Southend United: different season, same sh… ame

by | Oct 15, 2021

I didn’t think I’d be back writing about Southend United so soon. But I realised after Saturday’s matches, that if the then league positions were the final league positions, my team, Isthmian League Kingstonian, would meet the Shrimpers in next season’s National League South. And the only reason I’m not forecasting this is because there are multiple Isthmian Premier Division promotion candidates. Southend’s side of this bargain already looks frighteningly possible.

When I heard about the 14 minutes’ stoppage-time at the end of Saturday’s 4-0 home hammering by Chesterfield, I joked that “they’ll have the new ground built by then.” Because much of that stoppage-time was caused by fans halting proceedings during the second half (arguably Blues’ best spell of the match), to demand owner/chairman Ron Martin’s departure for, among other reasons, his on-going failure to get “the new ground” built.

Although Martin wasn’t at the match due to (handy) “long-standing commitments,” Saturday’s stoppage-time was still the final 14 minutes of Phil Brown’s six-month second spell as Shrimpers supremo. Few fans mourned Brown’s departure, because Martin remains the issue…and remains as determined as ever to stay. However, protestors’ determination has been exacerbated by recent events, and may test Martin’s resolve to its limits.

It’s mostly the usual Blues playbook. Bad results. Calls for Martin to go. Martin says the “club goes bust tomorrow” if he does. Southend Echo newspaper weeps. Manager ‘responsible’ for bad results fired. Progress on new stadium announced. Ex-player Stan Collymore sticks his oar in. Martin defends himself in friendly radio interview. Rinse and repeat. One HMRC winding-up petition “over an unpaid tax bill” short of a full set.

September outlasted realistic hope of a National League promotion challenge. After an opening day win at King’s Lynn, the Shrimpers picked up two points from the next 21, prompting match-disrupting fan protests when they hosted Eastleigh on 5th October. Southend beat Eastleigh. But their 100% record in fan-disrupted matches lasted one game.

None of this has surprised anyone paying attention. Summer transfer activity was exemplified by Brown expressed weekly hopes of a deal for 34-year-old winger and Southend-native Ricky Holmes. In mid-July, it was “in the throws” (sic) of Martin “giving it the nod” and could be “drafted up tomorrow.” Tomorrow never came and Farnborough, two levels below Blues in the non-league pyramid, signed Holmes in mid-August. Brown said Martin had kept “moving the goalposts towards Ricky,” but blamed the deal’s failure on “finances, it can’t be anything else.”

Published days later, Southend’s long-overdue 2018/19 accounts supported this. They revealed £2.56m losses, with post-balance sheet events being “Covid.” And they covered a season in League One, albeit at its arse end. The money is mostly owed to “his own companies,” Martin “confirmed to Echosport,” like it was good news (he wants it back, it’s why he’s staying) or news at all (“there’s been no material change in that regard for 20 years”). Readers were reminded, for the 6.8 millionth time, that he wrote off £6.8m in 2018. But the debt was £17.4m in 2019. Pre-Covid.

Brown thought club standards had slipped “massively” since his first Southend sacking in January 2018. “Is it reflective of how the club is being run?” he dared ask. But lest this was considered blame-diversion, he asked fans to be “as critical as you have been of the previous regimes.” In that, at least, he got his way.

Blues’ home defeat on 14th September gave Aldershot their first league points of the season. And defeats at Torquay five days later, albeit one-nil to a last-minute goal, and Solihull Moors on 2nd October left Southend in a bigger mess than Brown’s hair. “We’re facing oblivion,” he melodramatised after the 2-0 loss at Solihull plonked them in the bottom three. Brown meant football oblivion. But an Echo reader suggested that Southend’s “only way out” might be for Martin “to fold them.”

The day after Torquay, Southend’s new stadium was magically news again. A council decision on the 22,000-year project capacity Fossetts Farm stadium was “imminent.” Again. After deputy council leader Ron Woodley said that key heads were “bashed together” to “sort it out.” The Echo report didn’t specify the latest “it” with a project that has had so many. Woodley just said he “got fed up with it and went in and said move it on” because the stadium would be “fantastic for everyone.”

The article, supposedly by local democracy reporter Christine Sexton, had enough basic errors to suggest that it was sub-edited in the dark (see “throws,” above). And two versions appeared together on the Echo website, the second attributing the “bashed together” quote to deputy council leader “Ron Martin.” An easy mistake, if you were a narcissist who’d written the article yourself…cynics might think (shame on you all). But either way, it was blatant, incompetent PR-puffery.

