Southend United: fanbase factions

by | Nov 17, 2021

The news was expected. On 25th October, Southend United’s long-long-long-lon…(we get the message – ed) awaited new stadium at Fossetts Farm received planning permission from Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. And, if approved by national government, work can begin. At. Long. Bloody. Last.

Even cynical middle-aged me had sensed that THIS time, after countless planning stage failures for countless reasons, the multi-purpose development would get the nod, if only because councillors et al were sick of talking about the bloody thing. Yes, the question arose as to what could “POSSIBLY go wrong” this time. But with government finance in place “to help finance infrastructure and stadium construction” (and despite government finance being no guarantee of success, or propriety, with this lot), any horizon-based dark clouds would have been unexpected news.

The news was unexpected. On 26th October, current Southend United chairman Ron Martin and former Southend United director and chief executive Geoffrey King appeared at London’s Westminster Magistrates Court, charged with two counts of failure to pay Value Added Tax (VAT); £4.485m related to a land sale in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in 2019 and £921,260 related to a transaction in Thundersley, Essex, just over six miles outside Southend, in 2016. Both transactions involved Martin’s property development group of companies, Martin Dawn PLC (MD), selling to North Wales-based housebuilders Redrow Homes PLC.

Even cynical middle-aged me hadn’t seen THIS one coming. And while Martin has been up before countless beaks for the club’s non-payment of taxes, they were comparatively routine procedurals. Westminster’s magistrates have sent the case to a “plea and trial preparation hearing” at South London’s Southwark Crown Court on 23rd November. But they also had to release the duo on bail.

The way the joy of the stadium announcement was cut short could not have been any swifter or more brutal had it been planned (news of the two events was parted by only 15 minutes on the Southend thread on TheFootballForum.net). And not even cynical middle-aged me would dare suggest that Southend Council and Westminster magistrates had colluded to correspond the relevant dates so closely. But Shrimpers fans’ reaction has been as subject to and as driven by pro- and anti-Martin factionalism as ever.

In threads on fan sites such as the excellent Shrimper Zone (SZ), Martin supporters dismissed the case’s importance, or even existence. One was “pretty sure it’s nothing, else we’d have heard something before now.” Another insisted that “in the light of today’s media grapevine, a case of this nature would have come out much sooner than now. (It) would not be hidden from the local press” and I “very much doubt that the council would have approved the stadium plans in the light of this.”

Others still claimed (hoped?) that it concerned a different Martin and King. It was nothing to do with the club. It would take years. And speculation should stop as Martin was innocent until proven guilty or “the facts” were unknown. Meanwhile, Martin opponents said the case validated their view of Martin and conjectured about the length of any potential jail term. Arguments all straight from the playbook for such debates, which has clearly been well-thumbed in and around Southend.

There was a crossover between fans who have lauded Martin for “funding” the club and those suggesting that his putative multi-million pound VAT bill was “nothing whatsoever to do with” it. Just “two businessmen” with “land or property from the past,” declared one. And others rejected the idea that the club was being “put through the mud,” even “by association.” It was “the gutter press” who “love to paint a picture of doom.” Indeed, in the Echo’s 27th October print edition, “Blues Boss In Court Over £5m Tax Bill” edged “Club’s Dream Of New Stadium Gets Go-Ahead” as front-page lead.

Gargantuan disingenuousness was at play here. Martin’s companies have “funded” the club, not Martin personally. And they have had, and continue to have, millions of pounds “to do with the club.” MD itself was owed £5.141m by the football club’s immediate parent company, South Eastern Leisure (UK) Ltd (SEL) (prop: R Martin esq), according to SEL’s latest accounts, for the year to 31 July 2018. And the football club (Southend United Football Club Limited) owed SEL “and related companies” £13.24m, according to the club’s latest accounts, for the year to 31 July 2019.

A years-long court case would hardly help the club either. Years’ worth of time AND court costs would fall on Martin and the Martin companies funding the club. In such circumstances, the first financial benefits from Fossetts Farm would surely head that way…after repaying the afore-mentioned government finance, a £30m loan from government agency Homes England to “development vehicle” Roots Hall Limited (prop: Elounda LLP, directors Ron, Jack, Julie and Thomas…guess).

Speculation over the length of any court proceedings was ill-served by the immediate confusion of the Crown Prosecution Service’s Specialist Fraud Division (SFD) with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). “Eight-to-10 years” was one fan’s estimate, based on “two cases my firm has been involved in” with the “utterly useless” SFO, who “failed to get a single charge to stick” and “didn’t even present any evidence” in one case. No wonder Private Eye magazine calls them the “Serious Farce Office.” But you had to wonder where the fan worked in “my” firm if they couldn’t tell their SFD from their SFO.

