Southend United’s Fossett’s Farm: One of Non-League Football’s Biggest Venues
So farewell then, Southend United’s Football League (EFL) status. Not even Phil Brown could save them, despite taking the Shrimpers out of League Two the right way in his first spell as their boss. And now “club legend” Stan Collymore’s involved. Yikes.
When I was a kid, there was a joke doing the rounds about the ice-cream cone/flake combo called a “99” costing 99p (never said it was a good joke). Price inflation turned that joke into reality. On Saturday 1st May, a younger joke became reality, the one about Southend’s Fossetts Farm stadium being one of non-league football’s biggest grounds by the time it is finished.
The Shrimpers’ EFL departure was all-but-confirmed by Essex derby and relegation six-pointer defeat on 20th April at Colchester United, a team who went to non-league in 1990 and returned after two seasons, if that’s any consolation for Southend fans. Four days later, a home Essex derby victory over Leyton Orient, who also dipped a two-year toe in non-league waters, delayed the inevitable. But a very non-derby victory at Barrow on 1st May could delay it no further.
Ordinarily, if Collymore is the answer, you’d want the question to be for someone else. But Southend’s decline has been extraordinary. After body-swerving relegation on the last day of 2018/19), they were comprehensively relegated from League One last season. They were so atrocious for the first half of this campaign that relegation has long-been all-but-inevitable. And they have been run throughout by chairman Ron Martin, who, as my regular readers know (hi, you three), is a piece of work. He has, of course, been a piece of work throughout his, ulp, 23 years at the club, 21 in its chair. But never a bigger one than now.
The major problem with writing these Southend laments isn’t avoiding repetition of what you’ve written before, but finding illuminating ways to write it again. Because the Shrimpers’ problems have changed little during Martin’s reign. And most problems remain…Martin himself.
Southend started 2020/21 transfer-embargoed, thanks to the latest of many tax debts, which had HMRC issuing winding-up petitions for years (google “Southend United winding-up petition” and you half-expect to be asked “which one?”). The embargo was lifted in December after a petition over a £682,000 tax bill was dismissed in the Insolvency and Companies Court on 21st October and “time to pay” arrangements were made over pre-Covid tax debts. But by then, Blues already needed snookers, having picked up two points from their first 11 league games, before their first win, 1-0 at fellow 2019/20 relegatees Walsall, on 14th November.
Manager Mark Molesley signed a three-year deal in August, after taking Weymouth UP into non-league football’s top flight, via two consecutive promotions. But Shrimpers fans focused their ire on the veteran chairman rather than the 39 year-old EFL managerial rookie. The embargo wasn’t lifted immediately after the tax bill settlement, which Martin left publicly unexplained. This left September signing Simeon Akinola unregistered, the striker a particular miss, with Blues goals almost as rare as rocking-horse sh*t. And, for once, Fossett’s Farm spin failed to divert criticism.
On 19th November, a club website headline cooed: “Exciting plans for new football stadium and homes becoming a reality.” And Martin added some, ahem, sheen. “This announcement represents a beacon of light to guide the Club’s future prosperity off the pitch enabling its success on the pitch,” he gushed, even though it was merely announcing that Southend Council’s cabinet were being updated on already-existing and infamously much-amended, down-sized plans.
“Citizen Housing,” the 2018-founded specialists “in partnering with the public sector and landowners to deliver housing-led regeneration schemes” were the oft-reported “driving force behind the project.” Spokesman Jack Martin expressed Citizen’s delight “with the progress (towards) bringing these exciting developments to fruition.” But the website somehow neglected to mention who Jack’s Dad was.
The Southend Echo newspaper had disclosed the hitherto unpublicised family link in a piece by ‘local democracy reporter’ Steve Shaw five months earlier, after Ron claimed Citizen was “a separate corporate entity in which I or the club have no interest.” Although, lest that left Jack feeling unloved, he “clarified” that he meant he had “nothing to do corporately with Citizen.” And the Echo reminded its readers of this link, in its 20th November report on the “crucial” update.
This “exclusive,” by “senior reporter” Ellis Whitehouse rather than club correspondent Chris Phillips, was exposed as PR by the headline “Fossetts Farm plan backed by billionaires.” Because it merely reran the disclosure in Shaw’s report of “Allied Commercial Partners” involvement; “one of the biggest real estate investment groups in the country, founded by real estate giant Jack Dellal” (Shaw) and “the UK investment vehicle of the property tycoons, the Dellal Family” (Whitehouse).
