History repeating

The backlash to Southend United’s new kit, an off the peg low-grade template that is available without the badge and some minor bespoke elements on the back for £15 from Sports Direct, was surprisingly fearsome. Some fans on the supporters’ message board ShrimperZone even called for the Commercial Director (a genuine supporter himself) to resign – perhaps oblivious to the fact that his hard work had netted the club a record sponsorship deal probably worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, putting him more in line for a raise than a disciplinary hearing.

The fact the sponsor was Paddy Power, an outspoken betting company with a history of brash PR stunts aimed at a certain type of young Fosters’ drinking males, further put people’s backs up with perhaps more justification. The lurch from two successive charity shirt sponsors (Amy May Trust and Prostate Cancer UK) to arguably the most notorious gambling company operating in the UK is going some, and the social media response suggests most see through their #SaveTheShirt campaign’s claim to be bringing football back to the fans given that research has found that gambling has become endemic in a certain demographic of supporters.

However what is, on the face of it, an overreaction by a vocal section of the fan base has deeper roots. Ironically, Southend United are currently paying a heavy price for gambling recklessly themselves. During the 2016-18 period, ‘name’ players like Anton Ferdinand, Simon Cox, Michael Kightly, Michael Turner and Rob Kiernan were procured in the hope that promotion to the Championship – and a subsequent jump in TV revenue from £680,000 to around £4.5million – would swiftly follow.

Blues did trouble the promotion contenders in that first season, but ultimately failed to gain a playoff place on the last day of the season. With an ageing squad, the club’s fortunes have since slipped and rumours have surfaced of players being paid late and there have been difficulties signing decent players because the budget has been used up. League One clubs are only allowed to spend 60% of turnover on player wages, and the latest accounts suggest that Blues are likely to be right at
their limit.

With no chief executive at the helm – another possible attempt to save money – even the most fundamental basics that fans expect appear on the surface to be being neglected, with pre-season friendlies and the annual club Meet The Blues Day organised late, in addition to the kit launch not occurring until ten days before the start of the 2019/20 season. This may not be the fault the club, but there is little communication so fans naturally fill these voids with speculation. Manager Kevin Bond – whose initial appointment smacked of cost-cutting given his lack of UK managerial experience but who since redeemed himself in the eyes of many by keeping the stricken club in League One by the barest of margins – is reluctant to engage with media on transfer targets, adding to the frustration felt by supporters.

There is a sense that the club is slowly dying. Most fans don’t like to question or look too deeply into the means of chairman Ron Martin, who on the face of it is a relatively small-time property developer, yet has been propping up the clubs losses for several years, and the amount owed to him stands at around £13million. His plans for a new stadium at Fossetts Farm, from where he hopes he will earn his money back, grow more grandiose (and hence complex and unrealistic) by the year, possibly as a result of his need for more and more revenue to recoup the losses he is making. In the meantime, Roots Hall, an atmospheric old ground steeped in history, is crumbling and there is little motivation or means for the club to provide any more than essential maintenance.

And of course there is the wider issue of the criminal distribution of TV money which threatens to destroy the English game, with top clubs swimming in riches while those at the bottom scrap for the crumbs they are fed by the all-powerful Premier League, strategically starved of cash by the game’s failing governing bodies. The slow strangulation of the lower divisions, which began as a thinly veiled ploy with the formation of the Premier League 1992, is showing signs of finally claiming victims. Bolton and Bury are in absolute turmoil. Coventry are starting the season without a ground, and several lower league clubs are struggling to pay their players on time. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the club felt they needed to jump into bed with a partner as immoral as Paddy Power. But it doesn’t mean the supporters, alienated more by every passing week, have to like it. Of course, football fans can forgive an awful lot off the pitch, almost everything, as long as they have a winning team on it. But the signs are that last season, one of the worst in living memory for the Shrimpers, is about to be repeated. True, expectations are lower given the 19 th -place finish, and if the manager pays the price, there won’t be the emotional heartache that was felt so deeply by supporters when Chris Powell had to depart in March. But there have only been three new signings, and already there are signs that last season’s unprecedented and immeasurably damaging injury crisis is going to linger into a second campaign. Those who missed a large chunk of last season are still showing no sign of returning. There has been a setback for Tom Hopper, whose absence was arguably the most influential, meaning he won’t be back in a blue, sponsorless shirt for at least a few more months yet. Talisman, best player and top goalscorer, Simon Cox, will miss the start of the season. And worst of all, the budget is already spent, with the club claiming that at times last season there was £20,000 worth of wages sitting on the treatment table every week. The team is leaning heavily on youngsters, who are promising but raw, inconsistent and lack the nous and game management experience that is so essential at this level.

