relentless optimism, but the anticipation for the new season has been replaced for many with a familiar sense of dread. 2018/19, with no fewer than 13 home league defeats, was an experience no supporter wants to relive, but the warning signs are flashing. Jumping into bed with a betting partner is not something unique to Southend United, but it’s just another little indignity to swallow for supporters who, Stephen Humphrys 87th -minute winners aside, haven’t had much to cheer lately. For those who do like a flutter, Blues are priced at 14-1 with its latest sponsor for promotion and just 7-2 to be relegated – and the house rarely loses.
Jai Forsyth – @Jaimundo_ESX