A United Front

WHILE most of football spent Tuesday evening gleefully rejoicing as, one-by-one, the self-proclaimed Biggest Clubs In The Land™ were forced into an acutely embarrassing climbdown from a proposed European Super League; Southend United fans were witnessing arguably the darkest moment in their club’s 115 year history. 

We don’t need to go into Tuesday night again, suffice to say pouring salt and vinegar into a gaping open wound that had been worked at by a rusty knife over the course of three years might come close to covering it. 

But one lesson we can all take from the humbling of the ESL proposal is the power of a united fans’ position against the very richest club owners in the world. 

With everything that has gone on in the UK in recent years, the widening inequality, the cronyism and corruption in Government, it has intensified the feeling that pretty much anything can be bought and the rest of us are powerless to do anything about it. While the ESL is not going away and those owners will already be plotting their next move against the game, the embarrassing nature of Tuesday’s defeat (no, not that one, the ESL one) was a rare victory for the little man (again, I’m not talking about Colchester here). 

Colchester are safe to once again dream of struggle in League Two in front of crowds of 2,500 but for Southend’s supporters there has been no hope for a long time. Our gradual, painful decline feels terminal. 

The pandemic has forced us all to watch what has passed for football this season from laptops and TV screens, able to see the slaughter but unable to lean on our fellow fans for support. It feels like the supporters have been kicked in the gut every weekend (and of course most Tuesdays in this condensed, zombie season that should never have been played) and this has of course led most of us to lash out. Frustration has boiled over on social media, and it has not been pretty to watch. 

The club’s social media team is unable to post even the most benign message without a volley of abuse, a Twitter parody account has been set up to deride a 20-year-old home-grown striker who went to school in the town, and the arguments about the managerial competence of Mark Molesley reached fever pitch in March and April as the side struggled to turgid goalless draws on an almost weekly basis. 

Just as all hope was lost, a familiar face was willing to stick his head above the parapet. 28 years after almost single-handedly saving the club from relegation to what is now League One, Stan Collymore stepped forward to offer his help. His tweet on Tuesday night, offering to put together a team to buy the club, seemed a well-intended but ultimately empty gesture of solidary and support during hard times. 

However, on Thursday, around 20 fans representing fan groups such as the Shrimpers Trust, AAS, Shrimperzone, The Custard Splat and the newly formed lobby group Save Our Southend gathered on Zoom at the behest of Collymore, who is no stranger to the Shrimperzone forum having posted sporadically over several years. 

What followed was an incredibly articulate, well-organised and passionate discussion, led impressively by Collymore who invited everyone on the call, including legendary former player and manager Steve Tilson, to give their views on what has gone wrong and what they want to happen next. 

The issues were multiple. The football side of the club has been neglected for too long. Seemingly endless winding up orders, failing to pay creditors on time, disrespectful treatment of club staff and players. Late payment of wages, leading to a ruined reputation within the game and resulting in a challenge to recruit. Careless previous recruitment, with absurd weekly wages handed out to average or injury prone players. Starting pre-season late, burdening managers with transfer embargoes, failing to negotiate transfer windows with any kind of competency, sporadic and frankly dishonest communication with supporters, concern about the sustainability of the club at Fossetts Farm. Stan was on a fact-finding mission, patiently asking clear and good questions, and taking meticulous notes, and there were no shortage of facts to find out about. 

Ultimately, the only person who can do anything about any of this is Ron Martin. The board of directors is toothless, between them holding less than 5% of shares in the club. Stan spoke of his passion for a 50+1 ownership model and was clear that in his opinion that did not mean there could be no outside investment (without Ron Martin dipping his hand into his pocket every month, we would undoubtedly be financially scuppered). 

Fans in turn did not resort to slurs or abuse against the owner. It was clear however that while supporters respected Ron Martin’s willingness to bankroll the club and did not begrudge him his bonanza that will arise from the building of 1,300 homes on Roots Hall and Fossetts Farm, he has nevertheless proved himself to be a woeful administrator of a football club. 

It remains fanciful that Ron has come this far, after 23 years, only to sell up when his dream is literally sitting in the council offices waiting for approval. He is tantalisingly close. However, it is very clear that the football side has been left to suffer: there has been no chief executive for four years; there is no club secretary, a vitally important position at any club; he is relying on the goodwill of existing staff to cover these positions and no doubt they are doing the very best they can, but with the greatest of respect, these are positions that need filling urgently, interestingly a point Steve Tilson was vehemently in agreement with. 

Stan Collymore is a divisive figure in football but at Southend United he will always be a hero. Fans have named their children after him (ahem). With his profile and contacts, his help in supporters fighting necessary changes to create a sustainable club that the town can be proud of once again should not be underestimated. It is very easy for Ron Martin to ignore Steve from Westcliff. It is less easy to ignore arguably the greatest and highest profile player to have ever played for Southend United. 

There was some initial cynicism, but Southend United fans can be incredibly grateful to Stan for his passion and his willingness to help the club that he spent a mere six months with. It was a six months that launched the career of one of the most exciting strikers this country has seen in a generation, and for those that witnessed it, it was the most exciting six months of their supporting lives too.  

You can say many things about Stan Collymore, and people are rarely shy to do so. But this is a man who loves football, lives and breathes it, and is passionate about its supporters and the role they have to play in the sport. If the last year has taught us anything, it is that fans are the lifeblood of football even if there are plenty of villains sitting in the wings, plotting to take it away from us. To reclaim the game, and the club we love, we need to be united. We saw that unity come over clearly during the call, and that can give us all hope. 

Stan is hoping for a parlay with the chairman today, and a socially distant, peaceful protest is planned by supporters for tomorrow. While protests for protests sake rarely have the desired effect, it is now clear that supporters have direction and purpose. And football supporters with direction and purpose have a long history of victory. Just ask Charlton Athletic, Blackpool and tomorrow’s opponents, Leyton Orient. 

You only have to look at the clubs in it now to see that the National League is full of biggish former League clubs that have been mismanaged. Southend United will join these ranks imminently. But it is not death. If it is done properly, it can be a place for resurrection. Ask Luton Town, Lincoln City, Oxford United. However, the stories of Wrexham, Stockport and York also show it is a league to be respected. The preparation the club puts in this summer will dictate where we land in our first season outside the Football League since 1920. It is time for Ron to get back his focus, make the changes to the club that are desperately needed, and build the foundations for a return to league football. 

Above the tunnel at Roots Hall, underneath the club crest, is the message #NeverGiveUp. Despite three years of being repeatedly kicked while we were down, the events of the last few days show that the supporters have no intention of doing so. 

To view the full Zoom call with Stan Collymore, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDY8WIS8KnU

All At Sea