Craig Tanner and his dad, Richard, are stood waiting in the Essex sun. Waiting in a crowd. Waiting for a sign to move forward.
It is matchday in Southend. Behind them are the River Thames’ estuary and the city’s pier, the longest in the world. In front, a one-mile protest march to Roots Hall: the home of Southend United, a 117-year-old football club that may no longer exist come Wednesday.
“We have to follow the court dates more than the fixtures,” Craig tells The Athletic. “It’s just horrible. I come to games with my dad. I used to come with my nan and grandad.
“Tuesday night, we play Oxford City. Then on Wednesday, we have a court date. That Tuesday could be our final game at Roots Hall. Tuesday could be the last time I sit in my seat, next to my dad… I’m sorry.” His eyes are red.
An atmosphere of crisis is nothing new to Southend.
It is all there over the past 25 years. Accusations of mismanagement by owner and property developer Ron Martin, 18 winding up petitions since 2009, a new ground that is yet to materialise, pockets of land primed for housing, unpaid tax bills, mounting debts and the stadium and training base taken out of the club’s ownership.
Martin and Southend were contacted for comment before the publication of this article.
It has felt like death by a thousand cuts. The final moment could be just hours away.
“We want Martin out!” booms a voice from the front of the crowd.
The hundreds gathered join in immediately and the march starts.
“If this was not a football club with the attachment of its fans, I would be winding you up today. You will be wound up on the next date if it’s not sorted,” said Judge Sebastian Prentis on August 23, the day Southend were granted a 42-day adjournment.
By Wednesday, they need to have dealt with the latest unpaid tax bill. It stood at £275,000 but has been reduced by £80,000 thanks to the National League — the level where Southend now play after their 101-year spell in the EFL ended with relegation in 2021. The league agreed to advance Southend’s next instalment of central broadcast and sponsorship revenue, providing it could give the money directly to HMRC.
It was the third adjournment of the club’s 18th winding-up petition over the past four years. The additional time was granted to allow Martin to sell the club. A consortium led by Australian businessman Justin Rees is the main hope. Positive talks have taken place between the parties in the past week, with significant movement towards a takeover. Despite time running out, there is genuine belief a deal will be completed ahead of Wednesday’s deadline.
Supporters have no option but to hope it does.
Martin has repeatedly found a way to raise the money needed in the past, albeit in answer to problems often perceived to be of his making.
In August the tax bill remained unpaid and sporting sanctions arrived. The National League deducted Southend 10 points. With that, hopes of a promotion campaign after an unlikely and promising start were dealt a body blow. On Wednesday, it could be administration and a further points deduction that would make another relegation highly likely — or even liquidation and extinction.
Since the end of last season, it has felt like the club are dying.
Southend finished eighth then, just two points off the final play-off spot, but their licence to compete had come under serious threat — they needed to clear their football creditors and convince the league they would see out this season.
The club had hoped to be in their new training ground at Fossetts Farm, which is owned by Martin. There were plans for a new stadium there too, alongside housing and commercial development, in turn allowing Roots Hall to be turned into housing. In November, the club’s website posted pictures of four “Championship-quality” training pitches being created.
By summer, the work had long since stopped after the money ran out. Southend’s existing training ground nearby had been ignored in the expectation it would no longer be needed. The water had been cut off. No toilets, no showers, no unusable pitches. They had nowhere to carry out their pre-season preparations. The players refused to train until June wages were finally paid.
Southend United U19s 3
Oxford City U18s 3
Decent game but it was the venue that grabbed my attention.
— Stadium Photography (@davethephoto) September 27, 2023
Eventually, staff managed to get half a pitch watered and cut so it could be trained on. But a six-week pre-season programme was cut down. A schedule of seven warm-up friendlies became two — played over four days within a fortnight of the season starting.
Southend also had a transfer embargo in place. It meant no new signings, an inability to re-sign out-of-contract players and a limit of 16 registered players. Only those who still had contracts remained.
Despite the chaos and regularly having no more than 13 players available, Southend would be on the fringes of the play-off places again now if it was not for their points deduction.
Of just three substitutes named for their 2-1 home defeat to Fylde on September 23, one was suffering from food poisoning and unable to come on. Wesley Fonguck lasted 60 minutes after starting with a tight quad muscle in his thigh. The only available goalkeeper is 37-year-old goalkeeping coach, David Martin. He signed temporary terms to play but these will have to be cancelled as soon as injured players are able to return. Jason Demetriou, 35, is a modern Southend icon — he has been with the club since 2016. He added coaching duties to his playing responsibilities in the summer. He is still starting in defence.
