National League beckons for Southend and Grimsby… but there’s a way back

SOUTHEND UNITED have rehired Phil Brown as their manager with six games to go this season, but whether he fancies a stint in the National League remains to be seen. Southend would appear to have one foot in the non-league structure. They have hordes of unhappy fans, an unpopular target of a chairman and they are unloved by the tax man. In these troubled times, a club with so many problems could find itself victims of a train wreck.

There has been talk of a new stadium for some years, and in November 2020, the club announced a new home would be built at Fossetts Farm with the Roots Hall site developed for housing. They’re still waiting for things to become clearer on when the project will move forward. The last thing they will want is to open up a new era with the club residing outside the Football League. Southend is a town with almost 200,000 people, it should be able to accommodate football at a reasonably high level.

Grimsby Town, another coastal club, are also in the mire and although they currently have a game in hand on Southend, they are still bottom of League Two. They are in the process of being taken over by a consortium, although some doubt was cast on the deal as one of the key members recently resigned. Grimsby have been in the National League before, but they are now approaching the end of their fifth season back in the Football League after winning promotion in 2016.

The other main relegation candidates are Colchester United, Barrow and Walsall. Colchester have hit a bad run at the wrong time, but there are increasing rumours they are about to go into administration, which may affect the relegation battle. The club have denied they are in trouble.

Relegation to the National League does not have to be a death knell, indeed it can act as a springboard for revival and a chance to reset. Clubs who have not been accustomed to winning can suddenly acquire a new habit, crowds can regain their enthusiasm and off the pitch, a club can regroup. However, if the club in question is on a downward spiral and has deep-rooted problems, it can be the start of an extended lost weekend. 

There have been a number of clubs who failed to recover from the psychological blow of losing Football League status: Boston United, Halifax Town, Darlington, Chester, Hereford United, Macclesfield and York City. Some have gone to the wall, reforming as phoenix clubs, Macclesfield Town being the latest victim. 

It certainly can take time to acclimatise, both on and off the field of play. Since 2000, only four clubs have won promotion at the first attempt: Shrewsbury Town (2004), Carlisle United (2005), Bristol Rovers (2015) and Cheltenham (2016).

There’s been a lot of churn between the EFL and National League over the past 20 years. Of the current League Two constitution, 17 have seen step one of the non-league pyramid and 11 of the National League have tasted life in the Football League in some shape or form. And of the 92 Premier/EFL clubs, 29 have modern non-league experience. 

On average, the teams that have won promotion after relegation do it between three to four years. But some find it hard to get back to where they once belonged. A classic case is Wrexham, who have now, surpriisngly, been in the National League for 13 years. 

To some, Wrexham are simply too big to be playing outside the EFL. In 2018-19, their average gate at the Racecourse ground was 5,077 – that’s higher than when they were last in the EFL. But go back 40 years and they were drawing over 10,000 – which shows you the potential of the club.

Wrexham were taken over by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney earlier this year and the duo have invested £ 2 million into the club under the terms of the deal. They tried to incentivise the players by promising bonuses if the team wins promotion in 2020-21, but that may be beyond them now. Needless to say, Wrexham may be installed as favourites for 2021-22.

Who will go up this season? Sutton United are currently top, a club that has a rich non-league history, but would be unlikely EFL members. However, it is often a club on a roll that can emerge as surprise winners. Hartlepool, Stockport, Notts County, Chesterfield, Halifax and Wrexham are all in with a shout at the top end. Sutton is the only town with no Football League heritage among the pack, but its population runs to 200,000. Close proximity to London clubs may be something of a disadvantage.

Sutton have an artificial pitch at their Gander Green Lane home, so if they do win promotion, they will have to take it up and replace it with a natural surface. The question is, can they sustain EFL football and stay solvent? If they win a place but refuse to take it, they will be penalised, but where will the logic be in ripping-up a facility that has clearly played its part in revitalising the club if Sutton United are relegated in season one? A difficult situation, especially in 2021.

Two promotion places (and relegation places) have shown there can be a two-way flow that works reasonably well. It may not be an enjoyable experience for those that fall through the trapdoor, but at least it should make clubs conservatively provision for failure, rather than assuming the status quo will never be challenged. Clubs like Luton Town, Leyton Orient and Cheltenham have all shown it can be done. As the fans of Southend, Grimsby and Colchester make their journeys for the final run-in, they may wish to take some consolation in knowing they can get back. The wheels may come loose, but it is important to ensure they don’t come off the wagon if and when relegation is confirmed. In the uncertain post-covid football environment, prudence and pragmatism will never be more important, as well as calm heads.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Alamy

Southend – sea, sand and success

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SOUTHEND used to be all about the “lights”, jellied eels, the nightlife, “kiss me quick” hats and a paddle in the freezing cold sea. From a football perspective, Southend played on Friday nights and they had one Billy Best in their line-up. The Kursaal, an amusement park, once played host to legendary rock bands like Queen, Deep Purple, Mott the Hoople and Black Sabbath.

