Weep for Southend United, but there must be an opportunity for rebirth

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. 

Stevenage and Oldham live up to their billing

IN THE scheme of things, the battle to stay in the Football League is relatively unimportant compared to other events around the world, but an air of definite tension hung over Stevenage’s Lamex Stadium on the day the 90th and 91st-placed teams met in what could only be labelled an elimination bout.

It had reached a crucial stage of 2021-22 for both teams, who seemed hell bent on falling through the trapdoor. Oldham may beaten Leyton Orient a few days earlier and Stevenage might have be hoping for a late boost from the appointment of their third manager of the campaign, but both seemed in freefall. That Oldham – who also changed their coach in January, John Sheridan replacing Keith Curle – were still in with a shout was partly due to the poor form and slump of Stevenage, but the relegation battle had crystallised into any one of three to accompany Scunthorpe United. Barrow, who only returned to the league after a long absence in 2020, have evolved into candidates for a National League return.

Relegation for Stevenage would be a bitter pill to swallow after 12 years in the EFL. They’ve had some great moments in that period, winning promotion to League One in their first season and enjoying cup ties against Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Leicester City, Hull City, Southampton and Swansea City, among others. They ended their non-league life with two FA Trophy victories in 2007 and 2009 and were runners-up in 2010. It’s a town that’s always been tailor-made for league football, but since relegation back to League Two, support looks to have plateaued and in 2021-22, gates had been 5% lower than before the pandemic.

Phil Wallace has owned the club since the late 1990s and provided the impetus to take Stevenage into the league, the most recent improvement to the excellent Lamex Stadium being the North Stand, which offers a superb view for spectators. From time to time there are rumours Wallace wants to sell Stevenage and there were suggestions of a tie-up between the club and a group of cryptocurrency investors in 2021.

Wallace, allegedly the 35th richest person in Hertfordshire, would surely not want to end his reign at Stevenage with relegation, but the club’s on-pitch performances have declined in recent years and the manager’s role has become one of the least secure in football – they have had 10 full-time appointments in 12 years, hardly a recipe for stability.

Oldham Athletic were in the first Premier League in 1992-93 and spent two seasons at that level before falling into the second (1994) and third (1997) tiers. In 2018, they were relegated to League Two and have finished in 19th and 18th in the last seasons respectively. Just ahead of visiting Stevenage, Oldham published their accounts and they didn’t make for good reading. Football finance guru Kieran Maguire of the Price of Football, suggested the latest figures showed the club is “technically insolvent” as it has more liabilities than assets. 

However, Maguire added there is no sign of the club going into administration, but the accounts demonstrated a hand-to-mouth existence. Oldham, like many clubs, owe a lot of money, so relegation from the EFL would surely be a blow to their financial position.

Oldham fans turned out in force at Stevenage and their vocal support was very impressive. Conversely, there was an air of despondency among the home fans, who had not seen their team win since a league game the end of January. Their last away victory was recorded on August 14 at Bristol Rovers. Oldham had just ended a run of six consecutive league defeats when they beat Leyton Orient on March 29. Their home form has really been their undoing and their recent run included three successive defeats at Boundary Park. 

The general feeling was the losers of the game at the Lamex may well be heading into non-league football. Time was certainly running out for both, but Stevenage appeared to have the easier run-in, with games against Rochdale, Colchester, Scunthorpe and Carlisle. Stevenage’s biggest problem was scoring goals, just 34 in the 38 games before the Oldham clash and just six in the last 10.

With so much at stake, it was no surprise tension got the better of things for long periods. Stevenage had two early efforts, but their finishing explained why they had found scoring such a chore. Luke Norris and Arthur Read should certainly have done better when presented with close range opportunities. 

Oldham took the lead after 16 minutes with a nicely taken goal. Jordan Clarke’s cross to the far post was met by a looping header from Jamie Hopcutt, who had been recalled to the team by Sheridan. The Oldham keeper, Danny Rogers, danced with joy as the ball sailed over Christy Pym, his opposite number.

Stevenage nervously pressed, but their lack of firepower was exposed repeatedly, notably in the frenetic finale which almost brought the equaliser. Oldham’s defence held out, frustrating the home team and their unhappy supporters. It was a great rearguard action, although it didn’t make for compelling entertainment. It didn’t really matter to the majority of the fans, the result was the most important aspect of the afternoon, and Oldham got precisely what they came for. While the Latics travelling support enjoyed the moment as if they had won major silverware, the noise from the long Stevenage terrace was akin to mumbled jeering.

It is possible both of these teams will avoid relegation, but at present, Stevenage are in the drop zone. The situation will change game-by-game, but Oldham’s win, however ugly, has given them a three-point lead over Stevenage. They also have a better goal difference, which is worth another point. And then there’s Barrow, who are level with Oldham and have an eight-goal advantage. Stevenage manager Steve Evans, who felt his side were outstanding (!), is calling for the backing of the entire new town. They travel to Colchester United on April 9, who are also far from safe. As Evans said, Stevenage have seven cup finals ahead of them. He’s not wrong.

Remaining fixtures

(7): Home – Forest Green, Northampton, Sutton United.
Away – Crawley, Exeter, Salford, Swindon.

Oldham (6): Home – Crawley, Northampton, Salford.
Away – Forest Green, Port Vale, Tranmere.

Stevenage (7): Home – Rochdale, Salford, Tranmere.
Away – Carlisle, Colchester, Mansfield, Scunthorpe.