From fans protesting on the pitch, to the chairman swearing at supporters on a Zoom call and players taking training on their own, life at Southend United has been somewhat eventful recently and Amos Murphy takes a look at the club's latest crisis.
Shrimpers shrink as Football League status sinks
Southend United are just the latest chapter in the depressing anthology of football clubs to have been sold a dream by owners that can’t deliver promises. Whilst Ron Martin cannot be faltered for ambition during his 23-year stint as chairman of the club, a succession of failures on and off the pitch has seen a once-proud Football League club fearing for their safety in the non-league.
Relegated from League One during the curtailed 2019/20 campaign, Southend dropped out of the Football League for the first time in 101 years when they suffered their second demotion in as many seasons earlier this year.
One of English football’s staple clubs for over a century – like many who had come before them – are now plying their trade in non-league, where after two months of the season, Southend are once again staring another relegation down the barrel.
Whilst the jury is still out on how the Shrimpers came to this position, the consensus is clear amongst all supporters that systemic change needs to happen within the club if it is to avoid any further relegations.
Protests against Martin to 'Save Our Southend'
Entering the pitch to the chorus of ‘we want Martin out’ late-on during Southend’s recent 4-0 thrashing to Chesterfield, protestors set-up camp just in front of the director’s box, where the much-maligned chairman kept his cover.
Ironically, it was the most energy seen on the Roots Hall pitch from the Southend faithful all season, with the then manager Phil Brown relieved of his duties almost immediately after full-time.
A display of unity and defiance against the mismanagement and poor ownership of their club, it wasn’t the first time this season Southend supporters had taken to the pitch in opposition, with a similar protest executed in their 1-0 victory over Eastleigh.
One of the leading figures in the campaign against Martin’s ownership has been James Schooley of the Save Our Southend group, who told nonleaguedaily.com the club’s demise has been a crisis waiting to happen:
“Poor recruitment of players is what initially plunged us into this latest episode of financial troubles and you then started hearing things about wages being paid late.
“This was made worse by Ron Martin’s poor managerial choices, with a succession of managers who didn’t really fit”.
Like many clubs, COVID-19 brought about its own set of problems and for Southend who were at the time languishing in the relegation zone of League One and manager Sol Campbell failed to inspire the Roots Hall faithful, James believes:
“We were hearing all sorts of stories about players not being contacted at all throughout Covid, people being furloughed and Sol not really doing anything.
“I can’t really put my finger on one thing, but it’s just been a snowballing disaster”.
Managers mislead at Southend by Martin
Current Aldershot Town boss Mark Molesley followed Campbell in the dugout, yet his tenure was blighted by a series of strict registration restrictions and transfer embargos stinting any planned progression the former Bournemouth player may have had.
The man tasked with repairing the damage at Roots Hall and preparing the club for an assault on the National League was Phil Brown, who returned to the club where he spent five years as the manager between 2013 and 2018. Optimism was relatively high. He lasted six months before being sacked.
James believes Martin has in the past rewritten areas of the club’s history, blaming their problems on the actions of managers, whilst ignoring the environments they had to work within:
“Martin does seem to be somewhat of a revisionist of our history. He does at times conveniently forget the club has desperately needed an overhaul.
“He cannot blame the managers, or even say he’s stupid to appoint them when he’s not given them the environment to excel.
“These managers have been on a hiding to nothing, with players not being paid and not being able to sign anyone. What did Ron Martin expect?”.
Stadium struggle not priority, says Trust
A quick look at Southend’s recent season history tells you the club has been in freefall for some time. Promoted to the Championship after winning League One as recently as 2005/06, brief spells of success were sharply met with sustained periods of unrest.
Yet, away from the pitch, plans around a proposed new stadium have rumbled on ever since Martin took charge of the club in 1998.
Rob Craven, who is the Press Officer of the Shrimpers Trust, told nonleaguedaily.com that he is unsure around the motives of Martin’s desire to deliver Southend United a new stadium:
“We are losing money whilst playing at Roots Hall because of having to pay a lot more for safety certificates, it is that run-down. It’s an old ground, it’s been around since the fifties and we all know that.
