Covid-19/20 or: As long as it lasts

THERE has been no football since the 7th of March when 5,806 fans gathered at Roots Hall to see the shrimpers beat Bristol Rovers 3-1. Prior to and since that date the rapid spread of Covid-19, a novel strain of coronavirus with no cure, has brought the entire world to a crawl. Soon, if not already by the time you read this, that attendance figure will have been eclipsed by the UK death toll alone. A vaccine is, in an ideal world, around eighteen months away from distribution. World leaders have not prepared for this. PPE is needed for healthcare workers across the planet, ventilators and oxygen are now limited resources and battlefield triage is being used to decide who is given access. Thousands more will die as the virus cuts scythe-like through the developing world where those who once sewed garments for Primark and H&M live in cramped, squalid conditions unable to effectively isolate themselves or care for those whose immune systems aren’t strong enough to protect them. In this chaos, football means nothing. The industry built upon its back has ground to a halt; the subscribers and advertisers that have been milked suddenly find themselves out of pocket and out of product. It’s for this reason that the premier league will likely finish the 2019/20 season behind closed doors, the idea of a class-action lawsuit from various international broadcasters is a terrifying prospect to an organisation that has put the accumulation of wealth above all else. But where then for the rest of the football pyramid? What happens to Southend?

At the time of writing the premier league, EFL and national league have suspended all fixtures indefinitely and all records for football below the national league north & south has been cancelled with the record books scrubbed for the 2019/20 season. Southend were due to play Rotherham on the 14th of March but it’s hard to predict when that match will ever be played, if at all. The upper echelons of football have moved past the point of needing bums on seats but the financial future of the vast majority of football clubs across the world still depends on ticket revenue. Matches behind closed doors might preserve the integrity of the football league but they will not save Southend United. Uncle Ron, evidently, cannot continue to put his hand in his pocket but will have to if the turnstiles aren’t allowed to open. Games behind closed doors allow the competition to finish, it appeals to our sense of fair play but then there is the safety risk to the players. Football is a contact sport and it might only take one player carrying the virus to spread it to a dozen when crowding the penalty area for a set piece. A dozen new infected players continue to travel across the country infecting others and training with their colleagues and picking up fruit and veg in the shops because they didn’t wear disposable gloves or wash their hands? There’s a risk to players, club staff and the general public for games to go ahead behind closed doors. If the clubs will lose money anyway, who benefits?

So cancel the league then? Well that hardly seems fair. Coventry are currently top of League One, seven points ahead of the playoff spots with a game in hand; Southend as we all know, need 17 points to escape the drop zone with a maximum of 27 available should all the fixtures go ahead. The idea that Southend United might not get relegated this season is, objectively, deeply unfair having established such a deficit after completing 80% of their fixtures. But equally, just like bringing dirty plates to the counter next to the dishwasher but not actually putting them in the dishwasher and turning it on, the job isn’t finished. Arbitrary lines in the sand can’t be draw because it’s convenient. The football season is the season, everyone plays everyone home and away. Until each team has been fairly measured against others in the same league, we cannot move on. Going backwards and starting again feels a rotten solution for the same reasons as finishing the season now. Nothing is finished, and nothing can begin again until it is.

Perhaps then, the key is Qatar.

The winter world cup in Qatar now gives us an event, far enough in the future to manoeuvre around. The intense heat means that the 2022 world cup is due to be held in November and December, over two years from now allowing plenty of time for an adjusted fixture list to complete this season and perhaps one other. In the hope that this season’s fixtures can be fulfilled by the end of 2020 and beginning the following season in Feb 2021 we may see a cycle that allows for summer football in the northern hemisphere before resuming some sort of normality once the world cup and a vaccine can be found. Another idea might be to play cup competitions outside of league fixtures. This would keep players fit and busy but remove the need to squash matches too closely together.

Realistically, there is no timeline here. There is no exit plan and it feels very possible that we will continue in this holding pattern for months or perhaps longer. Social distancing and spectator sports are mutually exclusive so until reliable antibody testing can be rolled out to confirm immunity, we aren’t likely to be returning to Roots Hall soon. Postponing fixtures seemed drastic at the time but the consequences for those that attended the festival at Cheltenham, merely three days later, are beginning to be felt now as the virus continues to be spread across the UK & Ireland by those in attendance. Until that day when we return, the best thing to do is to stay at home and watch the full replay of the 2015 playoff final on sky+.

Now wash your hands.