Roots Hall is one of those old fashioned football grounds that used to proliferate the third and fourth divisions of the old Football League structure. Big floodlights that can be used as pointers to the ground’s location and barn-style stands. It still has a somewhat homely feel to it, in an austere 1950s way. Southend’s home since 1955, it looks set to be consigned to history when the club moves to a proposed new site at Fossetts Farm. Roots Hall is surely a housing estate waiting to happen.

It won’t be the only new building going up in Southend in the coming years, for there’s a redevelopment plan in process called the SCAAP (Southend Central Area Action Plan), which will change the face of the town centre and seafront. At present, around 18% of retail units in the centre are empty. Like many towns in 21st century Britain, there appears to be a problem in adapting to changing consumer patterns.

A new stadium for Southend United will offer the chance for the club to step-up a gear but not everyone is happy about the prospect. There are plans for a shopping centre and considerable housing, but critics of the scheme suggest that this would be the death knell for the town centre.

Southend-on-sea, like many seaside resorts, has suffered from shifting demographics. It has a population of 178,000 and it is relatively close to London. It’s a densely populated area and many of its occupants are former Londoners or have London ancestry. It is therefore a town ripe for football.

Fossetts Farm will include a 20,000-plus stadium that will be less than two miles away from Roots Hall. Like many clubs that have moved to new sites, it could result in increased interest in Southend United and perhaps bigger crowds. Forty years ago, Southend were averaging 5,500 at their home games, in 2016-17, gates are around 6,600. When Southend reached the Championship, they pulled in 10,000 per game, which shows that there’s potential to move the needle.

Southend United are enjoying a good season in 2016-17. Before meeting Charlton Athletic on New Year’s Eve, they hadn’t lost in Football League One since October 8. They had a poor start to the campaign, losing their first two games, but they recovered and mounted a challenge at the top of the table.  The locals are starting to believe they might have a chance of the play-offs and the crowds are steadily growing again – 8,500 saw them beat AFC Wimbledon 3-0 and for this game, Roots Hall was almost at capacity – 10,329.

Charlton brought plenty of support from South London. They’ve taken their time to adjust to life in League One after relegation but they gave new manager Karl Robinson his first victory when they won 1-0 at MK Dons on Boxing Day. That must have been bitter-sweet for Robinson as he was sacked by the new town club in October. Ironically, Robinson’s last 90 minutes in charge in Milton Keynes was a 0-3 home defeat at the hands of Southend – a game that was covered by Game of the People.

Roots Hall is a friendly place and there’s no airs and graces about it. It was interesting to see comedian Jim Davidson in the next box to our party. He’s a lifelong fan of the club and even named one of his stand-up tours, “Charlton Nil”.

That’s exactly what the score was for much of the afternoon. Southend, playing some lively football, led at the interval 1-0, their goal coming after 12 minutes from Simon Cox, who shot home from close range with a left-foot drive into the top right-hand corner of the net.

Southend almost went two ahead on the hour when Stephen McLaughlin struck the woodwork with a shot from the edge of the area. But there were signs of a Charlton revival and in a purple patch, Fredrik Ulvestad and Morgan Fox were both denied by superb saves from Southend keeper Ted Smith. Then Charlton’s Joe Aribo hit the bar with a fierce effort from the right hand side of the area. You started to wonder if Southend had done enough to win the game and on 89 minutes, the answer came – Aribo crossed and Andrew Crofts shot high into the net, a lovely finish to make it 1-1, the final score.

In the end, it had been an entertaining 90 minutes and a decent atmosphere. The point keeps Southend’s run bubbling along, but the draw was about right – and even Phil Brown agreed with that in his post-match analysis.

What was evident at Roots Hall was the buzz that traditional stadiums can still create. That is the challenge for all new ground developments. While new homes that meet modern requirements are the way ahead, you cannot beat the hum of an old English football ground. It was good to return to Roots Hall before it disappears.

http://www.gameofthepeople.com

A far cry from concrete cows

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IF there’s a better football ground in League One than the MK Stadium, then I haven’t seen it. Some say it lacks atmosphere, but that’s nothing to do with the design, for it’s as good as any modern stadium and certainly comfortable. Padded seats, decent access, facilities nearby and a reasonable pricing policy – MK Dons have a good home. And contrary to some reports, and the belief that you need a car if you live in MK, it is not difficult to find – number one or six bus from the MK Central (£2.30 return if you have a match ticket in your pocket).