Summer should be a time for relentless optimism, but the anticipation for the new season has been replaced for many with a familiar sense of dread. 2018/19, with no fewer than 13 home league defeats, was an experience no supporter wants to relive, but the warning signs are flashing. Jumping into bed with a betting partner is not something unique to Southend United, but it’s just another little indignity to swallow for supporters who, Stephen Humphrys 87th -minute winners aside, haven’t had much to cheer lately. For those who do like a flutter, Blues are priced at 14-1 with its latest sponsor for promotion and just 7-2 to be relegated – and the house rarely loses.

Jai Forsyth – @Jaimundo_ESX

Issue 73 – Sid Broomfield Obituary

The social media anger and recriminations following the Barnsley capitulation had barely subsided when news came through on Monday, 4 March that Sid Broomfield had passed away over the weekend, and put everything into sad perspective.

Sid Broomfield was a true Southend United hero. Armed with just picks and shovels, he and a few willing volunteers crafted the banks of terracing that would become Roots Hall. This was just a small part of the “little job” that chairman Alderman Smith had asked Sid to do back in 1953, with supporters having raised £74,000 to build a home for their club. The land on which Roots Hall was built was a quarry, tens of feet lower than the previous pitch that had stood on the site when the club was founded, uneven and strewn with waste. It took two years before the first game could be played, against Norwich City in 1955, with groundsman Sid leading the way with only the help of volunteers and supporters and even the player, who were paid to help with the construction during the summer months. The mighty South Bank, seventy two steps high and finished in 1962, became its crowning glory.

64 years on from that first match, Ron Martin continues to harbour grand plans for a move to Fossetts Farm, and Roots Hall looks tired and neglected as the club constantly battles to stay afloat. But there can be no ground in English football that is such a monument to its supporters. And not many where the atmosphere can be so special when things are going well.

Sid retired in 1990, a couple of years after most of the old South Bank had been sold off for flats, but was a regular visitor to Roots Hall well into his nineties. He acknowledged in an interview with the Independent in 2000 that the club had to move to sustain its future, but admitted it was sad and that football was “less friendly and all about money”.

Perhaps it is telling that Sid should pass, at the age of 94, the weekend that Southend suffered a club record tenth home defeat of the season. Over the years, Roots Hall has been a notoriously difficult place to come for opposition teams, a status that surely would have made Sid proud.

Hopefully, if the club does ever move to a new stadium, which it surely has to do to survive, there will be a lasting monument to Sid Broomfield. He after all, gave Southend United fans their place of worship.

Jamie Forsyth – @Jaimundo_ESX

Issue 72 – Rob Kiernan reviews: WebFlicks

HI everyone and welcome to my blog. My name is Rob and I am a 27-year-old footballer. When not playing football I enjoy WebFlicks and relax. I’ve been injured recently and my mum sent me a nice card to say Get Well Soon, it doesn’t seem to have worked very well but inside was a lovely message about how I used to work hard at school and my English teacher was always very impressed, My Dad is very proud of me but says that my career won’t last forever and I need to think of something to do afterwards.

So I thought, “Hey, why not combine what I like with what I might need to do one day in order to maintain the lifestyle associated with a lower league professional footballer?”. Now I’m writing about things I’ve been watching on WebFlicks and you’re reading it (hopefully lol!). Now without further ado, here are my first reviews:

Quaking a murderer

OK so this is a show about a bloke who is in Prison for murder somewhere in America (one of those random places in the middle) only he never did it. The show is about how the police faked (get it?!) all the evidence and trick the thick lad into grassing his mate up. They accuse him of force feeding someone porridge until they burst which seems weird but the jury go for it for some reason? It’s tense, just make sure you don’t look up wikipedia halfway through the series to find out he’s still in prison. 7/10

Mouse of Cards

In Mouse of Cards, there’s a mouse called Dennis and he’s really good at cards. Seriously good. He’s like the Lionel Messi of cards only better because Lionel Messi famously is shit at cards. Anyway Dennis the mouse basically plays a load of card games against everyone and always wins. Sometimes it looks like he might not win but he still always wins. You’d think everybody would get bored of the same outcome happening in a slightly different but still very deliberately clever and occasionally over-engineered way in every episode but everyone still loves it. Good if you like cribbage, I suppose. 4/10

Strangers’ Things

Random members of the public are stopped on the street in city centres across the country and forced to turn out their pockets according to an obscure by-law from 1783. Totally unpredictable television but can be a bit vindictive towards the homeless at times. 9/10

