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

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

Another day of reckoning

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. 

Sol, we hardly knew ye

IT’S difficult to shrug off the feeling that, as he watched Nathan Bishop pick the ball out of his net over and over again during the 7-1 defeat against Doncaster, Sol Campbell knew he had made a terrible mistake before the ink had even dried on the contract he had signed earlier that day.

A mate of mine was in the tunnel after the match that night as part of a birthday mascot package for his father, and recalls a senior player approach Sol, probably while the new manager was still processing what he had just seen, to tell him he wouldn’t be in training the following day, because he had a speed awareness test.

Even after spending months at Macclesfield without pay, he could surely not have believed that he would be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

After a very tough run of three league games that unsurprisingly saw no points taken by a team that was practically relegated before the clocks went back following the worst start to any team in England since the 1960s, the FA Cup defeat at Dover saw fans turn on the players at the final whistle, launching a tirade of abuse that left those in yellow visibly shocked.

That night, another senior player was filmed in a pub laughing and cheering with Dover players celebrating their win.

January came with the same false hope it brings every year. Sol saw several senior players sold or released from underneath him, leaving him ever more reliant on young players, many of whom were nowhere near ready for first-team football, to bridge the gap. He was promised reinforcements but as it turned out, the club was under a transfer embargo – not that the powers-that-be were saying much about it. Sol did eventually persuade Emmanuel Osadebe and Theo Vassell to leave Macclesfield and sign for the Shrimpers in February but they could not be registered because of the ongoing embargo. Presumably now they never will be.

Campbell cut a sullen and beleagured figure during this period, frequently expressing his bewilderment with the situation. His catchphrases included “I don’t know” and “it is what it is”. It was no doubt embarrassing for such a decorated figure in football to be messed around like he was and then shoved in front of a camera to try and explain it.

There were frequent suggestions that all was not well between Sol and some players. However, many fans rightly pointed out that many of these players had undermined every manager they had played under in recent years, so it probably wasn’t a bad thing that some had to face some home truths.

The global pandemic that curtailed the season in March this year almost came as a blessed relief to Southend fans who had been treated to four wins all season and eight since the start of 2019. Apart from a club statement in April encouraging people to stay safe and to provide a vague update on matters around the club, Sol was not heard from again.

An interview with Mark Milligan recently suggested that nobody from the club had been in touch with him about a new contract or coaching role, which raised question marks about whether the management was communicating with the squad. Out-of-contract players were then informed by letter that they would be released or offered terms.

The only surprising thing about Sol Campbell’s departure was the length of time it took to announce. There have been suggestions that his desk has been cleared for some time.

The club’s statement suggests that Campbell nobly agreed that he was a financial burden in unprecedented times, and valiantly stood aside. It’s a nice PR line that suits all parties. The reality is that Sol Campbell’s position had been untenable for a while through very little fault of his own. Is it really just a coincidence that Ron Martin released a statement through the Echo just this weekend, bemoaning the commitment of certain people at the club?

For all Campbell’s merits – and there were plenty – he appeared aloof to many and rarely appeared to covet a special relationship with the supporters. Some were triggered by his social media antics, which while doubtless intended as light-hearted ways to communicate with his wider following, became less and less humorous as the situation at Southend became more and more serious. After all, if you can’t even bring yourself to pick up a phone to tell a player some bad news, it doesn’t look great to be sat in Chelsea, wearing a straw-hat and telling people you’ve got your thinking cap on.

Sol Campbell will be a success as a manager, of that I have no doubt. He is determined and professional, has no time for slackers and understands the game. He did oversee improvements, had a ground of young players playing with heart by the end, and he leaves the club in a better place than he found it. Unfortunately, it was just the wrong place for him at this time. I wish him all the best, and may his next job be at a club which is much less of a basket case.

Burnley, banners and Black lives

On Monday night a plane flew over Manchester City’s stadium prior to the home team’s 5-0 victory. Trailing behind it was a banner with the words “WHITE LIVES MATTER BURNLEY”. The aeroplane banner has become a strange phenomenon in British football, gaining popularity over the last 10 years since Steve Kean’s unpopular appointment at, ironically enough, Blackburn Rovers. This is perhaps its most sinister deployment. The company responsible is alleged to have said “If an ad is legal and no coarse language is used then we don’t take sides”; perhaps an odd occasion to plump for neutrality when one of those sides is asking that black people aren’t killed by police for allegedly trying to pay for groceries with a counterfeit $20 bill or selling loose cigarettes or holding a BB gun or getting out of your car when told or running away when being stopped driving. Burnley FC released a statement that evening condemning the actions of those that organised the banner and Burnley’s Captain Ben Mee railroaded his own post-match interview to draw attention to his own sense of shame and embarrassment, claiming that those that organised the banner had “missed the point of what the players were trying to achieve” by having Black Lives Matter printed on the shirts. But this event mustn’t scapegoat Burnley, it is a problem present everywhere.

