This Wednesday, hit by a storm of years of neglectful administration, a global pandemic and a long-standing failure to complete a move from Roots Hall, Southend United face a High Court judge over a £493,000 debt and have a very real chance of being only the second Football League club to be wound up in 28 years.
Most fans believe Ron Martin will, by hook or by crook, find the money to at the very least appease the judge enough to kick the can down the road. However, noises coming out from the club over the last few days indicate that this outcome is uncertain.
If the worst happens (and some would say given how much fans have suffered over the past two years, it may be a relief) and Southend United FC is wound up on Wednesday, what happens then? The popular opinion among fans of all clubs is normally: simply start again. The story of AFC Wimbledon, due to return to their spiritual home of Plough Lane this year after decades playing outside their home borough of Merton, has shown that a successful resurrection is possible. Perhaps more concerningly, the Dons made it look very easy.
Unfortunately, in the world of phoenix clubs, Wimbledon’s story remains the exception, rather than the rule. Phoenix clubs now sprinkle the English pyramid, from Maidstone United (the last Football League club to be wound up before Bury in 2019), to Rushden and Diamonds, from Darlington 1885 to Hereford. The harsh reality is that only Chester and Aldershot, greatly assisted by not having been forced into exile to groundshare with another club, have returned to the level of the original club (both have subsequently been relegated), and years of struggle have been the norm. Of all the clubs to meet their demise in the 21st century, AFC Wimbledon is the only club to have returned to the Football League.
Of course, circumstances differ for each club. Bury AFC has been formed and is groundsharing with Radcliffe Borough, while the original club is still owned by its maniac owner Steve Dale and owns Gigg Lane. That particular entity has not yet been liquidated, meaning some fans feel conflicted. Some are reluctant to enter the embrace of the phoenix club while the original club still exists on paper.
Scarborough Athletic was formed from the ashes of the old Scarborough FC, who folded in 2007, by its supporters trust. However, it took them ten years to return to playing matches in their home town, and 13 years after formation, the club is still playing in the Northern Premier League, three tiers below the EFL. AFC Rushden and Diamonds’ Nene Park home was demolished a few years ago and the club groundshares with Rushden and Higham United.
Being prepared ahead of time pays dividends. Relegation to the National League was the final straw for Chester City, who had endured a series of bad owners by the time their league status was ended in 2009. Financial issues continued and they were suspended by the league after failing to fulfil a fixture in 2010, when players refused to get on the team coach because they had not been paid. However, members of the board and fans had been planning ahead, forming a trust and making preparations to form a phoenix club. On appeal, the FA were persuaded to allow the new entity, Chester FC, to start again in the 8th tier Northern Premier League, as opposed to the North West Counties League, which it originally ruled. Crucially, the club were even allowed to continue playing at the Deva Stadium, which was owned by the city’s council. In Southend’s case, the ground is owned by Ron Martin’s companies and as such, is unlikely to ever be used again should the worst happen on Wednesday.
Even if a club does get to play games at its spiritual home, it’s not always straightforward. Hereford FC, former out of the ashes of Hereford United in 2014, were permitted by the council to play their games at Edgar Street, but had to find £130,000 just to bring the ground up to standard and get a new safety certificate.
If we do come through Wednesday’s hearing unscathed, perhaps the one story we should be most wary of is the cautionary tale of Darlington FC. Taken over by ex-convict George Reynolds amid much fanfare in the early 2000s, the club’s fearsome ambition saw them move into the 25,000-seater Reynolds Arena in 2003. However, the anticipated gate increases did not happen, and as things on the field deteriorated, with the Quakers dropping into the Conference in 2005, the club became unable to afford the running costs of its inappropriately sized new home. The Quakers limped on until 2012, but went into administration and were later expelled by the FA for failing to come up with a creditors voluntary agreement.
If things continue as they are for Southend United on the field and the club ends up in the National League, the running costs a new 21,000-seater stadium at Fossetts Farm, long lauded as our potential saviour, could well pull us under.
It may seem appealing as a way to start over again and bring a club back to its community, but launching a phoenix club is not cheap, not easy and requires a lot of hard work, and money from people willing to dip their hands in their pockets. A phoenix club would be semi-professional and therefore would need to be staffed by people willing to give up their time for little or no reward. Splits in the fanbase are common over trivial issues like name, colours and badge, and that is before we even get to the complex issue of where matches will actually be played. Southend United fans may be under the impression that “if we build it, they will come” but building something in the first place is not as easy as most people think.