IAN HERBERT: No Disney series and no help from above, this is Southend

IAN HERBERT: No Disney series, no help from the big league. This is Southend… and despite finally settling their £1.4m debt with HMRC, they’re still closer to oblivion than Hollywood

  • Southend are facing an uncertain future despite their history and fanbase 
  • The fifth-tier club finally settled their £1.4million debt to HMRC on Tuesday
  • The Shrimpers have had no help from the big league and are facing liquidation

They were drinking to the good times at the Blue Boar in Southend on Monday night.

Promotions to League One and the Championship, and that night of all nights against Manchester United: 1-0, Roots Hall, Freddy Eastwood, November 7, 2006. There’s not a wall of the pub that doesn’t contain some artefact of that League Cup win.

Here is the soul of British football, a community which doesn’t have a huge amount of wealth to shout about, sending its team out to ride the rollercoaster of our football pyramid, just as it has been for 116 years. 

‘The sing-alongs might not quite be what they once were but the club brings so much joy,’ says Michelle Gargate, who’s been running the pub for seven years. ‘It’s a kind of identity.’

It’s that indelible link between football and community in British places of all shapes and sizes which has led Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds to Wrexham, who play in Southend’s league.

Southend chairman Ron Martin has finally settled a £1.4million debt to HMRC on Tuesday

The lack of investment into infrastructure is starting to show at Roots Hall Stadium

Despite their struggles off the pitch, the Shrimpers sit sixth in the National League

American audiences have adored what they have seen, watching Disney’s Welcome to Wrexham documentary series in numbers which have even astonished its co-creators. 

It’s why Manchester United and Chelsea announced last weekend that they will both be playing Wrexham in California this summer.

But while Wrexham contemplate those blockbuster friendlies, Southend are preparing for a winding-up hearing at the High Court in London on Wednesday. 

A £1.4million debt to HMRC was finally settled on Tuesday but you only had to walk through their Roots Hall stadium beneath a slate-grey sky on Tuesday to see that this club might not last much longer, despite its supporters’ monumental efforts to keep things going.

The decay was visible in myriad ways. The rusting gates to the Boot Room community facility where I met 20 men who’d gathered for a mental health group on Monday night. The stopped clock on the Frank Walton Stand. The washed-out green paint on the main stand’s wooden seats.

A fraction of the one per cent of the £500million Chelsea, a club 45 miles west, have just thrown at the transfer market would have meant the world, at this end of the football line.

But don’t dare raise the notion of the fabulously wealthy offering a little more help to the dirt-poor in our game. 

The Premier League and their influential friends will tell you that it’s all about the market — survival of the fittest — when the depth and reach of our pyramid and the flow of clubs through it is our football story. Something unique. Ask the Americans, the Germans, the Spanish. None have something which flows as deeply as this.

When a White Paper on football governance was published last week, it was clear that a greater flow of money down from the Premier League will not be forthcoming any time soon.

Southend don’t have the help of a Disney docu-series behind them like Wrexham does

Southend fans have made their opinion known of Martin and how he has been running the club

The gilded elite division will continue to maintain the fallacy that it is helping the rest, when 70 per cent of the money it sends down below is Championship parachute payments. 

An insurance policy for the division’s own members laughably dressed up as ‘solidarity payments’.

The naysayers who proclaim the Southends of this world are not entitled to a penny more from the top will point to the owner of this club. Ron Martin settles bills when it suits him. 

A bridging loan will probably fend off liquidation on Wednesday, even though it saddles the club with expensive debt. I was told Martin would not be available to discuss the club with me.

But in the world beyond the affluent Premier League, they have actually found a very bold route to sustainability, which will drum out the cretins and asset-strippers who are in it for the cash.

It’s a licensing system, within the White Paper, which would at last protect these community assets against rogue owners. If clubs don’t pay their bills, spend sustainably, stay solvent and provide business plans, they will simply not get a licence to play in their league.

Since half the clubs below the Premier League are insolvent and only kept alive by owners, that medicine could kill the patient. The system has to go hand-in-hand with proper redistribution of cash from the top. 

Southend fans want this licensing, whatever the risk. Talk to the regulars at the Blue Boar about bureaucratic interference and they’ll laugh you out of the place.

There has also been no help from the Premier League with Southend facing liquidation 

‘It transforms everything,’ says Liam Ager, of Southend’s All At Sea fanzine. ‘It means an end to football’s Ron Martins and the zero scrutiny.’

Avoiding liquidation today would mean Southend are around to visit Wrexham, a week on Saturday, but their world is uncertain.

Time is running out on Martin’s plan to cash in by building houses on the Roots Hall stadium site. A new owner would need at least £1million a year to keep the club in the National League, several other fifth-tier owners tell me.

The club have no assets. Martin has already transferred ownership of the stadium and training ground to himself.

But these supporters do not stand alone. When the club’s non-playing staff received no wages last winter and fans, led by the Shrimpers Trust, launched a fund-raising campaign to help pay them, Southend found that some of Wrexham’s new American fanbase had got to know of this and wanted to help. ‘A random supporter from Texas put £100 into our pot,’ says Ager. ‘We’ll never forget that.’

Proof that Southend, on the Thames Estuary, would have actually made rather excellent documentary material. They have so much — the history, the backdrop, the fanbase, the community — but it just didn’t work out that way. They’re closer to oblivion than Hollywood today.

Why I won’t say sorry for shining a light on crush

It is tempting just to laugh at the Sheffield Wednesday supporters who post me abuse and images of every overcrowded — or even crowded — football ground they can find, because I had the temerity to write about a group of visiting Newcastle United supporters who felt crushed and scared during their FA Cup tie at Hillsborough.

The hyper-sensitive, thin-skinned people who ask me to apologise for relating such testimonies are too wrapped up in victimhood to see that the same reporting would have applied to Bramall Lane, Oakwell or anywhere else. 

They are feeling hugely vindicated because the club now say a ‘review’ of the crowd management that day, commissioned by Wednesday and Sheffield City Council, has found that all aspects of safety complied with the club’s safety certificate.

How I covered the incident at Hillsborough during Sheffield Wednesday’s tie with Newcastle

Sheffield Wednesday’s Leppings Lane stand was the location of the stadium disaster in 1989

‘Minor recommendations were made relating to the overall match-day experience at the ground,’ the club and the council said in a press release faithfully reported by the local paper.

I asked the club for a copy of this review. They said they didn’t have one. I asked the Sports Ground Safety Authority, who referred me to Sheffield City Council. I asked the council, who asked for an email, to which they have not replied.

I called Newcastle fans known to have been caught up in events that day, to ask if Sheffield’s ‘investigators’ had rung. They hadn’t. Has history taught us nothing? Nothing to laugh at, really.

Sticker albums still captivate us 

A return to Panini albums after all these years. My grandson and I both have the 2022-23 edition. His first. My first since 1979.

Some things have changed. The paper quality’s poorer. The Scottish Premier League teams have sadly gone. But the beautiful, iridescent club crests are still there in all their glory, a glorious fixed point in a bewildering world.

Entitled Van Dijk has no Euro right

‘Liverpool belong in Europe’, Virgil van Dijk said after the goalless draw at Crystal Palace that resembled a night in front of a wall of slowly drying paint. 

Interesting concept, ‘belonging’. Manchester United felt they belonged. AC Milan felt they belonged. Arsenal felt they belonged. And then they no longer did. There are always new challengers to the old order. There is always new money.

With a sense of ‘belonging’ comes entitlement. Hubris lies not far behind.

Liverpool sit seventh in the Premier League and are a huge 21 points off leaders Arsenal

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