Southend United’s Ron Martin: Doing The Best For…
Two days before last November’s United States presidential election, American Cable TV satirical show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” included clips of three voters suggesting that the then president, Donald Trump, had dealt with the Covid crisis “the best he can.”
“I guess that depends,” Oliver suggested. “Do you mean that he’s doing the best that any president can, or the best that HE can? Because, if it’s the second one, you may actually be right. We should all perhaps be grateful he hasn’t tried bottling his urine and tried selling it as ‘Trump Immunity Juice’.”
The “second one” could also be said of, and was recently intimated BY, Southend United chairman and owner Ron Martin (that he’s done “the best he can,” not the bottled-urine stuff, presumably). In a 29-minute interview with BBC Radio Essex’s Glenn Speller on 6th May, he said: “Every day I get up thinking ‘How can I improve our football club?’” He wanted success for it “as much as the supporters do. Probably more, in truth.” His “investment this year” was “well over £1m” and counting, as, like “every single manager” he’d had, the recently-sacked Mark Molesley “got everything he wanted.”
Because Martin “wanted the club to succeed,” it “had been charged no rent in 23 years,” on its current Roots Hall home, a debt to his companies of “over £10m, outside the investment I made in the club.” He “wrote off nearly £7m, the year before last” and “will write off a very significant sum when we move.” Indeed, if he “stepped out, the club “would collapse” as he’d “supported it financially for a very long time.” Thus, he could “always say I’m doing my best for Southend United Football Club.”
But “his best” has now left Southend relegated, for the second consecutive season, having avoided the drop on the previous season’s last day, and destined for non-league football for the first time since they joined the Football League (EFL) from the Southern League in 1920. Martin said all of the above by way of self-justification. It merely served as condemnation.
“Ultimately, it’s down to me, I carry the can,” he admitted in his first answer. In his second, he insisted that “I have to accept as chairman that I do carry the can for things when they go wrong.” But he might as well have been literally carrying a can for all the metaphorical can-carrying he has actually done. “Would you apologise to the supporters for what’s happened?” Speller asked him directly. Martin’s answer was 305 words long. “Sorry” was not among them.
Not that he hadn’t made mistakes. Well…almost. One word dominated a series of admissions of failure. And it wasn’t “me.” He said: “We may have made mistakes. Could I have changed the management team, or various people within it sooner? Looking back at those decisions, it’s easy to say yes we could have done. Could we have done more? Looking back, I suppose we could have done. We could have signed different players. We tried to. We didn’t get them. So it has been a disaster and we are all bitterly disappointed. Of course, Martin is undoubtedly the type to use the “royal we.” But there was nothing regal about this. It was pure blame-shifting.
But this option was not available to Martin on perhaps the key issue. The transfer embargo, under which Southend were placed from February until December, covered last summer’s transfer window, and therefore had an entirely and inescapably detrimental effect on efforts to strengthen the squad. And it was entirely and inescapably Martin’s responsibility as it was imposed due to failure to timeously fulfil hundreds and thousands of pounds of taxation obligations, failures at which Martin was a dab hand. So, naturally he didn’t “think we should put too much emphasis on that,” for which his explanation was nonsensical.
He framed the impact of the embargo on two signings whose registrations were delayed by the restrictions, left-back Sam Hart and, theoretically more important given Blues’ early (and mid and late) season goal allergy, striker Simeon Akinola. Hart “only” missed three games. And Martin was never purer Martin than when he said of Akinola: “I’m not going to throw him under a bus but he wasn’t fit when he came to us and I think he could have done better.”
But both players were signed in-season. The embargo’s most damaging impact was the restriction it placed on the close-season squad rebuild relegation surely necessitated. After all, Blues are reportedly squad-rebuilding for next season already, and are on the brink of their first two signings.
Martin then lost the run of himself when calling the embargo “a pretty unfortunate thing.” He noted that “most clubs had entered into a ‘time to pay’ agreement with HMRC” when lockdown began last March and (as “most clubs” also “had”) “we had agreed the principle of that with HMRC.” But “there was an amount outstanding prior to their deadline, which was, I think, March 3rd.” That “had to be paid” but was “not immediately easy to rustle up when there’s no income coming into the club,” Martin added, of money due before March 3rd, when there was “income coming into the club.” Dead unfortunate, that.