Orange is the new Snack

Jamie Oliver can’t get on TV much these days but WebFlicks will commission any old rubbish and here is the big-tongued Essex Boy up to his old tricks again trying to take sweets away from children and give them fresh fruit instead. What an absolute bastard. General vibe of the show is made watchable by seeing him get chased off by any parents who catch him accosting their kids. S1E3 is set in Stoke and is well worth a watch. 3/10 (10 in places)

Master of One

Documentary about people across the world and their struggles and triumphs with only one of a specific body part (eyes, arms, vertebrae etc.). Sad but ultimately very uplifting – in a quite literal sense for the bloke with a tiny spine. 8/10

Liam Ager – @realliamager

#1 – We revolve, but we don't evolve – 2018/19 review


You’ve had a month to recover since Stephen Humphrys’ goal against Sunderland saved us from League Two with three minutes of the 2018/19 season left – now Martin Cass joins AAS co-editors Liam Ager and Jamie Forsyth to dissect the hows, whys and wtfs of a traumatic and emotional campaign in the first All At Sea podcast in nine years.

Spoiler – mentions injuries

Issue 71 – The family home

If you look up the word ‘home’ in my dictionary it is defined as ‘the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household’.

That sums up perfectly how I feel about Roots Hall. It has always been my permanent football ‘home’, and I’ve always felt that I belonged… whether I was laughing, screaming or crying on the terraces, or frantically scribbling notes down on a pad covering a Southend United match for the Echo.

And as my own life has turned full circle, it dawned on me just how much I would miss my cherished ‘Theatre of Rust’ if we ever do make it to the fabled Fossetts Farm site. The ongoing saga of moving ground has had more ups and downs than a porn star’s G-string over the last four decades. 

When I wrote Roy McDonough’s book, Red Card Roy, he told me Blues boss Bobby Moore tried to woo him with a plastic model of a new super-duper stadium when he rejoined the club in the mid-80s… when all our Maverick No.10 wanted to know was the location of the nearest bar to the players’ tunnel to seal the deal. Wind forward to the start of the Noughties and Uncle Ron rudely interrupted Coronation Street, pleading with me on the phone not to run a story about the latest incarnation of the stadium switch being in chaos. We ended up slapping a big red cross over the artist’s futuristic impression of the proposed football ground/spaceship which landed on the front page of the Echo the following evening. And to this day the first construction shovel has still not broken earth at Fossetts Farm… and I’ll offer no apologies that it gives me intense satisfaction. You can blame that on my six-year-old son and my desire for him to soak up, download and remember every bit of our spiritual ‘home’, before we are one day finally condemned to an eternity of sitting in a soulless, click-and-fix plastic crate, miles out of town.

As I tried to pass on the birth rite of a lifetime of Saturday afternoon misery a few years ago, my lad was oblivious to the 4-0 home mauling handed out by the ravenous Lions of Millwall at his first game. He didn’t even acknowledge the South London branch of the Caravan Club serenading his grizzly-looking father with a rendition of ‘There’s only one Karel Poborsky’ as we took our seats in the Trivial Pursuit cheese section of the West Stand next door. And as he chomped on his Mini Cheddars in a Thomas the Tank Engine fleece, paying little attention to Blues hitting the buffers, I was travelling back down the line to my own Roots Hall debut.

I was a year older than him and being whisked through a Friday night well past my bedtime in the family estate. Black silhouettes of terraced roof tops flashed past the passenger-seat window as my dad navigated the outskirts of Southend. ‘Are we there yet?’ I excitedly asked him. ‘You will know when we are,’ he replied. ‘Keep looking for the floodlights above the ground.’ Floodlights? What was he going on about? But it all clicked into place as a yellowy glow began illuminating the slanted tiles and wonky chimney stacks ahead. Then I saw a massive alien structure stretching its metal head into the night sky. Then there were two of them, no three, then four. I gawped open-mouthed at their square faces crammed full of bright, phosphorus eyeballs beaming down at the grey barrelled roofs of the football ground below and the enormous grandstand which already had a congregation of ant-sized people gathering inside it. Dad pushed some coins through a small crudely-cut opening to an old stubbly-chinned man sitting behind an iron grill. And they both chuckled as my father pushed the heavy arms of the turnstile forward until it clicked, following my futile attempts to struggle through it alone. A dizzying cocktail of loud, but inaudible chatter, and musty cigarette smoke filled the air as my father grabbed my hand tightly and herded me through the crowd ascending steep wooden steps. And as the mass of bodies in front of us conquered the dingy climb and disappeared, I saw an opening bathed in light – a spellbinding portal to another world. Nervously gripping dad’s hand harder to keep a vertigo-like head rush at bay, I took a brave glimpse downwards from the summit and could not believe the view. Row upon row of people were scattered around from top to bottom. They were nattering away, flicking through little booklets and carefully steering frosty lips towards steaming-hot drinks. There must have been hundreds, no thousands, of them. I did not even realise this many people existed!

