Southend United: The Ground Grinds On

Of all the Football League’s last-day dramas, the most dramatic was at the bottom of League One. Wimbledon made the great escape, having needed snookers in February. And Southend United made the late escape, despite being ninth on New Year’s Day. Stephen Humphrys’ 87th-minute winner at home to play-off finalists Sunderland leaving them, Wimbledon and Plymouth Argyle on 50 points, separated on goal difference in that order.

Nevertheless, cynical supporters are still predicting that they “will be non-league by the time this much-fabled stadium is built.” Because, yes folks, the Shrimpers’ off-field song remains the same. Financial problems still exist. Fossetts Farm STILL doesn’t. In fact, 2018/19 was almost a ‘traditional’ Southend season. (Yet more) delays to a decades-old ‘new’ stadium project. And HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC’s) almost annual winding-up petition.

Gallows humour is, understandably, a Southend-fan speciality. Hence the in-season calls for Billericay ex-owner Glenn Tamplin to takeover (they were joking, weren’t they?). And news of the latest HMRC wind-up over unpaid taxes, filed in December, led ‘prawnzone.com’ to tweet: “Current form v HMRC: WWWWWWWW,” while a shrimperzone.com fan-forum contributor tweeted Southend’s full “head-to-head record v HMRC,” dates an’ all: Ten wins, no draws, no losses.

A surlier Shrimper said it was “fatuous in the extreme” to call the petitions’ dismissals “wins.” But there’s been so many that ‘you’ve got to laugh’ really. The worry is that they seem like club chairman Ron Martin’s financial strategy. “Standard practice for the powers-that-be at SUFC,” a rhyming shrimperzone administrator sighed. And one day, United will reach the tax equivalent of crying wolf. So, while fans ask to “play” HMRC “every week,” it can get overlooked that HMRC only need one win.

Southend made it 11 wins in February. But short-term financial issues re-emerged before the Sunderland match, with reports of “a number of players” receiving April salaries two days’ late. “Everyone has been paid and there are no staff that haven’t,” the club explained on 2nd May, with a brusqueness which shouted “move on, there’s nothing to see here.”

‘Fossetts Farm,’ meanwhile, barely moves on at all. The half-optimism of my last Southend piece, last September, was crushed by Christmas. “New stadium could be the perfect Christmas gift,” noted an over-zealous headline-writer on 10th October, as the local Echo newspaper reported that Southend Council had “all the paperwork” to decide on the latest planning application, for a 21,000-seater stadium, submitted in April 2017, and including the modern-day obligatory houses, shops, restaurants and (multiplex) cinema.

Martin, the Echo added, “was confident” of progress. As per. “With continued traction,” he noted, “we can perhaps begin to look towards the application being presented before Christmas. I do hope so.” Two weeks later, “final” stadium plans (episode 94) were published. And 1,155 local residents were brought into a formal, if hasty consultation exercise.

“Anyone who commented on the initial plans or who lives near the complex,” the Echo’s Adam Cornell reported, “has until 8th November to comment before they are considered.” But Cornell added, cautiously: “Despite the consultation…and statutory guidelines” on when they must “consider planning applications once submitted,” the council said it was ‘impossible’ to say when a decision would be made.

Cornell’s caution was advisable. On November 19th, Echo ‘local democracy reporter,’ Steve Shaw, reported Martin’s and council-commissioned consultants Boyers’ divergent views on the proposals’ impact on the town centre. Martin said they were “designed to complement the High Street” and were “a further reason to keep shoppers in Southend.” Boyers thought the centre “fragile” and “vulnerable,” with the development “already causing retailers to avoid investing” there.

But with Santa Council unable to fit the ‘perfect Christmas gift’ down the chimney, the club went on a PR-offensive, asking fans at their New Year’s Day home win over Gillingham to sign letters supporting the stadium. And commercial director Rhys Ellingham declared the (easily-overwhelmed) club “overwhelmed” when a 7,903 crowd “responded in their hundreds.”

“The town, needs a new stadium and the council of course know this,” Martin insisted, perhaps unwisely. But he correctly identified “the need to address matchday traffic, as best any club can,” as “probably the most significant” of “the points outstanding.” He added: “We are prepared to contribute substantially to the cost of improvements to mitigate the impact and congestion,” but cautioned that “there is a limit to what works the club can pay for.”
A curiously circular debate has emerged on various public forums, on-and-off-line, among fans, NIMBYs and those whose positive Brexit references in their on-line name seem inversely proportional to their ability to spell/construct a sentence (just an observation, that, not a political point).

Some fans have accused councillors of prevaricating over Fossetts Farm, to facilitate the progress of the similar ‘Seaway” development, which has been travelling through the same planning process, with hints from the less libel law-aware that money may have changed certain hands. The council have in response noted the enormity of the stadium project, stressing the need for traffic control solutions before granting approval. But project opponents continue to base said opposition on extra traffic being overloaded onto existing infrastructure. And repeat.

Many arguments crystallised on 16th January when the Echo published a letter (“Why the delay on Southend stadium?”) to which deputy council leader James Courtenay responded “to clarify the position.” It was “the largest, most complex major planning application the council has received for years.” Its “impact on the borough could be quite profound.“ And they were duty-bound “to resolve any relevant planning issues and ensure that (the) application has sufficient detail to enable (councillors) to make the right recommendation.”

