Southend United’s Groundhog Season

by | May 8, 2020

Even diehard fans of the film “Groundhog Day” would be watching events surrounding League One (for now) Southend United and thinking “Not AGAIN!”

It is hard to know if on-or-off-field matters were worse during Blues’ season just suspended. They have long-needed snookers to avoid relegation, with league wins almost as rare as rocking-horsesh*t. Meanwhile, tax was paid late, triggering winding-up petitions from tax authority HMRC. Likewise, salaries; a new addition to long/self-serving chairman Ron Martin’s oeuvre but sadly familiar territory for first-team boss Sol Campbell, who managed Macclesfield Town through frighteningly comparable financial times and must currently be having nightmares about frying pans and fires.

Indeed Southend AND Macclesfield were charged by the Football League (EFL) with misconduct, for “non-payment of players,” on 9th March, Southend’s second such offence in seven weeks. A charge of fielding an ineligible player completed a horrendous hat-trick. Oh…and ‘Fossett’s Farm stadium,’ the 21,000-seater panacea for Blues’ blues, which has been “set to become a reality” for decades, is…erm, “set to become a reality.” Mostly.

Southend are under existential threat as the coronavirus halts football (surely for longer than vested economic interests are keen to suggest). Martin’s public persona often drifts into TIM Martin territory. But he is unusually realistic about this. “I don’t see normality coming back to football until Q1 21,” he jargoned un-necessarily. Otherwise, though, his chairmanship has been typically dismal. And, like a Thames Estuary Donald Trump, he has found fault everywhere… else.

On 2nd April, the club “struck a deal” with Southend Council and “social housing provider” Citizen Housing to “manage” housing developments at Fossetts Farm and their current Roots Hall home. This would form, and presumably help finance, part of the overall stadium plan. However, Martin’s grand designs are less grand than previously advertised.

The Farm will now accommodate 14,000, only 1,600 more than Roots Hall. The Southend Echo local newspaper’s Steve Shaw wrote of “an ambition” to reach 21,000 “eventually” but “plans for shops, a cinema and restaurants” were “all being dropped and replaced with housing… 502 at Roots Hall” and “about 800 new properties…at Fossetts Farm.” This means the Farm is no longer competing with Southend’s ‘Seaways’ football-free leisure development, which many fans assumed was the council’s preferred option.

However, the “set to become a reality” stuff is guff. As Shaw’s reported, Southend “will be expected to submit fresh planning applications,” and nothing can “move forward until planning permission has been secured.” Shaw also reminded readers that “the previous planning application…was under consideration by the council for almost three years.”

An “initial cash injection…understood to be from” the “Homes England” non-departmental public body was only a loan, and only if the development included “a significant number of homes.” And Shaw noted that “the final costs” were “still to be decided.” Indeed, he since wrote that having “lost the financial benefits of the withdrawn cinema and shops plan…it remains unclear how the club will profit from the development,” especially as Martin had “yet to reveal the full details.”

So, Southend’s set reality remains financial frailty. This season, HMRC have petitioned to wind them up over unpaid taxes three times, with the latest hearing in “London’s” Insolvency and Companies Court adjourned until 22nd July, because HMRC were told that the club is “looking to refinance.” The club’s barrister Hilary Stonefrost told the court last Wednesday that there was “a very substantial funding project going ahead.” This, it transpired, was the latest Fossetts Farm guff – a very stretched definition of “going ahead.”

And it had emerged on 7th January that a number of players and backroom staff had not been paid their December salaries. However, Martin told favoured media outlet, the determinedly low-brow Talksport Radio, that this was “not an issue,” despite admitting that it was due to “a shortfall in accounts just before Christmas,” because Martin “couldn’t get the paperwork together in time to get it transferred until the lawyers returned yesterday.”

He didn’t reveal what paperwork. Nor, damningly, was he “sure how many” players were unpaid, guessing “five or six.” But they were “being paid today” (a week late, remember). And if he’d “had earlier notice,” he would “have been able to deal with it sooner.” And the moral of this story? “It just goes to show the club are totally reliant on me,” Martin concluded, as if that fact was anything other than (yet) another savage indictment of his financial mismanagement over many years.

This reliance was almost immediately exposed when it emerged that the “five or six” (actually seven, Martin soon admitted) had not been “paid today.” Martin himself had to provide £140,000 worth of ‘paperwork’ on 9th January to cover the shortfall, doing so after the unpaid players involved their trade union, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA).

On 18th January, the team won a league game, their first since September, 2-1 at Accrington Stanley. And four days later, the latest HMRC petition was dismissed when HMRC’s lawyers said the, unspecified, amount for which they had petitioned was paid. But it emerged in mid-February that the EFL had placed Blues under a transfer embargo as they still owed HMRC, by 11th March, ulp. £668,000, with, Martin said, “one month” (February) “ stacked up behind.”

Then came the news that Southend were formally in Macclesfield territory on the missing wages front, and that a rare win, over Lincoln on 1st February, had been obtained with an ineligible player (“just an error,” Campbell noted, unhelpfully). So, they entered the Covid crisis in financial crisis (hence the over-eager announcement of ‘progress’ at Fossetts Farm). And their financial woes were not about to be masked by the general financial fall-out from the EFL being suspended.