Liam Ager – @realliamager

Fossetts Farm: The impossible dream

THE optimistic tone of the Echo in announcing that the ‘stadium dream is (finally) going to become reality’ may not be shared by most Southend United supporters. We have all been here before. There always seems to be a spanner in the works. Whether it be the financial crash and the subsequent the decline of retail, discord with local pizza stores or rival schemes muddying the waters. How ironic then, that in the middle of a global pandemic, there seems to have been a breakthrough that clears the path to Blues’ future at Fossetts Farm.

The deal signed by the council, the football club, and Citizen Housing (whose director is Ron Martin’s son, Jack) appears to finally give everybody what they want. Southend Council will be able to meet a big chunk of the borough’s housing requirement and, for an initial outlay, has an opportunity to make a lot of money from renting out the 1,300 homes that will be built on both sites. The headache of justifying leisure developments at both the seafront and at Fossetts Farm is swerved, as is the conflict with High Street retailers fearing a loss of business to the site. Citizen get to enhance their reputation by managing two huge sites, and no doubt will enjoy their own cut of the finances. The football club finally gets its stadium and short-term financial security in the shape of a loan from the Government who, let’s not forget, are bang up for any kind of new housing to be built within 90 minutes of London.

Perhaps the most urgent issue is that Blues current precarious financial position, which was grim before Covid-19 took away all our revenue for the foreseeable future, but would appear to be much rosier thanks to the deal unlocking a loan from Homes England. The deal with the council is something tangible that Ron can borrow against, and the recent measures from the Government for businesses affected by the pandemic may indeed prove extremely useful to the club in their bid to see off the threat from HMRC in court later this month.

One of the downsides is Ron has to go back to the drawing board with the plans, and he’ll need to get these drawn up quickly – if we have learned anything from the world post-financial crash, it’s that things change very fast – but there was clearly an impasse with the previous planning application, which has been sitting gathering dust in the Civic Centre since 2017. But sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards, which any student of effective central midfield play will know.

There is also an opportunity for the club to bring its supporters on board and listen to what they want from their club’s new home. Safe standing is a popular recent development in football, with several clubs trialling rail seating at their home grounds, including League One Shrewsbury. It would be fantastic if the club could incorporate this option in a section of the new stadium.

The replacement of restaurants with housing in the area around the stadium means the club has to make sure its offer within the ground has to be extremely competitive. Could there be opportunities here to bring local breweries etc on board to try and ensure they keep some of the pre and post-match trade? Concourses are not the most salubrious or welcoming boozing environments, so hopefully some thought will go into this. This could finally be the chance to get things right with a new stadium. It’s up to Ron and the club to ensure that, despite the capacity being reduced to 14,000, we get a stadium we and our kids can be proud of, and don’t end up like a breeze-block, soulless out-of-town hovel like at our dear neighbours, Col Ewe.

The big question is, will we actually see these plans come to fruition? Given that all the sticking points seem to have now been eliminated, a decent robust planning application on Fossetts should be passed by councillors. The site has planning precedent for a football stadium with housing on site, so there is unlikely to be the type of Government interference that scuppered the 2008 plans. There are issues around traffic on that side of town, but plans to alleviate this were included in the most recent application, so this shouldn’t be a key issue. Given the retail and leisure element has been removed, the only traffic movements will be from housing and from the football club twice a month.

The conflict of interest with Seaway is no longer an issue and the need for a subsidy for the High Street to appease worried retailers is also avoided. A deal is in place with a housing association, and the council has signed a deal to take on a lease for that housing. The Roots Hall planning application for 500 homes has already been submitted, although it may be the council want both applications decided at the same committee meeting, so a decision on this is likely to be delayed.

It is unclear whether the main stand will still incorporate a hotel, presumably with the removal of the leisure element, well, let’s just say you don’t see too many hotels in the middle of housing estates. But of course, this was designed in for a funding stream and was another potential complication, and if the hotel element is now no longer, it will clear the pathway still further.

There is of course the issue that part of the plans, the training pitches, must be passed by Rochford Council, who aren’t part of this grand deal. This seems the most likely sticking point, but the revised plans may provide an answer to this conundrum.

The coming months will see a planning application for the Fossetts Farm scheme submitted and hopefully this will be ushered quickly through the system with minimal resistance. It’s likely that fans will once again be called upon to write letters of support for the plans, because you can be sure that despite the new arrangement removing the primary causes of most of the grumbles, the NIMBYs will be out in force again. But Ron has certainly got himself into a good position, and this time, the odds look to be in his favour.

Jamie Forsyth – @Jaimundo_ESX