And it failed. On October 2nd, Martin submerged the stadium story, by deeming the second half at Solihull the ideal time for an impromptu fans’ forum. Admittedly, it let fans elucidate their preferred strategy for Southend’s future. But. as this strategy centred on Martin “fucking off,” Martin…fucked off, from the away end anyway, escorted by ground security.

Martin later ‘explained’ that he “simply went down there to talk to people because they were unhappy,” equating the transparently highly-charged situation with talking “to a couple of guys in the high street this morning.” He “thought it might be welcomed because I’m not hiding” and insisted he wouldn’t have done it if he “thought” it would “cause a flashpoint.” Which was evidence of no “thought” whatsoever.

The Shrimpers Trust supporters organisation “were quite frankly embarrassed.” Their board declared Martin’s actions “ill-advised” (although he was surely “self-advised”) and “dangerous,” expressing gratitude “that our amazing supporters were restrained from escalating the situation to one of violence.” And they wrote of not allowing “OUR club to be destroyed” (their emphasis).

The Trust suggested that “perhaps the council should shoulder some blame for allowing the stadium fiasco to continue for so long.” They admitted that Martin was going to be “at the helm…whether we like it or not,” and acknowledged that he hadn’t “led us to where we are now intentionally.” But they deemed him “incapable of leading us out of this situation” under current club structures.

Chief Echo sports writer and Shrimpers fan Chris Phillips wrote in his weekly Echo column, headlined “Southend United was once a proud club now it’s a toxic embarrassment,” that he “could have cried” after Solihull. And “for the first time ever, he didn’t know “if I would attend Tuesday’s match if I did not have to.” Powerful words from a genuine fan of 33 years’ standing.

But Martin told the Echo he rejected the “implication” that “spending too much time” on Fossetts Farm meant he had “taken my eye off what happens on the pitch” (whether he could “bear to look” is another matter). He re-iterated his “support” for Brown. “So that’s him gone by the end of the week, then,” noted one Echo commenter, correctly. And he re-re-re-iterated that “If I were to walk away, the club goes bust. I will not allow that to happen.” To which the same Echo commenter suggested: “Maybe sell?” An idea around which fans’ groups readily united.

Last month, Save our Southend (SOS), ran a poll, asking: “Do you have confidence in Ron Martin to run Southend United FC?” This was punted as “a starting point for a wider, strategic plan.” And SOS’s James Schooley believed it would “unite the supporters groups and the wider fanbase” and show Martin “who is delusional at the best of times and still thinks he’s done a good job” that “our vision of the club’s future is one without him.” Unsurprisingly, 95% of ‘voters’ said no. But that was 1,181 fans, a third of current home gates and a genuinely high number for such exercises.

SOS warned that it would be “naïve to rule out complete collapse…if things do not improve quickly.” They labelled the club “a face for property development,” suggesting that Fossetts Farm “now reeks of self-interest.” They bemoaned the lack of “concrete” data on “how SUFC will benefit” from Fossetts Farm. They didn’t “buy the line” that Martin “is our only hope.” And they called on Martin “to sell” the club “and leave as quickly as possible.”

Duly primed, fans trooping a ‘Martin Out’ banner along the touchline delayed the restart after Southend scored against Eastleigh. And after the astonishing win in the circumstances, fans “stormed” towards the directors box to serenade their protests’ target.

Martin was rattled. Two days later, on a Zoom call with fan-groups, he snapped at the idea that he was “here for the end game, you’ve got to be making money,” insisting he was here “because I love the fucking club, you idiot.” But the point was legitimate, given Martin’s long-ago admission that his family would be Fossett Farm’s ultimate beneficiaries. He wouldn’t sell for £40m “because I’m going to deliver the stadium for you.” Or his family. And he confirmed that HE would bust the club if forced out because “there’s a debt owed to me of £20m and I would like that back.” Words to recall whenever he mentions “bankrolling the club.”

Martin also mentioned Collymore, who caused as much fuss sat in the stands against Eastleigh as the pitch protestors. Martin squished hopes of a Collymore takeover And Stan himself “believed” he was merely “invited (into) the process of recruiting the next manager,” having brought CEO Tom Lawrence to Blues in the summer. So, rather than being a focus for protests, Collymore “humbly” (ho-ho) asked for a “ceasefire” to “give the new manager” a chance “say for a month.”