He semi-angrily denied that they were “delaying” things “due to other projects. That is not correct. And it is very important to set the record straight on that issue.” He stressed that they had “raised a number of significant issues with the applicant that require their further consideration” and had “a positive relationship” with the club. But the application would only “go to development control committee when it is ready.” And it wasn’t yet “possible for the council to accurately predict when that will be as it is dependent on the resolution of the outstanding matters.”

It was therefore little surprise that the council wrote to the club on 20th March requesting approximately the umpteenth extension of the deadline for considering the application, to 30th September. This was “to allow for submission of further information, assessment of information, consultation, negotiation” and the “completion of a S106 agreement,” which Shaw called an agreement “on how much the developer will pay towards improving the infrastructure to cope with the extra demand on services.”

The council confirmed that if it could “issue a decision” before then, they “will do so.” And a spokesman was quoted in Shaw’s 25th April article on the issue that “the extension was agreed to allow more time to facilitate further discussions with the applicant. Whilst the application is still being discussed it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Martin had accepted that the council had to “seek extensions…with an application of such magnitude” and confirmed that “the club has consented on each occasion.” However, commenting further, he told BBC Essex this week that July was “a reasonable period from now” for the proposals to be considered. The council re-iterated that “a number of significant issues with the applicant still require further consideration.” Martin called these “certain aspects fairly minor by comparison to what they were” and planning approval was “very, very close.” But precise identification of these issues/aspects remains elusive.

Fans had had hopes that a new club website feature, “Blues Bulletin,” would shine lights that way. The weekly bulletin debuted on 29th January. And Ellingham footnoted it with a specific promise that the “next edition” would focus on the stadium “planning application, as we look to provide background and detail on the scale of the development, the cost implications and the amount of work that has gone in since the application was submitted on 28th April 2017, plus much more.”

Instead, the 8th February bulletin apologised “for the delay in publishing,” ‘explaining’ that “due to the sensitive nature (planning application & costs) we need to make sure all information is 100% accurate before posting it in the public domain.” And “much more” didn’t arrive until the next bulletin, on 5th March, revealed a wage bill which was “much more,” the “5th highest wage in L1.” (their emphasis). “It is assumed Sunderland are top, with Luton, Barnsley and Portsmouth…the top four,” the bulletin added. Those clubs finished in the top five. Southend late-season collapsed into the bottom five.

Of considerable non-stadium concern, as the implications are unclear, are the games of financial ‘pass-the-parcel’ Martin is playing.

“We seem to be borrowing some money from Citizen Housing (Southend),” shrimperzone.com contributor ‘Mick’ observed on 7th February of a “Registration of Charge,” created on 1st February. This was filed at Companies House on 5th February, a day before the HMRC petition’s Royal Courts of Justice hearing. Citizen was incorporated on 10th December 2018, three days before the petition’s filing. These dates may align co-incidentally. But it can’t be co-incidental that Jack Leonard Martin, Ron’s son, is a Citizen director. The charge was satisfied (on 8th April), unlike those seeking explanations.

Then, on 30th April, Southend’s 2017/18 accounts appeared, with the near-trademark warning for smaller Football League clubs of “a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt on its ability to continue as a going concern.” This uncertainty was its reliance on funding from “parent company, South Eastern Leisure (UK) Limited” (SEL), whose own parent company is the Martin-owned Martin Dawn PLC. The club made a £3.8m profit after Martin wrote off £6.88m in “associated company debt.” However, “associated company” accounts for that period leave “uncertainty as to which company wrote off what to whom.

SEL UK’s accounts list a dizzying array of inter-company debt. SEL Company Ltd owed Martin Dawn £5,141,323 (2017: £5,634,226). SEL Company owed SEL UK £!,187,761 (2017: same). SEL UK owed Roots Hall Limited £9,488,291 (2017: £9,008,291). SEL UK owed Soccer Stadium Ltd £2m (2017: same). Southend United Football Club Ltd (remember them?) owed SEL UK £3,837,961 (2017: same). The thigh bone owed the knee bone… Accounts experts would, hopefully, identify more than the £12,903 difference in the 2017 and 2018 “owed” figures than a 2+2=5 merchant like me. Wouldn’t they?

But Martin told the Echo the write-off was “the first step to ensuring the club is debt-free when moving into (Fossetts Farm),” at which time “the balance of the deficit, at that time, of some £10m will also be written off by way of a payment to the club,” steps which, he added, would “underpin the club’s future.” So. Fine. That Southend made a near-£3m operating loss for the year is, apparently, for another time. Nevertheless, post-balance sheet events, though not included in the actual accounts, were neither financially encouraging nor indicative of a club well-run.

Ex-manager Phil Brown, controversially put on ‘gardening leave’ in January 2018 before being sacked for, inter alia, “a lack of discipline” at the club during his tenure, agreed a severance package in October. “Whilst Phil and I had our differences at the time of his departure, I am pleased to confirm that we have settled the position very amicably,” Martin said, through audibly gritted teeth. And successor boss Chris Powell was sacked in March. Pay-offs all-round, then, which, with a wage bill 14 places above achievement, suggests more write-offs will be needed.

Martin is now so far steeped in Fossetts Farm that to return were as tedious as go on (I suspect some of you may feel the same). Despite on-going evidence otherwise, he still insists that “the whole town wants” the new stadium. And despite ‘the late escape’ against Sunderland, he insists that Southend could ne an “established championship club.” You could almost feel asorry for him and admire his persistence. But while so much surrounding the club is shrouded in doubt, that word ‘almost’ will stay right where it is.