“A family of multi-billionaire property magnates are linked to a huge new housing development – finally paving the way for Blues’ new stadium,” screamed the opening line of Whitehouse’s not-so-exclusive, heralding a stream of virtue-extolling about the project. The “multi-billionaire property magnate-ism” stemmed from “the principals of Citizen Housing” having “financed, structured and developed more than 160 real estate transactions with a combined value of over £3.8bn.”
This didn’t necessarily equate to personal multi-billion fortunes. But, hey. The project could produce Echo headlines such as “Southend’s new stadium prompts new road link” and “Fossetts Farm: stadium plan could be worth £500m to Southend,” both on 23rd November. And, two days later, a report on a meeting at which the project’s impact on the borough was questioned, could be headlined “Southend Council throws weight behind Roots Hall plan,” the building of 502 houses on Blues’ current ground.
But then the team lost twice more, without scoring. And no amount of PR about road connections “to the roundabout at Tesco Extra on the A127” could mask two draws, 11 defeats and an increasing disconnect with the rest of League Two. Even a good news spree in December couldn’t assuage fans. Blues won three and drew two of December’s five league games. The transfer embargo was lifted. And the council voted to forward stadium plans to its ‘development control committee,” which, Martin insisted, would “change the off-field future of your club forever.” And the day the council voted was “the most significant in the club’s long history.”
However, Phillips struck an orchestra of chords in a lengthy Echosport editorial by insisting that “as a lifelong fan, what level Southend are playing in, not what ground, matters most right now.” Stadium ownership, though, remained a focus of fan-protest group “Save our SUFC,” which petitioned the council on 6th December. They noted that Fossetts Farm etc would “deliver substantial profits” to property developers. But, as Roots Hall was originally “financed and largely built” by supporters, it was “only fair that, once development objectives are achieved, the football assets should be returned to community ownership.”
The petition instructed the council “to ensure that: the new stadium is complete and handed over before development commences at Roots Hall; the club will be adequately financially supported during the development period and beyond; and the footballing assets will be returned to the community once the development is successfully complete.”
Martin’s response was typically sneering. He said “most supporters” understood that Blues would “not be vacating Roots Hall until the new stadium is built.” This was not disputed. However, he added: “If those seeking to make mischief had written to the club first, they would have been told the same. They didn’t…because if they had their mischief making would have fallen flat.” He then surmised that “when the plans for the new stadium were first discussed, the probability is that some of these fans were in short trousers and therefore wouldn’t have any knowledge of the history.”
This was not clever. It exposed the length of his failure to get the stadium built. The petition’s reference to Roots Hall’s “history” displayed “knowledge” superior to his oafish assumption that people couldn’t research stuff pre-dating their birth. And Martin, perhaps willfully, missed their point. “The worst that could happen is the club would have two stadiums!,” he exclaimed…a stadium count which, the petition explained, was out by…two.
Thus, “Save our SUFC” had to explain that they were “100% behind” Fossetts Farm and “understood that staying at Roots Hall is no longer viable.” They re-explained the petition’s purpose. And they asked “where the club will earn extra revenue, since plans for a hotel, leisure and retail park have been changed to a housing development,” from which “the council will be receiving nearly all income.” Alas, as one fan letter to the Echo wonderfully put it: “Right now, we don’t give a monkeys about the new ground. Most supporters’ main worry is being relegated into non-league obscurity.” The petition received 750 signatures but its questions were submerged.
Then December’s revival was erased from fanbase memory banks by a 5-1 trimming at lowly Port Vale on 30th January (“no fight, no passion, no energy, no organisation…one of the worst performances I have seen in 31 years of watching” – Phillips). Yet, on 24th March, Martin told Molesley “he will be here at the end of the season.” Two weeks later, Molesley was sacked.
(The day after Molesley’s departure, You Tube football film channel Copa90 Stories posted a superbly-shot 14-minute video of Kerry Fairless, a Southend fan since 1976 who can see Roots Hall’s floodlights from his garden (“that’s not an accident”). In the video, Fairless makes “A Fan’s Plea for Respect, Pride and Better Times,” via a heartfelt open letter to Martin. The video ends with Fairless delivering the letter by hand to the ground. There is no public evidence that it ever reached Martin).