His ignorance intermittently took breath away. His suggestion that there should be no relegation into the National League because there is no relegation from it defied rational analysis even before he ‘explained’ his ‘thought’ process. “The National League is completely shot, it needs a lot of repairing,” he said (‘an expert speaks,’ a nation cried). “It’s made decisions fundamentally against the pyramidal system. You can’t just stop (promotion and relegation) halfway through,” he continued. But his stance was exposed as blinkered self-interest by his own immediate admission that he knew exactly why it HAD to be stopped: “They can’t have relegation because the leagues beneath them ceased. It’s just an unusual circumstance, isn’t it?” Well…yes.
So, it was no surprise that also-relegated Grimsby Town abandoned efforts to worm their way back into the EFL via legal loophole. This left Martin, who had piggy-backed onto these efforts, accepting as sheepishly as anyone can without baa-ing that: “the club’s performances were not good enough, apart from short spells, throughout the season” and that Blues “deserved to be relegated.” And Speller wasn’t fooled anyway. He said: “Sounds like you’re looking at ways that Southend wouldn’t be playing in the National League.” To which Martin’s response, “I’ve been doing that all year,” was another unwitting admission of failure, wrapped in protestations of nobility.
Speller’s questioning was good. But had he asked all the supplementary questions begged by Martin’s answers, the interview would be going still. So, while tackling key subjects, he often gave Martin a way out. For example, Martin claims Blues are in a strong financial position despite relegation and losing what he told Speller was “about half-a-million” in Premier League solidarity payments. But rather than press Martin on the audible and long-term financial illogic of this, he suggested that “it’s going to need more input from you, isn’t it?” A suggestion with which Martin happily concurred.
It was often hard to gauge if Martin was being disingenuous (polite term) or not. “Stan is probably the man,” he said of 33-game club legend Stan Collymore, who was mid-angle for a role at the club when the interview took place. But the subsequent ending of talks with Collymore on that topic was writ large between the interview’s lines. “We’ll retain probably 10, 12, maybe 14 (players). And we’ll recruit six, seven or eight,” he said, at a time when not even Phil Brown had been appointed manager. Martin had next season’s decisions made, whatever ‘directorship of football’ Stan envisaged for himself.
Martin also seemed to be making things up as he went along on hiring Southend’s first Chief Executive Officer since 2016. He had wanted to employ one “at the back end of last season.” But he insisted that “you’re not going to attract the right person when you’re on the way down.” Speller saw through this: “If it was difficult when you dropped into League Two, why hasn’t it been hard (when) you’re dropping into the National League?”
“But that was my perception,” Martin claimed, of something he had stated as fact 100 seconds earlier. “I wasn’t looking at somebody when we were dropping I was thinking I want stability in the football club before I go and look for somebody.” That Martin has now found a CEO suggests a curious definition of “stability.” But at least he admitted that “now we are where we are, I need some help. No doubt about that.” As there hasn’t been since…well…2016.
“I’m not their enemy, am I?” he asked, incredulously, when Speller noted fans’ protests since having to ponder Non-League Paper subscriptions (website and digital edition 14p-a-day, newspaper £2-a-week, including P&P). “They think you are,” Speller said. “Well, not all of them, because a lot of people,” Martin replied, channelling his inner Trump, “write to me and recognise what I’ve been doing. Why do they think I’m their enemy when I’m funding the club?” Take a wild guess, Ron, when you’re at Solihull Moors next season.
Alas, the interview ultimately re-affirmed Martin’s unshakeable belief that “It’s not in its best interests (for the club) to be for sale, in any event. And certainly not now.” And it confirmed his desire to apply his famed judgement to selling “to somebody who I can be absolutely certain will take the club to another level. We’d want to sell to somebody who has the wealth to support it. And, the likelihood is, that person would want to own the stadium.” And this, Martin claimed, was “why I’d like to retain the stadium.”
But, of course, the real reason is, in his own 2009 words, that its “beneficial owners…are me and my family.” Hence his son Jack’s involvement in the latest plans, presumably. And why he said any new stadium owners would “probably” have to work “in liaison with me in the run-up.” He said “we’d only be selling to somebody who wants to see the best for Southend United.” But he would, wouldn’t he? Reminding people that this means “the best” for “me and my family” denies his supporters their only reason FOR supporting him, his ‘benefaction.’
“It will get it,” Martin told Speller when asked about the extra funding required to cover the costs of relegation. But Blues’ future still revolves around how Martin will “get it” BACK. That uncomfortable narrative underpins the whole interview and undermines Martin’s contributions to it. And it will continue to undermine Martin’s credibility for as long as doing “the best he can” continues to be far better for “me and my family” than for his football club.