The pitch looked fluorescent green with dazzling white lines stencilled across it as every blade of grass was coated by the glare of the floodlights. And it was huge… 10 times bigger than my school pitch!

A stranger shouted ‘Give us an S…’, then added, ‘O… U… T… H… E… N… D…’. And he was obviously popular in these parts, as lots of his friends repeated the letters back to him, before the lead singer threw his arms in the air and demanded loudly, ‘What have ya got?’ And everyone replied, ‘SOUTHEND.’ Clap, clap clap. ‘SOUTHEND.’ It carried on for a few minutes before fizzling out and I thought they must have practised hard before the game to all get it right at the same time.

As shivering players in skin-tight shorts waited for a little bloke in a black uniform to blow his whistle and get the game underway, another gentleman wearing a blue and white hat stood up in front of me. He pointed at a small group of men dwarfed by a high bank of open terrace as they huddled together to keep warm behind a goal at the other end of the ground and growled at the top of his voice, ‘Sheep Shaggers’. But he must have been mistaken as dad assured me the other team were from ‘Whales’. All of the excitement was too much for me as I blacked out not long after that, falling fast asleep in my father’s arms. He stayed until the end, allowing me to dribble on his coat more consistently than either of Southend’s wingers, before carrying me back to the car at the final whistle. 

With dad driving off to work early the next morning, I spent most of Saturday in a curious daze, unable to demand answers to my numerous questions. The most pressing regarded his pre-match warning that the whole ground would take off like a rocket when Southend scored a goal. Surely such a loud blast would have woken me up? But I had not missed a thing during my Roots Hall slumber as the game had finished nil-nil – which meant no goals… and no fans thrusting into celebratory orbit.

It was not until many years later I discovered dad was telling fibs, bless him. Striker Alan Curtis bagged a double in a 2-0 away victory on that cold December night in 1978, helping the Swans soar out of the old Third Division on their way to playing in the top flight three seasons later. And I never watched a football match with my dad again.

Now, sitting there all those years later, I was struck by a deep-rooted feeling of premature loss. There was no tearful reminiscing about my one and only trip there with my father, it just hit me that time was running out on a place so heavily intertwined with my own development as a human being. I had made the passage from boy to man inside Roots Hall’s crumbling walls, built my future career as a writer there, and lost both of my parents and squeezed in a divorce and a child during that same football journey. And I had taken it for granted that it would always be here for me whenever I needed it… a comfort blanket of warming nostalgia. A stadium where a teenager’s obsession with football was cemented by McDonough tucking a penalty past Derby’s Peter Shilton as England’s No.1 got showered in pink toilet rolls chucked from the North Bank. The place I witnessed the impossible rise into the promised land of the old Second Division for the first time in the 90s, and where an unknown kid called Collymore with deadly rocket power in his boots glided past opposition defenders like an adult beating children for fun over the park. And, sitting in the East Stand press box – close to where I had cuddled up to my father – watching Freddy Eastwood’s free-kick send Rooney, Ronaldo and Co packing, as Manchester United were humiliated in the League Cup 12 years ago.

I’d like to be ultra selfish and hang on to those magical pictures, framed by their goosebump-generating surroundings, for a few more years yet if I can. Not because I want to stand in the way of progress, but because our dirty, unfashionable football heritage is facing extinction as the game rapidly evolves from a working-man’s (and woman’s) sport, into just another whitewashed money-making business. Wooden seats, carpet burgers, higgledy-piggledy stands and over-flowing toilets tailor-made for welly wearers are being traded in across the country as clubs shed their individual eccentricities for sterile stadiums cloned from the same mould and plonked next to a motorway.

A few more seasons of discomfort in our ramshackle old ground is precious to me. Just so my Evan will be old enough to remember watching football in a ‘proper ground’ before they are all consigned to propping up super markets, housing blocks and pay-and-display car parks nationwide. I want him to know what ‘home’ looks, feels, smells, tastes and sounds like before it is mercilessly bulldozed and gone forever. And, hopefully, he will never forget it.

I know I never will. 

Bernie Friend – @berniefriend38