Fans knew straight away that Brown’s appointment as Molesley’s replacement was too late. And that might be the ultimate frustration. Southend finished three points from safety, after securing nine points in Brown’s six-game spell, mid-table form over a season. Martin had approached Brown in November, three months into Molesley’s three-year contract. But Brown was unavailable. If only…
Collymore’s burst onto the Southend scene was almost as dramatic as his brief burst into Southend’s team in 1992, a six-month, goal-every-two-game spell which made him a “club legend” to some. And after the Colchester defeat, the legend, who has “always looked out for Southend’s results,” tweeted: “Shrimpers, you gave me the happiest days of my football life. In 93 our team stayed in the Championship with fight and passion. Today the club is a mess. If Ron will sell, I will put a team together to buy and give you back a competitive club.”
This kick-started an intense week of private and all-too-public correspondence between the two giant egos. Collymore could divide an empty room, so pro- and anti-Martin factions weren’t a challenge. “If you think Collymore is your knight in shining armour you are mad…he sounds like his off of his rocker with his open letters,” wrote one severely pro-Martin mental health expert).
The Echo published a 1500-word interview with Collymore on 21st April, in which he talked around his strategic ambitions for the club, but never quite directly to them, stating that “step one is for Ron to open the door” and that “I’m a 50 year-old guy and I don’t need to be chasing a Conference (sic) club around for anything.”
Martin’s “interim” (?) statement cited, yawn, media “misinformation” and “fabrication” about having met Collymore. He said he’d “call Stan out of courtesy to understand, fully, what he has to say.” However, he was “maintaining” his “financial support…to get us back on track.” So…fine. Stan was unimpressed, blasting Martin as “no longer a fit nor proper owner,” in 1,000 words of semi-coherence, which concluded: “I’m out.”
He was back in, the next day, detailing his “attempt at gathering people who are willing to help.” These included “a former director” (of Southend, presumably), a “City man” (of London, presumably), an “industry professional from “the world’s wealthiest football investment market,” an EFL club “former Head of Business,” a “sports marketing professional,” a “Queen’s Counsel and a barrister,” (not that Martin would do anything dodgy) and a former EFL club CEO (“I would drive him myself to see Ron and get him signed up”).
The last idea got legs. And the CEO, Collymore and Martin met on 4th May, after Collymore had suggested that “Ron should utilise his energy” to “achieve the Fossetts Farm project, with the football business being run by a competent CEO,” and, modestly, “with me to be an advisor, titled or not, formal or not. A guardian football angel for the benefit of Southend United Football Club.”
This, though, seemed an unacceptable outsourcing of control. And, predictably, Martin quickly contacted another potential CEO, someone “a lot older” with “a huge amount of experience” who he had “met previously,” and would meet in London this week. But whatever the outcome, Phillips was right to write in the Echo that “there needs to be more professionalism around the place” and that Martin can no longer “do everything by himself.” Blues’ fortunes have plummeted during five CEO-free years. And while correlation is not necessarily causation, sometimes…well…
Meanwhile, in a late lunge for safety, Southend have joined fellow-relegatees Grimsby in challenging relegation. Martin ‘explained’: “The unusual circumstances of this year should be acknowledged. The National League haven’t relegated but they have promoted (so) it’s unfair to relegate clubs from League Two.” One of many football ideas which makes no sense at first glance but on closer inspection makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. After all, Martin isn’t suggesting that League Two shouldn’t promote, if they don’t relegate.
Nonsense like this is partly why Martin supporters have to focus on how he has “funded the club for decades.” Last Thursday, Martin gave BBC Radio Essex a half-hour interview full of blame-shifting, straw man arguments, disingenuousness and the occasional, let’s say, inaccuracy. Worth a whole article, frankly (watch this space). But it showed above all that what Martin views as his successes are often quite the opposite, his club funding being the prime example.
He repeated his age-old mantra/threat that if he “stepped out, this football club would collapse.” But this is financial fragility. The millions he has had to put into the club are not a measure of his success, they are the cost of his mistakes. And the end of Southend’s 101-year spell in the Football League is the cost of his latest, biggest mistakes.