THESE ARE sad times for Southend United and their loyal band of supporters. On March 1, 2023, unless club owner Ron Martin comes up with the £ 1.4 million the club owes to HMRC, Southend United will be no more – at least not in their current guise.
For a long time, this club appears to have lacked viability, both on and off the pitch. This culminated in two successive relegations, a string of winding-up orders, a 30% decline in their matchday audience and a big loss on their last published accounts in 2018-19. They also have restrictions on acquiring new players. It’s a sorry tale.
Southend have been a non-league club since 2021, but their problems go back a lot further than the past two years. Questions that nobody really wants to hear need to be answered – is there a future for the club as it stands today? Indeed, they are not alone in their financial pressure, is there a future for a lot of Southend’s contemporaries? Have we reached a point where the huge imbalances in English football have consigned the little men to near-irrelevance? And is the answer a huge reset that reinvents small to mid-sized town/city football? Such enquiries are bound to inflame some folk, but they are difficult questions, not statements. And they apply to so many clubs in the lower leagues.
The National League is now dominated by clubs that have either been in the Football League or have some form of Football League heritage. Of the 24 clubs, 14 have experienced life at a higher level. Therefore, it is tough to get out of the division although the crowds have the potential to be quite healthy. Southend are having a decent season, but their fans know it could all come to an end soon.
While the fans want a new owner, they also know that Martin has pulled a rabbit out of the bag when the club starts to peer over the precipice. Martin is so far down the road in his project to move Southend to a new stadium and training centre at Fossetts Farm, part of a £ 500 million grand scheme, that his departure would throw doubts on any hopes of a move from tired old Roots Hall. It could leave the club in a huge limbo.
Martin, a property developer, bought the club for £ 4 million in 1998 with the aim of taking the club to a new stadium and then onto new heights. Southend United have always had the potential to be much more relevant than they have been. Essex is rather light on Football League representation given its size, its proximity to London and its working class population. Essex man likes his football, even if the passion is directed towards West Ham United, Arsenal, Tottenham and others. Therein lies part of the problem – Southend exports fans to the big city every weekend on the Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street lines.
Southend has a population of around 180,000 and a big catchment area that runs to 400,000. If they got it really right, in the right location, they could draw much bigger crowds than the sub-7,000 they currently attract to Roots Hall. Their last published accounts revealed the club generated £ 7.4 million, with 84% of income paid as wages to players. They made a pre-tax loss in 2018-19 of £ 2.6 million. The club has said there is an annual funding gap of some £ 2 million, which is arguably the most telling statistic about Southend’s being a going concern. The club, in 2019, had debt of £ 17 million.
The pandemic hit clubs like Southend badly and Martin claims the HMRC debt is a legacy from that period. There is no doubt that money to the taxman has to be paid if Southend want to be viewed sympathetically by those in the area who are not emotionally wed to the club. Non-football people generally have a less than positive view on how football clubs are run and debts to HMRC are seen very negatively.
Apparently, Martin is trying to borrow £ 5 million as a form of bridging loan that will help clear the debt. The fans are urging him to sell-up, but finding the right buyer may be tough in the current climate, and who would be a football club owner given the unrealistic expectations of most supporters?
Non-league status should not deter people too much, take a look at the Wrexham affair to see what can be done. In all probability, a Southend club – in whatever guise that me be – can eventually win back Football League status for the seaside location. That has to be the selling point for any new benefactor.
If the worst happens and the club does fold in March, the project to form a so-called phoenix club will surely kick-in and quickly gather momentum. This will mean a prolonged period of non-league football and will provide the fans with a winning team for at least five years as Southend becomes a big fish in a small pond. Fan ownership has its benefits, and there are many advocates, but will have its limitations the higher they fly. Southend could also leverage its recently acquired status of being a city – ironically, March 1 2023, the day the club may fail, marks the first anniversary of Southend’s elevation.
A new, community-run club would enable the people who care most about “AFC Southend 2023” to have some of their guiding hands on the tiller. The alternative is arguably more mediocrity and “hand to mouth” survival unless the new ground appears on the horizon. A solution is not far away, but not everybody will like the outcome.