Southend, like Burnley, is a medium sized town with plenty of angry young men who haven’t had a pay rise in 10 years. Like Lancashire, Essex voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU and the man that pissed on the memorial to PC Keith Palmer, the officer that died on duty during a terror attack at Westminster, was from Essex. We have our fair share of things to be embarrassed about whether or not the rest of the country chooses to point the finger at us as they have been known to in the past. Some might question why Brexit has been mentioned and to those people I suggest that you look at the eruption in hate crime 4 years ago after the result of the referendum or the assassination of Jo Cox MP in the days preceding it. White pride, as the plane soaring over everyone’s heads proved, has never been higher on the agenda.

The media will not paint this incident as a nationwide issue, but it is. Anyone that has attended more than a couple of football matches in the last few years will know the distasteful element that each club carries: some of them are in the toilets taking cocaine at half time; some of them are singing 10 German Bombers on away days; some of them are getting in scraps at stations or arguing with retail or pub staff. Ultimately, you’re not responsible for anyone else’s behaviour than your own and so, hopefully, the racists that organised this banner will find out as they’re banned from Turf Moor; some may even lose jobs and friends. Routinely these individuals are denounced as “not real fans” but they are. They’re the fans throwing banana skins at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or the fans hissing as visiting Spurs supporters in mimicry of the gas chambers of WWII. They’re season ticket holders and pumping money into the local economy on match days and keeping the bookies afloat and talking about fantasy football non-stop either side of their game at 3pm. Now they’re here to remind you that white people shouldn’t be forgotten about.

Black Lives Matter is not a competition, there’s an assumption from some that BLM actually means Black Lives Matter More. But it doesn’t say this, deliberately so. There’s no one-upmanship here, the BLM movement is about recognising that the black experience (and other ethnic minorities) is different from the white experience. That’s one of the reasons that saying things like “I don’t see race” is now no longer seen as sufficient by some people. A man in Minnesota was killed by a policeman because he could do it; his colleagues didn’t stop him and the public didn’t confront armed officers. That is part of the black experience. Black people educate their own communities into how to deal with being stopped by police because it happens… A LOT. On the face of it they are playing the same game as the rest of us but are still playing by different rules, history, culture and wealth is stacked against them. BLM is supposed to draw your attention to this so that you can see a policeman kill a man as he begs for his life and that you can correctly say “that’s not right, that shouldn’t have happened”. White lives do matter, but white people aren’t being disproportionately stopped by police or disproportionately dying in police custody or disproportionately fined for breaking lockdown. Those are just examples in the UK; in the US you can add lynching and being killed by the police.

I am a 31 year old white man. I cannot and will never know what it’s like to live the life of BAME people when a police officer is walking towards them on the street. I will never know what it’s like to be a woman walking home alone at night and hear a new set of footsteps behind her. I will never know what it’s like to feel so overwhelmed by shame because of my sexual preference for my own gender that suicide feels like the only way out. These are not my issues and so I can’t speak to them. I have nothing to add to the topics but through the stories of others I have plenty to take from each. I can only be responsible for my own behaviour and so I try to be. When someone tells you that black lives matter are you listening or just waiting for your turn to speak?

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

Issue 75 – Transparency

Anton Ferdinand recently gave a heartfelt interview in a podcast about how tough he found things when his mother passed away, how it affected his performances for Southend. Although he rightly pointed out that his situation was relatively public knowledge because of his profile, many supporters would either have been unaware or unable to quite understand how much he was struggling, and he took a lot of stick from fans during that difficult 2017/18 season.

Chris Barker’s death reiterates the need to be wary of the mental health of players who are going through a tough time in their personal lives. Anton said he went to “some dark places” during the months after his mother’s death, but found it difficult to reach out for support even from his wife and team mates.

This got me thinking about how little supporters actually know about what players are going through off the pitch and about things going on at a football club in general. Anthony Wordsworth got a fair bit of stick during his final season at Southend, and even ended up in court following an altercation at the club’s Christmas party, but many supporters were unaware that he was struggling to cope with the death of his brother at the time.

Obviously everyone deals with these issues in their own way, but I can’t help but feeling if supporters were made aware of the struggles that both players were going through, they would have been able to empathise. 

