As the full time whistle blew on the final day of the 2016/17 season, Southend United fans dropped their heads in despair over what could have been. Finishing just a point behind sixth place and, in turn, missing an illustrious spot in the League One play-offs, meant the Shrimpers had a crushing end to an incredible campaign.
Despite this, optimism was rife throughout the club. The team was full of exciting players that looked destined to gain promotion to the Championship the following season.
Alas, there was a looming grey cloud that was about to ruin this underlying elation by cementing a permanent unwanted spot loitering above Roots Hall. This ominous metaphorical presence was the club’s naive business in the following transfer window, selling key players such as Ryan Leonard and Daniel Bentley.
These transactions where merely the first piece of a depressing jigsaw that now leave the beloved local club marooned at the bottom of League Two, just three years on from their near play-off miss.
A fall from grace such as this cannot just be blamed on a few poor deals in the transfer window, so what is the real story behind the decline of Southend United football club?
Where did it all go wrong?
A transfer embargo, a first team that fields more academy graduates than senior players, 92 goals conceded in the last 49 league games and, of course, a club that has 30 days to pay off £493,000 of debt to the HMRC. A list as morbid as this is sadly a small insight as to what it has been like to be a Southend fan over the last few years.
For these reasons, fans have been calling for the head of long-time chairman Ron Martin. For the first time in many supporters’ lifetimes, there have been protests outside of the stadium with banners hoisted over the gates that read “Ron Martin, wanted for the murder of SUFC.”
It can be argued that such displays of aggression and passion are warranted, the majority of reasons for Southend’s downfall can be placed on the chairman’s misjudgement. On the other hand, sympathetic individuals may say Martin has been unlucky, it is not as if the players that were sold in the summer transfer window of 2017 were not replaced.
Rob Kiernan was the club’s blockbuster signing that window, arriving as a talented centre back from Rangers for an undisclosed fee. Josh Wright was another exciting addition, a midfielder that could create as well as find the goal himself.
For one reason or another, neither of these signings came to fruition with Kiernan’s time at the club proving especially underwhelming, making just 30 appearances in three years.
As a result of these signings (amongst others) completely failing, the performance on the pitch started to become dull and lifeless. Fans were starting to question how the team had changed so much in such little time, even protagonists from last season’s campaign like Nile Ranger and Anton Ferdinand had become a shell of their former selves. Roots Hall did not feel like the fortress fans had become accustomed to.
As results worsened, so did the fans opinion of manager at the time Phil Brown. His narrative was quickly changing from a cult hero to an outdated dinosaur who did not know how to take the club to the next level.
A vivid memory that still remains fresh in the head is a dreary trip to Kingsmeadow Stadium where the dugout was just inches away from the away fans. As Wimbledon ran riot in a convincing win, the abuse directed at Brown was too loud to ignore. The man was sitting just in front of hundreds of men who wanted him dead, it was tough to watch.
Not long after, Martin listened to the blatant plea from Southend fans as Brown was fired from his position as manager.
His replacement, Chris Powell, was one that re-ignited the fans optimism. The man had made 248 appearances for the Shrimpers as a player in the 90s and had managerial experience in the Championship. He was bound to be a success, right?
Wrong, Powell’s time at Roots Hall was, frankly, a failure. After finishing tenth in his first season, he was sacked a year on as only goal difference separated Southend and the relegation zone. Ron Martin’s genius appointment had failed.
The Blues somehow survived relegation that year due to last game heroics from Stephen Humphreys, but looking back now, it was just prolonging the inevitable.
The 2019/20 season was awful. No money, no hope and a manager that thought he was managing Southampton. The Blues ended the season winning four games from 35 and only just finishing above a Bolton Wanderers team that started the season with 12 points deducted from their tally.
Managerless Southend returned to League Two with their tale slung between their legs, bringing a transfer embargo down with them.
Is it Ron Martins fault?
So, is Ron Martin to blame for all of that? No, the appointment of Powell on paper was a good one and some of the signings that season should have performed much better than they did. The fall of Southend United cannot be solely blamed on Martin.
However, Martin is the only man at fault for the finances of the club, which are in tatters.
If the Blues do not pay off their debt in the next month then it is likely they will be expelled to the football league, which would end over a century of league football for the Shrimpers.
In many recent statements from the Chairman, supporters have read away keenly awaiting a genius plan for how Southend will muster half a million pounds when they cannot afford to sign enough senior players to make a starting eleven; however, each time they are left disappointed at the ‘beat around the bush’ attitude that is consistently displayed in Martin’s letters.
“Training is going well, we have signed two more players than expected, Mark Molesley and his staff are settling in well.” Well great, but will fans have a club to support in 30 days?
Maybe writing this is harsh, COVID-19 has stopped a consistent flow of money from ticket receipts and the appointment of Molesley seems to be the right choice, but the matter of the fact is Southend may be expelled from the league in a month, and the Chairman does not seem to have a plan as to how to stop this happening.
It is almost hard to believe that he is the same Chairman that helped built that incredible side only five seasons ago, time can be such a cruel mistress.