Double relegation: The custard splat years

Like many clubs that regularly change their shirts Southend United have periods of their history that is defined by the kit worn at the time.

My first ever Blues’ game in 1969 saw us trying out Chelsea’s kit as a possible replacement for the dark blue home kit soon to be outlawed for being too similar to that of the officials. We won 4-0; a lucky omen I thought and surely a good kit to choose. The club hierarchy thought otherwise and we chose a blue and white striped number that proved ultimately unsuccessful though we did eventually play in a Chelsea-style kit which saw us get promoted.

There followed a number of style changes over the next 25 years, some bad, some good and some very good. The white shirt with blue sleeved kit of the early 1980s was a successful kit if not everyone’s favourite and who could forget the introduction of yellow shorts and trim in the mid-1980s that started off badly but ended so very well.

This brings us to the start of the 1996-7 season and we were about to embark on our sixth consecutive season in the second tier of English football. This coincided with a new kit and having been five years without any yellow in the shirts it was decided to add a splash of yellow back into the kit. And when I say “splash” I really mean it. The kit was first seen at the wonderfully named CTA International Trophy friendly against Spurs who included in their line up a young Sol Campbell. As the Blues ran out, my mate, on seeing the kit, turned to me and said “That’s a relegation kit”. How prophetic were his words.

The close season had seen a number of players leave, notably to Barry Fry’s Peterborough, but manager Ronnie Whelan had brought in three Scandinavian players: John Nielson, Tony Henriksen & Peter Dursun. There were genuine hopes that we could maintain our elevated status for another year and we scored the quickest goal of the opening day when Andy Rammell netted in the first minute of a 1-1 draw against Tranmere. However we made a poor start to the season apart from one extraordinary match against Bolton Wanderers in September. I was in New York at the time so had asked my brother to ring me with the Southend score as well as an update on Essex CCC who were in the Nat West Trophy Final against Lancashire. When I returned to my hotel room I was able to listen to his answerphone message that said we had won 5-2 but Essex had been bowled out for 57. I believed neither.

A 6-1 trashing at Crystal Palace preceded a three month period when we only won three league games. Loan signings were made by Whelan and we won what turned out to be our only away win of the season 1-0 at Stoke. We slipped to the bottom of the table where we would remain. Crowds were disappointing though close to 9,000 saw a Georgi Kinkladze masterclass for Manchester City in a 3-2 defeat for the Blues. One of the most mesmerising displays by an opposition player I have ever seen at Roots Hall.

Having been home and away for many years I was unable to get to any away games and only about 15 at home. I was lucky. We only won eight games all season and were relegated with just 39 points. My mate was right, it was a relegation kit. But there was more to come.

Whelan resigned as the season ended and his replacement was another untried manager Alvin Martin. Surely 1997-8 season would be one of consolidation.

Legends Steve Tilson and Paul Sansome left the club as did Andy Sussex and Mike Lapper. This felt ominous, there was a feeling of foreboding around the club and we still had another season of that kit.

In his first programme notes of the season boss Martin was asking for patience from the fans; he must have known what was to come. One win from the first five games was a warning sign and although we were scraping home wins the omens were not good. To arrest the slide the club brought in Regis Colbault and Pepe N’Diaye from France. Form was average at best but we were keeping our heads above water.

We even managed an FA Cup win at Woking which included a very strange event. On arriving at Woking station we had no idea where the ground was so we asked a gentleman who had just dismounted from his bike. The chap was Dutch and he had no idea where the ground was as he didn’t “follow football”. No problem, we eventually found the ground, walked in and the first person we would see was the Dutchman leaning up against his bike in the away end. Very peculiar. He did come in useful as we asked for some words of “encouragement” we could shout at our own Dutchman Jeroen Boere.

Former Welsh International Neville Southall was brought in on loan from Everton but his arrival preceded a terrible and ultimately terminal run of form. We failed to score in five successive games and although we bolstered our defence by signing the excellent Richard Jobson on loan from Leeds the decline continued. Brief hope was ignited by three home wins including an incredible 5-3 win over Bournemouth that has been 0-0 at half time. Unfortunately after that game we only scored two more league goals in seven games and were relegated, again bottom of the table and this time with 43 points.

So that Blue and Yellow kit that some love and some hate will always been associated with abject failure and it was replaced the following season by a more traditional blue and white number.  However, it’s notoriety continues, it is affectionately known as the “Custard Splat” shirt, has been compared to Lisa Simpson’s hairstyle and has a podcast named after it. It will always evoke memories of two disastrous seasons that until recently was thought could never be matched.

Nick Hart