Staff are increasingly concerned for player welfare. They are playing through minor injuries and without the rest that would come with a bigger squad. The staff can also see that players’ endurance levels are short of where they would be had a full pre-season programme taken place. There was an expectation results would dip once Southend’s schedule hit two games per week.
Players continue to play in unfamiliar positions — captain Cav Miley has moved from midfield to central defence. Staff want to develop young players including 20-year-old forward Jack Wood, but fear the necessity of the situation will have a detrimental effect. Oli Coker, also 20, played against Fylde despite fitness concerns.
Before Maidenhead United’s visit in September, head coach and club legend Kevin Maher was dealing with the prospect of having only 10 players available. There was a feeling inside the club that the game would have gone ahead even if there had only been seven, the minimum permitted, because of the attention towards their plight.
“They’re all carrying things and their bodies are knackered,” Maher said. “They’re shattered. And we’ve got no help on that. We’ve got some bodies in there that are breaking.
“My concern is player welfare, because we are going into games with 12, or 13 players. The players, staff, we’re the ones who get punished on the pitch, and it’s none of our doing. They’re giving absolutely everything.”
This June, two months before the season was due to start, Roots Hall was in danger of not being fit for purpose.
The list of to-do tasks approached 400, with just two groundsmen to carry them out. There were holes in the pitch after missing deadlines to pay a contractor to prepare it for the new season. There were issues in the stands too.
A few images from The Big Clean Up at @SUFCRootsHall earlier today with a massive turnout at Roots Hall from loyal fans including Southend West MP @Anna_Firth Well done to everybody concerned. #LovePhotography pic.twitter.com/EcsRfVaSHv
— NickyHayesPhotos (@NickyHayesPhoto) July 30, 2023
Led by supporter Lawrence Austin, the final Sunday in July saw 165 people turn up with buckets, brooms, mops and spades.
Along with the groundsmen, they fixed seats, cleared gutters, removed weeds, reseeded the pitch and fixed flooded toilets — where fungi was growing. One supporter paid the £600 bill to replace smashed windows. Railings were repainted with people’s own paint and ceilings were replastered. Chief executive Tom Lawrence, who has paid some of the club’s bills, rendered parts of the stadium. Fire exits were cleared. Bird faeces had to be cleared to avoid the risk of contamination and allow the council to approve its public use.
Roots Hall, like the training ground, would have had its water cut off but there was a van parked over the access manhole to the mains. Authorities could therefore not shut down the supply in response to unpaid bills.
The tidy-up day was a success but the complete work took more than two months. Six days before facing Oldham Athletic in the opening game, Southend got the green light and safety certificates needed. They then beat Oldham 4-0.
Roots Hall was built and paid for by supporters, then gifted to the club in 1955. Again, the fans had taken matters into their own hands.
Austin said: “There were a lot of tears in the ground that first game. A lot of people were emotional based on how much work had been done to get it ready.”
Some parts of the stadium remain closed. Supporters in the south west corner of the stadium cannot get a drink from the nearest bar after the roof fell in. The scoreboard isn’t working.
Energy supplier Npower had taken legal action over unpaid bills and requested access to the stadium. That case was set to be heard on Tuesday at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court, 20 miles away, but The Athletic understands that case is now likely to be adjourned.
When the ground was donated to the club, a covenant was put in place preventing planning permission that would demolish it without there being a new home for Southend to move into. This led to 20 years of talk about building a stadium at Fossetts Farm, a site on the northern edge of the city.
Southend received their licence to play after clearing football-related debts. Some staff had gone four months without being paid.
The accumulation of many small things created “a situation you could never do justice to”, according to one source who wished to remain anonymous to protect their relationship with the club.
Players feel they have known little more than supporters throughout the year. The mood inside the dressing room has been at its most angry when players’ wages have not been paid. Maher has, though, maintained a focus on football.
Midfielder Fonguck told the Beyond The 92 podcast: “Our gaffer always says, ‘Control what we can.’ We can do something about what’s on the pitch and that’s brought us together.
“The realism is there’s nothing we can do about that, so we’d better just get the damn wins as soon as possible because that’s all we can control.”
There was hope movie actor Ray Winstone — born in east London, less than an hour’s drive away — could help lead a takeover that would result in a Wrexham-style documentary and similar success on the pitch, although a concrete offer never materialised.
Five clubs now in the Premier League — Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brighton & Hove Albion, Bournemouth and Luton Town — have faced financial ruin only to bounce back and climb up the divisions.