This kind of honestly would not come naturally to most players. From the moment they become professionals, players are media trained and taught to be guarded and say the right things whenever the cameras are present, or they are posting on social media. How many times have you read the usual tropes on Twitter about “we go again” or “fans were great as always”. Generic, dull, safe. 

Some players go against the grain, tell it how it is and are regarded by fans and the media as a breath of fresh air, but you can guarantee they will have had some difficult conversations with chairmen, managers or PR people as a result. From a young age, players are taught to be robots, even though they are human beings and have good days and bad days, family problems and car trouble (insert Michael Timlin joke here) like the rest of us.

It is bizarre and unfathomable when you think about it, how football clubs are utterly unaccountable to their supporters. During January, Southend United undoubtedly spent some time under a transfer embargo. Yet this information was not publicly available, and even Chris Phillips at the Echo had a hard time getting the truth. Ron Martin was never going to disclose it, he is always happy to let his manager take the rod from the fans for not bringing in players. But why does the FA, or EFL, not publicly list information about which clubs are under a transfer embargo? No doubt clubs would be extremely unhappy and would claim it is a competitive disadvantage (as if people inside the game don’t know already or talk to each other) but supporters who are paying upwards of £20 a match to go and watch their team play deserve to know.

The more you visit things like the Southend United Facebook group, the more you realise how little the average football fan knows about the inner workings of a football club. A good example of this is transfer fees. These are usually undisclosed (again, keeping things from fans), but in the case of Tom Hopper, the Echo revealed the fee was approximately £150,000. As a result, fans would think the club has had a much-needed short-term boost and presumably can reinvest in the squad, no? Well actually most transfer fees are paid in instalments, over the course of a player’s contract. And the first instalment may well not arrive instantly. Indeed some chairmen (naming no names) have not been brilliant over the years at paying these instalments on time. So when Ron spun his latest line about paying fees for players in January, some would have scratched their heads as to how that was possible given the players and backroom staff went for a fortnight without their December salaries. But the transfer fees would not have been paid straight away, so actually it’s not a big leap to imagine, especially as the fees would not be substantial.

But if football clubs were a little more transparent about the business they did, then the support base would be more knowledgeable. Perhaps then, club officials would not moan so much about fans not understanding how things work and criticising the wrong people or things. It would also remove the gossip and half-truths that dominate conversations on message boards and social media. Where there is a vacuum of information, particularly these days, it will be filled by someone – correct details or not – and will quickly spread.

Southend United are by no means unique in conducting their day-to-day business shrouded in secrecy. But perhaps it is time for things to change across the game, as it is no longer realistic for clubs to keep everything to themselves. Things leak out, not always with the whole truth, which can be damaging. Clubs are now particularly reliant on their owners, often just one person, and when there is no scrutiny, this leads directly to situations like Bury.

Owners like Andy Holt (Accrington) and Daragh McAnthony (Peterborough) regularly update fans on goings on via social media (and doubtless regularly clash with the EFL over it), but this doesn’t really go far enough. Having a publicly available ledger of transfer business should be possible, especially as agents fees (by club) are regularly published. Players’ salaries could be publicly available. I’d love to see how much Liam Ridgewell has trousered from us for his half-game shitshow against Blackpool. Footballers would see this as a breach of privacy and clubs would worry it would upset dressing room morale, but to be honest most of them know what their team mates earn anyway and it might force clubs to treat players equally.  Disciplinary action against players should be publicly available, and it’s high time that clubs stopped claiming a player is “injured” (hello Simon ‘pelvic injury’ Cox) when they’re imminently off to another club. It’s insulting to our intelligence.

Surely it is time for the Government to take a firmer grip on how the game is being run. Football clubs should also be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. As we all know, the FA have no power and the Premier League is riding roughshod over the EFL, taking everything it can until there’s nothing left (the latest pressure being on FA Cup Fourth round replays due to “too many games” for Pep Guardiola’s poor little beleaguered 70-man squad). 

It’s time for a higher power to intervene, although that’s unlikely under a Conservative government – without to make this article political, and whatever you think of the respective parties overall, there’s no doubt Labour takes a far keener interest in the game and has plenty of very knowledgeable MPs that know how important it is.

Football clubs belong to the supporters. Owners might disagree with that, but we can hope that Southend United will be around for longer that Ron Martin will. The players, managers and staff for the most part are passing through. How can it be right that in 2020, the people who know the least about the inner workings of their clubs, are the ones that will still be there when everyone else is gone?

Jamie Forsyth – @Jaimundo_ESX