“Details about how the new stadium would benefit Southend United Football Club and not just Ron Martin, his family and his businesses were requested months ago, because we need to know what tangible revenue streams there are to bring income to the club”.
Fossetts Farm Stadium – the provisional name for the new ground – came close to being built in 2008, when Martin and the club received planning permission to start construction, yet a combination of the financial crisis and a drop in retail revenue put the plans on hold, where they had been left dormant for some time.
It took 12 years for those plans to resurface, where a vote by the local council on whether to push through with the project is expected to take place on October 25th. Yet, the fear for Rob and his fellow supporters is the new stadium may be in vain, should Southend fail to dig themselves out of their current on-the-pitch problems.
Immediate future of club more important
One of the main issues with Southend’s current home of 66 years, Roots Hall, is its inability to provide the facilities needed for a modern football club to live sustainably and just a short journey down the A12 to their local rivals Colchester United, the benefits of a multi-purpose stadia are clear to see.
Colchester moved from Layer Road to their new home, the Colchester Community Stadium in 2008, just months before Southend were due to start work on Fossetts Farm and since the U’s have been able to host concerts, conferences and England youth matches at the ground, all whilst maintaining a position in the Football League.
Rob told nonleaguedaily.com that if the proposed stadium is to be a success, Martin must secure the immediate future of the club first:
“We know we have no right to be in any division and we could easily slip further down the football pyramid. The immediate fortunes of the club on the pitch and getting away from the relegation zone should be the prime focus.”
Listing a number of sides of comparable size to Southend, who have dropped below the fifth-tier into regionalised non-league divisions, such as Stockport County, York City and Torquay United, Rob fears things could even get worse for the Shrimpers:
“Martin has to address the proper running of the club on a day-to-day basis, which he has started to do to an extent with the appointment of a Chief Executive.
“But that Chief Executive has to be given the authority, where people in the past haven’t, to be able to run things properly and that includes better communication with supporter groups like ourselves”.
Ex-Southend player Phillips believes 'now is time for change'
Improving communication with supporters was exactly what prospective Head of Football Operations, Stan Collymore had promised to do in the summer, before talks between the former Premier League player and chairman Martin broke down.
Collymore cut ties with Martin and Southend, before returning to offer his support once again, this time for free, following the defeat to Chesterfield in October.
With previous history of saving Southend from disaster, albeit as a player, Collymore scored 15 times in 30 matches for the Shrimpers, as his goals helped drag the club from the brink of relegation in 1992/93.
Fellow ex-Southend man Mark Phillips spoke exclusively to nonleaguedaily.com, explaining how he would also be willing to work alongside Collymore and fellow ex-players to help steady the sinking Shrimpers ship:
"Martin needs to put the new stadium to one side, because the future of the club is paramount right now.
“If I could help anyone at the club, including Stan Collymore I’d be up for that instantly. I’ve put my body on the line for Southend many times before and I would do so again”.
Phillips joined the side in 2010 after they had been relegated to League Two and went onto 93 appearances for Southend, even winning the Player of the Year award in 2011/12 and the now 39-year-old is saddened by the state of his former club:
“It’s sad to see there aren’t any lessons being learned from all the financial issues over the year and the stadium is pretty much a running joke in the town”
“I was there for four years and the club is close to my heart, but there are supporters born into Southend United and they're doing all they can do to get their voices heard”.
Drastic change needed to rid Roots Hall of bad weeds
Southend’s current ownership troubles haven’t surfaced overnight and Martin has made it clear on a number of occasions he does not intend to sell the club, at least until he has delivered the new stadium.
Whether a final attempt to secure a legacy worth remembering him by at Southend, or a genuine act of love for the community he professes to protect, only Martin will know, as he and the club were approached for comment, without a response.
Yet, both supporters and former players have been united in opposition to the current state of affairs at the club, with a drastic change needed to uproot the bad weeds growing within Roots Hall and around Southend United as a whole.