February salaries were finally paid by mid-March. And the hearing over the two-thirds-of-a-million-quid tax bill was adjourned until last Wednesday…when it was adjourned again until 22md July, though who knows how that will be paid, with so limited a prospect of football before then. But financial controversy stalked Martin again, or maybe vice-versa, over furloughing first-teamers (the process of placing employees on unpaid leave in exceptional circumstances).

In mid-April, Martin told the Echo the terms under which six first-teamers were furloughed from 14th March, with the Echo able to attach a copy of his “furlough letter” to the six, dated 31st March. He made sure everyone knew that the six were among Blues’ “highest-paid individuals.” And he said “we all have to pull together,” before confirming that 59 ‘backroom staff’ were also furloughed (on 80% salary up to a maximum of £2,500-per-month, funded by government scheme) but “senior management whose contracts are not affected” were not.

The PFA did the maths and dutifully advised the six to reject Martin’s terms unless he guaranteed that any lost salary would be reimbursed. Martin told the Echo that the club “hoped, as stated in the furlough letter” to “make up any shortfall, when normality returns,” which he trumpeted as “part of” its “continuing social responsibility.” The key word was “hoped.” And the letter “stated” that such making-up “must be entirely at the board’s discretion.” without explaining why it “must be.”

Martin then “put the record straight,” telling the Echo that the furloughed players “were paid 100% of their salary up until the time they were furloughed and additionally the proportionate sum due” under the furloughing arrangements. This should not have needed saying but, given Southend’s recent record of “paying 100%” of salaries on time, it very much did.

The PFA accused Martin of “an unfair portrayal of the players, an inaccurate reflection of the club’s situation” and “consistently letting players down with…late/non-payments of salaries.” And the “furlough letter” being “published in the public domain,” meant that players were “dictated to publicly by the club.” Martin called these demonstrable truths “outrageous” (which, in a way, they were). And he told Talksh*te, from a self-awareness vacuum, that the PFA “should not just go off on one to the press,” before semi-gloating that while the players “had refused being furloughed “at the time, yesterday (22nd April) they all did”

The furlough letter also said that Blues’ future was “not in jeopardy,” (about which HMRC may yet have a say) despite the furloughing being “an alternative to imposing lay-offs or redundancies.” And he told Talkbolox that Southend had “a very competent future” (?) with “things looking great for us.” And HE accused the UNION of not “truly understanding the gravity of the situation.”

Martin’s financial commitments have occasionally kept Southend afloat, and he admitted in February that Southend have relied “on parent company support throughout the years.” But he takes no responsibility for such commitments being required despite, as chairman, BEING responsible. For instance, in a BBC Radio Essex interview last 12th December, he body-swerved responsibility AND self-awareness comprehensively.

He lambasted ex-managers Phil Brown, Chris Powell and Kevin Bond for poor recruitment, missing the irony in them all being his recruits. “The only dynamic I can change is the manager,” he admitted, missing the obvious conclusion from his many failed “changes” of “dynamic.” His pursuit of Celtic legend Henrik Larsson last October might have added another (Larsson watched two Blues games without running away screaming).

He didn’t blame “anyone in particular” for Blues’ “downward spiral,” TWENTY-ONE words after claiming that “the players established” it. HMRC’s winding-up petitions were because he “constantly” had to “put money into the club to compete in League One,” even though Blues have not “competed in League One” this season. And his headline-grabber was: “If I walked out of this club today, it would be bust tomorrow.” Thus the man running club finances for 20+ years exposed glaring financial weakness…and presented it as a virtue. How many Blues fans said “OK, bye!!”right then?

History has been a bastard to this interview. “We will change some players next month,” he declared, surely aware of the impending transfer embargo. “I don’t think we will be relegated,” he added, despite knowing he was being recorded. He will only be right if the EFL deem relegation unfair after an unfinished season. Or, as Martin wants, they declare the season null-and-void. And he promised fans that if he couldn’t “fix it, I’ll move on.” Yet, before anyone could get the bunting out, he added: “I will get it right so I won’t be moving on.”

Two more months of on-and-off-field failure didn’t dent his self-confidence, although he deserved credit for addressing a 24th February meeting with Blues’ many supporters groups, whose questions were not softball. His “mistake” was “putting too much money into the club.” He said HMRC were “much more hair-trigger now,” as if they hadn’t hair-triggered winding-up petitions Southend’s way for years. And he denied that not employing a Chief Executive (for three years) had been a problem, because they would “still come to me for the final decisions.”

He wanted a CEO, not because “there are any mismanagements within the club, but, because I need someone to have that responsibility.” Someone ELSE, that is. Hence: “The failings on the pitch have compounded the finances. I have put a huge amount of money into this club which would have been healthy if I could have made it sustainable a decade ago. But planning delays and the banking crisis put paid to that.” Trump would have been proud of such buck-passing.

Clearly, Martin should move on…well…he should have moved on long ago. Or never moved in. Avoiding consecutive relegations would require a handbrake turn in form. And the most cynical fans’ long-time prophecy, Blues’ opening game at Fossetts Farm being reported in the Non-League Paper, remains very possible.

Martin has failed to establish a financially-competent regime. Fossetts Farm remains farcical. His managerial appointments have largely failed. His relationship with facts remains fraught. And fans who haven’t used f-words to assess his abilities…should.

Yet Southend appear stuck with him. He won’t sell. The gods alone know who would buy. And clubs better-run than Blues are now under existential threat. Southend fans may be thankful if next season, whenever it comes, is ‘only’ a groundhog season.