The facts of the case were scantily reported in the local Southend Echo newspaper. Toby Emes’ report devoted almost as many words to what the accused wore as to details of “two counts of cheating the public revenue” with which Martin and King are charged. Though if you MUST know, Martin wore “a black business suit and patterned tie.” King “wore a green tweed jacket and held a walking stick.” And, just as in the Irving Berlin song “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” there was no mention of trousers, although given that there were no charges of indecent exposure, they both must have worn some.

The PLCs have legal history. In December 2013, imaginatively-entitled MD subsidiary, Martin Dawn (Leckhampton) Ltd (MDL), sold some residential development land in the south Cheltenham parish of Leckhampton to Redrow. Martin and King were the then five-month old company’s directors, King resigning in February 2018, 19 months before resigning as a football club director. To cut a long story very short, in April 2016, MDL lost a court case about the sale, despite proving that Redrow had breached contractual obligations. And whether current proceedings are linked, beyond the Cheltenham location, is not yet publicly clear.

The facts which became publicly clear, as fan forum debates warmed up, did provide a well-informed view on the case’s potential impact on the club. Yet even after the Echo reported the charges and the financial specifics, Martin supporters cited “lots of jumping to assumptions” with one having “no idea whether there is even a single charge to face.” And even after news emerged of the case’s referral to Crown Court, another fan demanded that “Everyone STOP. Not one person on here knows anything about the case.” Which was just plain inaccurate.

Some Martin opponents were over-eager. “Green light (for Fossett’s Farm) today, banged up tomorrow; you couldn’t make it up,” another fan…made up. However, accusations by Martin fans on SZ that “whatever he does, on here, he’s guilty until proven innocent” were off-target. Personal attacks were few. And virtually all speculation on Martin’s guilt was caveated with “if,” despite claims that “only one post in this entire thread” used the word.

For example, one fan “understood” that the case the “Serious Fraud Squad have brought to court” was “to do with the football club and not one of Ron’s other businesses” and would be “good news for us as a football club if Ron is convicted as he’ll actually be openly failing the fit and proper persons’ test. November 23rd is the biggest day for us for many, many years.” The bit about the case was quickly dismissed as “absolutely and totally incorrect.” And the rest was naïve as ****. But it was caveated.

Of course, fans will be better informed as proceedings proceed. IF they proceed – one fan correctly noting that speculation on their length “is based on the assumption that the charges will be disputed.” But sneers such as “I never realised just how many legal eagles and tax experts there are on SZ” and “I didn’t know there were so many high court judges on this site” are nothing to the point Martin’s opponents were making. The case has been brough by the CPS. £5m+ are involved. That it is serious, and could seriously impact Southend United, is undeniable.

So, speculation was inevitable. And plenty was well-informed and temperate. Martin and King “were the sole directors of (many subsidiaries).” So one contributor suspected, correctly, that “it relates to transactions by one of those companies.” And they wondered “if this has anything to do with why all the accounts of the various companies are so late.” Maybe. Maybe not. But reasonable speculation.

And one SZ poster was word-perfect: “The charges will be read out this morning. The involvement of the (SFD) makes it unlikely that the matter will be dealt with today. No plea will be taken and an adjournment (will be) sought for the case to be transferred to a higher court. It is anyone’s guess what effect this will have on the club. But it is hard to see (it) being speedily resolved. Martin and his family are deserving of our sympathy. It will place (them) under great strain. (It is) nothing like being taken to court for late payment (of VAT). It is much more serious.” Indeed, the one thing this poster didn’t forecast was Martin and King’s court clobber. Tsk.

Ultimately, contributions were predominantly influenced by the views which contributors already held on Martin. Prejudgement is almost a password to allow access to these things. Also, on TheFootballForum.net, news of Southend’s most (in)famous ex-player Stan Collymore becoming Made-Up job “senior football strategist” moved the conversation on from the court case as quickly as the court case moved the conversation on from the new stadium news.

It is “So ****ing frustrating that our club has to be linked to all the **** that he does,” one, ****ing frustrated, fan noted. Especially as Fossetts Farm is, let’s say, less unlikely to happen than ever. But the links are formal and strong. And the idea that a multi-million pound VAT fraud case directly involving a major Martin company has “nothing whatsoever” to do with the club is the stuff of dreams.

“What a dream it would be to have a normal owner,” the frustrated fan continued. Alas, one of English club football’s tragedies is just how little removed from “normal owner” Ron Martin is.