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

Issue 74 – Baltic Blues

With the start of a new season bringing the usual mixture of eager anticipation laced with fear and foreboding, especially after last season’s Houdini act. So it was a shock to realise I have been supporting The Blues for nearly 60 years. I am now living in Latvia (probably the only Blues supporter in the Baltics and almost certainly the oldest) but thanks to the iFollow service I can now watch nearly every game in the season, except those that Sky grab! 

But where did those years go? In my case it began at the end of 1960 when as a 16 year old schoolboy, I was uprooted from deepest Wiltshire to hitherto unknown Southend-on-Sea at the behest of E. K. Cole Ltd, for whom my father worked. They made televisions – anyone remember the Ekco brand? – and in an early example of cost cutting and rationalisation they had closed their Malmesbury, Wiltshire operation to move to their HQ in Priory Crescent, Southend. At my new school, Southend High School for Boys, I was taken under the wing of a fervent supporter of the Blues who insisted I should pay a visit to Roots Hall as a matter of priority, far exceeding the attractions of the pier or the Kursaal. 

In my previous location, I had been to a few matches at nearby Swindon, (my best mate at my old school lived in the same street as the legendary Ernie Hunt who was a family friend and in Mike Summerbee they had another player who went on to great things, not to mention a very young teenager called Don Rogers of whom much was expected) but I was never really hooked. Anyway, in a spirit of goodwill and curiosity I turned up one day to see what the fuss was all about. Roots Hall was after all, the newest ground in the football league, bright and shiny and only 5 years old, with recently installed floodlights, not a bit like that run down old County Ground that Swindon called home. A shining example of what could be achieved by a combination of a forward looking board of directors and sheer hard graft by volunteers and supporters in the local community, who had created this ‘Seaside Wembley’ as the Daily Mail put it. Three shillings in old money represented a high proportion of my pocket money and if this was to become a habit, sacrifices in other areas would have to be made, like being more choosy about my purchase of pop records (did I really buy ‘Are You Sure’ by The Allisons?). 

The game was a local derby against Colchester United so a good choice for a baptism, although I had little idea of the implacable hostility that existed between the more dedicated sets of supporters, which I was later to witness on my way out of the ground! I went on my own as my school friend and Blues fanatic was inexplicably unavailable that day. I had no idea where to stand so just headed for the nearest entrance which led me into the northeast corner of the ground. From here I could see at the other end the impressively vast expanse of the South Bank and made a mental note to stand there if I went again. However, for now I took up my position on the small open terrace among a group of what turned out to be largely disgruntled, mostly middle aged supporters obviously soured by the indifferent results of a season that carried the threat of relegation up to the last minute. I soon realised what a sheltered life I had lived until now. I had never heard my father use some of the language flying back and forth and thankfully some of the references and suggestions put to the players passed over my innocent head but I remember thinking if this is what the crowd is like when we are winning…. 

Nearly sixty years later I have a much better, indeed personal, understanding of the frustrations and sufferings of the long term supporter but at the time I was deeply shocked at the intensity and depth of emotion a poor pass or a missed goal opportunity could invoke, especially in a fixture like this with so much local prestige at stake, never mind the three points. If I close my eyes, I can see the commanding Peter Watson at centre half battling against the Colchester centre forward, balding Jimmy Fryatt scoring the first goal for Southend. Bustling, confident young Bobby Kellard, not much more than a schoolboy and a local lad too, frail looking but skilful John McKinven, who scored our second goal (how things changed in later years) and the imperious full back, craggy featured Alexander (but always Sandy) Anderson, a real Roots Hall favourite. Talking of Anderson, when I started working in a local bank the following year, he came in to cash a cheque. My manager, always quick to spot a chance to ingratiate himself, but who had never been to Roots Hall in his life and had no interest in football whatsoever, immediately started a conversation with him as though it was the passion of his life while I was cashing the cheque and it was to my great satisfaction that Sandy winked at me on his way out as if to say “Don’t worry son, I’ve got his number”. 

On my way out, I hastily side stepped some minor scuffling, pushing, shoving and chanting between some of my more exuberant contemporaries and made my way home, basking in the glow of a 2-1 win. I managed a couple or so more visits that season but did not see another win, although we did manage to stay up. The summer passed with swotting for my impending ‘A’ levels but something strange was happening. I gradually became aware that as the weeks passed I was starting to anticipate the new season with unexpectedly keen interest. The seeds scattered randomly in the Spring of 1961 were starting to bear fruit, or to put it another way, I was succumbing to an addiction from which I still haven’t found the cure, or indeed wouldn’t ever really want to.

Gerry Stonestreet

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

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