“I’ve put money in a bucket for Brighton,” says Southend fan Piers Hewitt. “I’ve watched them play home games in three different venues. I’ve put money in a bucket for Bournemouth too. This year, we’ve had other clubs’ fans put money in a bucket for us — but not for the club; for our staff who haven’t been paid.” The Shrimpers Trust, a supporters’ group, raised a £40,000 hardship fund during the summer for unpaid club staff who needed help. The majority of that money remains available.
Protests outside Martin’s home in nearby Benfleet have continued, with fans making themselves heard — and drawing horn honks of support from passing traffic.
“Ron would’ve loved us to be a Swansea or a Brighton,” added Hewitt. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I had him down as a businessman who got involved without having much affinity with the club and then got caught up in it.
“But he’s always been chasing this new-ground vision and he’s sold us the line we cannot exist at Roots Hall anymore. He’s wanted to be the owner of a second-tier football club. He’s chased that to a level where he can only have spent beyond his means for a long time, and that’s mismanagement. There are ways of running clubs our size without losing the money he claims to have lost.
“It seems like no one leaves the club and talks about Ron in a positive light. I look fondly at other clubs and wish we had an owner who we could be as proud of as we are of the team. We haven’t had an owner to be proud of for a long time.”
Martin has said since March his time is done and that he wants to sell.
However, there is a lot to unpick. Assets and the loans secured against them, 24 years of debt restructuring, housing development plans and the small matter of sustainably running a football club have proven too much to conquer. Therefore, thoughts have turned to other options.
The trust and local politicians have applied for a £2million grant from the UK government’s levelling-up fund which, if successfully match-funded, could take Roots Hall into community ownership. Research is being done into creating a similar framework to Chelsea Pitch Owners and with it, protecting Southend’s future at their present home. There are discussions about creating a phoenix club, should the worst happen.
“Who’s going to buy us? Why do it with all these debts? You might as well let the club fold and buy a club you can steam through the leagues,” Shrimperscast podcast host Paul Hill tells The Athletic. “The stadium is a shambles. This needs redeveloping; forget Fossetts Farm. This is our home, built for the fans and the club. We don’t need a shiny new stadium, we just need a club.
“This club means everything. My dad took me here in the late 1980s. I looked at the Roots Hall pitch and I thought, ‘That’s for me.’
“I’ve seen us go up the leagues and down them. I’ve seen us beat Manchester United (in the League Cup in 2006), seen great players play here and come through the ranks to leave and have great careers in the Premier League.
“It’s going to be a crying shame if 117 years just gets deleted because of one man’s drive to build houses.”
There were almost 1,000 supporters marching by the time the protest got to Roots Hall on September 23. The subject of their ire was not there. Martin has not attended a home game since last December.
Chris Phillips, correspondent for the Southend Echo and a lifelong fan of the club, told The Athletic: “You’ve got a stark contrast in emotions because the team has been incredible. That does fill you with a sense of pride.
“I’ve had tears rolling down my face. I feel bad saying this, but it’s like visiting an elderly relative in end-of-life care. To think, realistically, this club won’t be here anymore, it’s so upsetting. It should have never come to this.
“Lots of my friends aren’t going (to matches) at the moment. They don’t feel it’s right to keep putting money into the chairman’s pocket. If it was a normal relationship, you would’ve walked away a long time ago but so many can’t when it’s football.
“It’s frightening the few times we’ve been in court. You can really feel your heart beating out of your chest. Your club’s future is on this split second of whatever this judge is going to say.”
Attempts to buy Southend from Martin have been likened to untangling headphones that have been in a pocket for 25 years and are on a cable 100 metres long. The Shrimpers Trust has met with those looking to introduce independent regulation, putting forward Southend as a case study of why it is needed.
“My eight-year-old has been telling friends her favourite player isn’t Harry Kane or Bukayo Saka but (Southend midfielder) Jack Bridge, and she’s still innocent enough to be bemused they don’t know who he is,” adds Hewitt. “I don’t want her to see how close we are to her not being able to inherit what I inherited from my dad. That hurts so much. Everything hurts more through your child’s eyes.
“I remember looking at the Bury situation almost in disbelief and thinking, ‘How can it get to this point?’. Now people are saying that to me.
“I see so many people (at games). I love saying hello to them all and I haven’t got a clue what their name is. I’ve seen them for years. We’re all part of a family and I don’t want that family to disband — it’s my family. You assume it’ll always be there and the threat of it not being makes me sick.”
The hope is not killing Southend — right now, it is the only thing keeping them alive.
(Top photos: Getty Images)
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