On Tuesday, Martin gave favoured venue Talksport a self-justification interview, playing his greatest hits for Jim White and ex-Crystal Palace owner, Simon Jordan. Sadly, Jordan didn’t have the opportunity to be better-researched. Because he asked some really pertinent questions. And most of Martin’s answers would have crumbled before interviewers with all the facts.

The interview’s context was: “Is protesting on the pitch ever OK?” No, was the answer sought. “I don’t think it helps the players on the pitch,” Martin said, obligingly, contradicting Brown’s claim that Blues played “without pressure” against Eastleigh and match-winner Nathan Ferguson’s claim that “when you’re playing, you don’t notice it too much.” Alas, “Ross from Blackpool” insisted that “on-pitch protests worked” there, and he didn’t “regret” joining them, thus undermining the show and Martin’s dismissal of Blues’ protests, which he blamed, out loud, on “lockdown.”

He contradicted himself twice more. “For all the people protesting, I get an equal number saying the opposite,” he claimed, somehow thinking that this reflected well on him. “Don’t ‘listen to those idiots,” this “equal number” were saying. “I’m not saying they’re idiots,” he hastily added, five days after calling one a “fucking idiot” on Zoom. And he admitted that “I may have taken my eye off the ball at some stages,” a week after denying just that.

Martin then struggled when Jordan unexpectedly morphed into Jeremy Paxman: “The decline under your ownership is where their anger starts from, doesn’t it?” Martin called this unfair as “we were at the bottom of league two when I came in” then “got to the Championship, albeit only one year.” Blues “should be at the top end of League One,” he added. At which point, Jordan inevitably asked: “Why are you in the National League, then?” Martin’s response, “I’ve just chosen the wrong managers” brought volume-speaking silence from his hosts.

He threw Brown under the proverbial bus: “I thought he would be motivated…but I’m not sure he needs it as much anymore.” He insisted that “All I’m doing is providing the funds for the team to succeed.” Which begged the question “how’s that going?” But Jordan was in disdain for fans mode, asking what “alternative to Ron Martin” was “in their minds, in so far as they have one.” Then White wondered if he was “right in thinking that you went in amongst some of the supporters at an away game recently?” To which the only interesting response would have been: “Nope. That was someone else.”

Nonetheless, supporters groups have, for now, cooled their boots, at Collymore’s Zoom-ed request. The Trust board urged fans “to create the best possible environment for the new management to prosper,” which was not letting Martin “off the hook” but “giving Southend the best possible chances of surviving this season.” “Do we really want to be part of the problem?” they asked, rhetorically. And SOS admitted that halting protests “will divide opinion,” and that they wouldn’t therefore “stop individuals protesting.”

The groups are also placing faith in the council’s “special development control committee meeting on 25th October. The council might be advised to make the public gallery all-ticket. And they could dent council tax bills if they charged for admission. The Trust expect the process to reveal “how the new stadium will be a financial benefit” to the club, after they asked Martin and Lawrence to provide “realistic projected income streams.” The meeting, the Trust concluded, “brings us one step closer to understanding how Ron will ultimately leave the football club.” We’ll see.

However, ceasefire hopes couldn’t possibly survive home defeat to Isthmian League South Central Chertsey Town, three levels below Blues, in the FA Cup this Saturday. Or even a draw. Nor should they. Southend United are so far steeped in Martin’s arrogant incompetence that to return to protest moratoria were as tedious as go on.

Simon Jordan was right. (I feel dirty now). There must be a viable alternative to Martin. But Southend “going bust tomorrow” if Martin goes is Martin’s call. Most Blues debts are to HIS companies, remember? He re-iterated to Talksh*te that they are unsustainable at Roots Hall. But, despite Martin being a property developer, his “new” stadium project has stalled…and stalled. It is older than Facebook and Twitter. It pre-dates the “credit crunch.” Countless clubs, bigger AND smaller than Southend, have completed moves of lesser AND greater complexity, while Martin has floundered.

He wants his (companies’) money back, not unreasonably. But there are no reasons for Southend United being dragged so low, on and off the field, while he/they wait for it. Actually, no. There are. Ron Martin’s chairmanship. His stadium project. His failings. Him. He should go. As soon as possible. Or Kingstonian will beckon.