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. 

Helping our football neighbours

THIS SEASON (which apparently is a unique one according to the media), I have decided to lend my support to clubs that need a helping hand. It is very clear that the pandemic, like all crises, has hit the poorest in society and football is no exception. Although all clubs have had to bite the bullet in some way, those at the bottom end of the food chain have been hit the worst. Therefore, they need more support than the elite clubs who will always survive and even prosper.

While some big clubs, like Barcelona, have got themselves into dangerous waters, it is hard to sympathise given the amount of money the big clubs pay to their players. Wage bills have, for some years, spiralled out of control, but the clubs perpetuate the problem. Similarly, transfer fees have become ridiculous, yet very few small clubs seem to get a decent slice of the pie. Many transfers are simply being conducted among the top clubs, making agents every wealthy.

Money should be no problem for the behemoths of the game, yet the selfish pursuit of more cash continues, with grand schemes like the European Super League, the somewhat dubious growth of crypto currency and dangerous link-ups with very questionable owners. Football creates it own controversies and its own drama – just look at the financial chaos that exists in the Championship as an example, with wages rocketing beyond income.

Away from this, there are hundreds, indeed thousands, of clubs around Europe that are a million kilometres away from this self-serving model. As a Chelsea fan for more than 50 years, I have moved beyond the stage in life where their results make or break my day or weekend. Chelsea of today are not the club I adopted at the age of eight years old. I am not prepared to pay exploitive prices for tickets at any ground, although like many, I have been forced out of regular Premier action by lack of availability. I refuse to feed the beast and would encourage fans to show their contempt for pricing in the most effective way – by not buying them. Of course, this won’t happen, because fans are frightened of losing their place in the queue. Clubs with waiting lists have no motivation to lower prices, but the fans line-up to shovel more money into the well.

If we all love football, then we should care passionately for the state of health of the so-called eco-system. By neglecting the system, we actually push the big clubs further towards that super league and also damage the structure of the game. There’s few things in sport that are sadder than a closed or derelict football ground.

Part of football’s charm is its aspirational aspect, the possibility of something unexpected happening, be it promotion, relegation, cup shocks or romantic player development stories. The latter is moving into the hands of major clubs, who sweep-up every available young talent and by doing so, deprive smaller clubs from unearthing their own jewel. And then, the young players are rejected and they end up playing in the Isthmian or Southern leagues.

Given there are more fans of big clubs than available tickets, is it not a good idea for those fans who have little chance of gaining a place among the 40,000 at Stamford Bridge or 60,000 at the Emirates to adopt their local football institution as a second eleven? I’m not talking about special “non-league days” or “pay what you want” occasions, but on a regular basis? This not only allows the “fan” to watch live action instead of being glued to TV or social media, but it also pumps more money into the lower leagues of the EFL or non-league.

This is partly why I have decided that in 2022-23, I will be attending League One and League Two as well as women’s football and my local non-league club. I have been something of a portfolio fan for about 10 years, watching the game abroad on a regular basis and also visiting grounds up and down the country (85 of the 92). I won’t pretend this has its downside as I have certainly lost any remaining element of myopic partisanship, but at 63 years of age, I can live with that. But I do feel that it is very beneficial to connect with the very essence of the historic roots of British football. I would add that my next book will be all about the towns and cities in which the game is played across the United Kingdom!

So 2022-23 is a unique season for me and I am actually looking forward to smaller crowds, less hype and some honest endeavour. I would also like to think that crowd behaviour can take a leaf out of the women’s game. I was at Wembley for the final and I have never witnessed a near-90,000 crowd behave with such dignity or respect. It can be done!

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.