Who can steer the ship?

UNTIL January 2018, the good ship Southend United had been sailing relatively tranquil waters for years, arguably since the crisis of 2010 which saw Steve Tilson lose his job as the financially crippled Shrimpers plunged back down to the depths of League Two.

In those seven and a half years, the hotseat had been occupied by just two men, Paul Sturrock and Phil Brown – and while some clubs seemed to have a constantly revolving door to the manager’s office, there was an element of pride among Shrimpers fans that Ron Martin was a patient chairman willing to give his employees time.

19 months later, we’re about to appoint the third permanent boss since Brown’s departure. The promise of Chris Powell’s early months was cruelly smashed on the rocks last season by a quite abhorrent and unprecedented injury situation that left him without 10-15 players for a large portion of the season. It would have been a huge challenge for anyone – but Powell was broken and went into his shell, his team unable to recover.

Ron reluctantly acted, with the club facing relegation, and made an out-of-left-field appointment in Kevin Bond, doubtless seduced by the potential presence of Harry Redknapp. Arry saw the iceberg early and made haste back to Sandbanks, but Bond’s early bounce kept us up. However, his permanent appointment has proved to be a disaster with careless man-management, baffling formations and total confusion on the pitch leading to a pointless start to the 2019/20 campaign.

Worse for wear but still the boss: Uncle Ron

I mentioned on the AAS end of season podcast that Bond’s appointment was make-or-break for this club. A club that sifts through managers so quickly is only on one path, and we’re already seeing that Bond was a huge mistake. The leaves may still be on the trees, but with the season being cut short due to Bury’s untimely demise, whoever Ron entrusts with the job next has a real fight on their hands to keep the club from dropping into League Two.

Kevin Bond is the fall guy of course, and most fans will acknowledge that he had to go. But the problems began before Bond, and it would appear that, with among the oldest squads in the division, there are a fair few within our ranks that have undermined the last two managers when things haven’t been going well. In fact, the performances of the last few games of Bond’s tenure were downright mutinous and certainly won’t have endeared those players to the supporters, who continue to pay their hard earned money in a town where the average weekly wage is the lowest in the country.

There is once again a poisonous atmosphere around the club which affects everyone, even those few players who have been giving their all. What is clear is that whoever comes in will have to deal with this problem before a ball has even been kicked on the training ground.

For me, Bond’s key mistake was trying to get players of League One ability to play a style which they were clearly not comfortable playing, trying to build from the back, while cycling through a dizzying array of formations and systems when, after the injury-hit last months of last season when Powell could barely name the same starting eleven twice, the team was crying out for a consistent system that suited the players within it.

Bond decided pretty early that wingers were not for him. This will hamper the new manager, who should they want to revert to using all available space on the pitch, will have to rely on the unproven loanee Layton Ndukwu, the out-of-form Stephen McLaughlin, the inexperienced Isaac Hutchinson and the injured Sam Barrett until at least January. Ndukwu in particularly already looks shell-shocked, thrust into a seething dressing room and forced to play in an unfamiliar position in the centre of the park.

So, who’s in the frame for the top job? Certainly there’s been little given away about who the club are actually talking to. An internet rumour citing Barnet’s Darren Currie was quickly swatted away by Echo journalist Chris Phillips, the most trustworthy source around for the inside track on the club. Given Blues’ lack of financial means, and the fact that Ron has never been a poacher, it would seem a move for Currie is a naan starter. Sorry. No, I really am sorry, I don’t know how that slipped out.

Fans have been quick to champion the merits of Phil Parkinson, and given his track record Ron would indeed be foolish to overlook the former Bolton (and Colchester) manager, who has succeeded almost everywhere he has gone and gets his teams organised. However, Parkinson ruled himself out of the running on Tuesday, possibly having his head turned by the far more attractive vacancy at Lincoln City.

Another popular choice would be Adam Barrett, who has completed his UEFA Pro Licence badge, the highest level possible, and has had three years’ experience coaching Millwall, certainly a tough environment to learn. For many fans, Powell’s sacking is a fresh wound which leads them to fear a club legend being tarnished by the possibility of failure. Let’s just be glad Ron didn’t take that attitude back in the winter of 2003.

Barrett has of course been working under Neil Harris, a Millwall legend, and together they have got the Lions punching above their weight in the Championship. Along with Mike Duff (Cheltenham) and Michael Flynn (Newport), he is an example of a popular club figure with no previous managerial experience excelling in the top job. Ex Blues man Graham Coughlan has also shown that a lack of managerial background is no barrier to success, as he continues to impress at Bristol Rovers.

Of course, Adam Barrett is not Chris Powell, who in turn is not Steve Tilson. All three are different men with different qualities and weaknesses. That former players Anton Ferdinand and Ben Coker, both of whom shared a dressing room with Barrett, have come out in support of ‘John’, as he was affectionately known, speaks volumes. Barrett is a natural leader, who commanded respect from every dressing room he has walked into as a player. Whoever comes in will need qualities such as these more than any other.

Finally, given financial constraints, could it be possible that the chairman could look to promote from within? Captain Mark Milligan’s absence from the Australia squad this week got tongues wagging, although his leg injury is apparently genuine. Assistant manager Gary Waddock has managerial experience at QPR, Wycombe and Oxford, but has only really tasted any kind of success with Aldershot. Neither would be particularly popular appointments, associated as they are with Southend’s catastrophic start to the season.

Whoever does come in, there can be no half measures. Bond always had the feel of a stop-gap, even when his position was cemented in the summer. The slate must be wiped clean for the new manager, and that even means sticking with them through relegation, if there are clear signs of improvement from now until May. Ron must get this right – get it wrong and the good ship will sink – and League Two will be the least of our concerns.

Jamie Forsyth – @Jaimundo_ESX

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