But it is true that there’s not a lot in the way of ambience about the place, but that’s partly because the stadium holds 30,000 people and they only fill a third of it. Furthermore, no matter what you think about MK Dons, it is a new club in a town that was conjured up less than 50 years ago. People moved to Milton Keynes from all over, many with roots in towns and cities spread across the country. MK Dons was founded in 2004 – they are just 12 years old. It takes time to build passion, attachment and loyalty. The fact the club has played in the Championship is no mean feat.

Football in Milton Keynes has had a chequered past. Like all big towns and cities, the city has always been home to many football fans. Where’s there’s working class folk, there’s a football audience, but given the demographics of Milton Keynes in its early years, the town probably comprised a mixed bag of supporters, ranging from Liverpool, Manchester City, the Birmingham clubs and those with London roots. Luring those fans, and the plethora of young families away from the big clubs and in the direction of non-league clubs with no heritage or longevity, was always going to be a hard task for enthusiasts keen to bring football to a new community.

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As a result, Milton Keynes football genetics are more confusing than one of Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees. There’s Bletchley Town, which morphed into Milton Keynes City, who were dissolved, reformed and sent into oblivion. There’s Milton Keynes Borough, which was born out of Belsize FC and then folded to form Milton Keynes FC. Wolverton came into the equation somewhere along the line, until 2004 when Wimbledon, controversially, moved to Middle England.

Milton Keynes has a population of around 230,000 so there’s potential to support a dedicated club for the town. Why did non-league football fail to take root? One reason could be that it just wasn’t “sexy” enough for the population, that clubs formed out of sports outfits with ramshackle facilities, providing a stark contrast with the shiny newness and functionality of a new town built on a grid of small communities – with the odd concrete cow in the fields around the new metropolis –  was never going to work. Milton Keynes sold itself on its “newness”, a different kind of place – “you’ve never seen anything like it” was one of the catch phrases used at the time. Until the MK Stadium was built, they didn’t have a football ground to match the project.

You either like Milton Keynes or you hate it, there doesn’t seem to be any half measures, but you cannot deny that the town has a wealth of facilities. Until 2004, it didn’t have a football club of any substance, but it also came with no small degree of controversy. We won’t go into details on the Wimbledon fiasco, but the pain suffered by the London club’s relocation is legitimate and thankfully, Wimbledon’s resurgence has given them back their club. MK Dons are despised not just by old Wimbledon fans, but also by some supporters who find their existence unpalatable. It is possibly time to bury that hatchet, largely because MK Dons undoubtedly have a new audience with no link to the old Wimbledon days. Milton Keynes has its football club, they’ve handed back the history to Wimbledon and to complete the story, MK Dons really needs to send the Dons tag back to South London.

Was it all a mistake? It was certainly an insensitive decision. From a commercial viewpoint, Wimbledon’s owners possibly felt that the customer (rather than fan) base wasn’t big enough to worry about in terms of flack. But where football is different is that the rest of the constituency, i.e. the great British public, were also upset about the franchisement of English football. If you look back in history, Arsenal were the first club to do that, but the distances involved meant it was achievable. There were few, if any, Woolwich-based fans roaming around the south bank of the Thames complaining about the loss of their club.

Wimbledon fans will always look upon MK Dons as the enemy and now they’re in the same division, it’s that much easier to express their hatred. English football has a new “derby”, even if one team is in London and the other in the Midlands.

For now, Wimbledon are above MK Dons in League One. Game of the People visited the MK Stadium for the Dons game with Southend United. Both teams were languishing in the foothills of the division – MK Dons in 16th and Southend United in 19th. Both had won four, drawn four and lost six of their 14 league games.

It was family day at the stadium, so there seemed to be a lot of youngsters sitting around blowing bubbles from those little devices that seem to have been around for decades. There was hardly any noise coming from the crowd, apart from the Southend fans perched in the top tier.

The announcer tried to introduce a gladiatorial edge to proceedings, but he wasn’t getting any buy-in from the punters, despite the loud music and warnings that, “the players are in the tunnel”. Still fairly quiet, although there was a crowd of 11,039 in the stadium.

Southend silenced the home fans ever further when they scored after one minute and 21 seconds, a corner flying to the far post and Simon Cox turning and shooting home from very close range.

MK Dons almost levelled but Southend keeper Mark Oxley pulled off a spectacular double save from first a header then a follow-up shot. In the 24th minute, though, the visitors netted again, Anthony Wordsworth, on the blind side, turning and scoring with a low shot into the bottom right-hand corner. MK Dons’ misery was completed in added time when Wordsworth curled a free kick past David Martin to make the final score MK Dons 0 Southend United 3.

You can’t help but be impressed by the facilities, but on the evidence of this 90 minute run-out, MK Dons may have a hard time this season. Manager Karl Robinson has his work cut out to keep his job. His opposite number, Phil Brown, who has tasted life at the very highest level, had a much better afternoon.

www.gameofthepeople.com

Within minutes of posting this, it was announced that Karl Robinson had left MK Dons.