Southend In The Brown Stuff? Not If Phil Can Help It
By Gerry Smith
Life in the basement division of English League football can often be an unremarkable, forgettable existence, noticed only by those whose loyalty and support blind them from the indifference the rest of the football world treats them with.
Southend United, it could be argued though, are the exception that proves the rule. Having a chairman with ambitions is one thing, as Ron Martin certainly was - and still is - as the ongoing saga of the Shrimpers move from the rickety but homely Roots Hall continues into its third decade. Yes, decade.
Having a chairman, however, who made no contingency plans, or at the best wholly inadequate plans, for a financial downtown across the global economy was reckless bordering on crazy. And so it has proved with the never ending scheme to move to a new, purpose built stadium on the outskirts of Southend-on-Sea.
Originally given planning permission for an all-singing, all dancing 22,000 capacity around five years ago, it was downsized in 2011 to a curious three side arena fitting 13,892 punters. The main stand would wait until austerity finishes in Britain, and more importantly Ron Martin's empty pockets. Although his choice of successive luxury cars and somewhat upmarket home nearby indicates the pockets aren't p perhaps quite that empty when it comes to home comforts.
The upshot of all this has, inevitably impacted on Southend United hugely. After the highs of successive promotions under local hero Steve Tilson, mixing it with some of the big boys in English football's second tier, and an astonishing defeat of Manchester United in the League Cup in 2006, the lows came hard and fast.
Relegation back to the third tier in 2007 was disappointing though somewhat expected. In 2010, however, the wheels came of spectacularly. Southend United ran out of money. Players and staff weren't paid for months on end. Morale plummeted. A mid-table position soon turned to another relegation.
Tilson, to many supporters fury, was seen as the fall guy by those purportedly running the club. Steve was unceremoniously placed on gardening leave soon after season's end, and just as callously sacked after Paul Sturrock was brought in to revive an ailing club, back down among the dead men of the basement division of four.
Quite how he done it, when pre-season began with just three registered players, was beyond most people's comprehension. Gone were the last season's players, having decided to move on rather than hang around for a chairman either unwilling or unable to pay what they were owed.
Somehow, the likable and dry-witted Sturrock, who mixed it with the likes of Barcelona in a glorious playing career north of the border with Dundee United, cobbled together a side that achieved mid-table respectability. In 2011-12, the side improved further, coming within an ace of an unlikely automatic promotion before a heartbreaking play-off defeat.
While all of this was happening on the pitch, off it club directors and lawyers continued to be almost on first name terms with High Court judges and the taxman, as an alarming number of petitions for non-payments to HMRC, as well as other companies, mounted. If it wasn't for a huge cash injection from a supermarket conglomerate, looking to cash in on Roots Hall when the Shrimpers eventually move, the club would almost certainly have gone under.
Curiously, having achieved so much in a backdrop of mayhem off the field, Sturrock came in for criticism Such m from a sizable section of the Shrimpers faithful. The style of football was under scrutiny and the lack of promotion seen as a failure. Such is the unsentimental nature of the British football fan these days, criticising both the style and results, when it used to be either / or.
The amiable Scot seemed to take this on board, however, last season with a much more eye-pleasing style of football, resulting in a JPT Final appearance at Wembley after a first half substitution in the regional final against big rivals Leyton Orient paid big dividends.
It wasn't enough though. As players wages continued to be paid late and some bills not at all, Sturrock was given the boot two weeks before Southend's historic first ever cup final appearance at Wembley. League form had fallen away since the turn of 2013, with promotion looking a distant dream. Unsentimentality extended from the supporters to the boardroom, evidently.
An element of farce then entered proceedings. In a bizarre statement confirming Sturrock's departure, Ron Martin, in a document riddled with more missed bullet points than a gang of villains in a room with James Bond, announced that Paul would lead the side out at Wembley, despite the appointment of new incumbent Phil Brown.
Sturrock, wisely, saw through the farce of it all and confirmed he'd be in the Southend supporters end at Wembley rather than leading his old team out onto the pitch.
2012-13, inevitably fizzled after defeat down Wembley Way. Already the ex Hull City boss was the subject of some fan disappointments, who either didn't want him from day one, or pointed to his high media profile Phil had since his departure from Preston North End. Some even had cause to moan at his perma-tanned appearance, which may have been fine had it been done in good humour.
It says far more about the joyless existence of a lot of the modern football fan in Britain than Brown himself. As a player he started off playing for the sheer love of it in the Sunday league of his home town South Shields. He made the most of what he had, working slowly through the leagues, via Hartlepool, until with Bolton Wanderers he hit the headlines as a linchpin of a Trotters outfit that regularly embarrassed Premier League giants in cup competitions.
If his playing career started inauspiciously, his managerial one was a bit more high profile. A spell in temporary charge at a now top tier Bolton then led him to Derby County, and Hull City, who he took up to the top ti.tier of English football for the first time ever.
Then in 2008-09 perhaps his finest hour. Being labelled the hottest of hot favourites for instant relegation, Phil guided the Tigers to a storming start to the season. It proved to be crucial as they began their expected slide down the table from the lofty heights of top 5. On the last day of the season, boyhood Sunderland fan Brown celebrated as Hull's relegation (and Sunderland's bitter neighbourly) rivals Newcastle United and Middlesbrough went down instead.
From there, however, it unravelled. Relegation for Hull was confirmed the following season, and with it Brown's sacking. An unsuccessful stint at Preston in 2011 resulted in a swift exit as they too suffered relegation, this time to the third tier. Since then, Phil had appeared to be a busted flush, labelled a one trick pony. An engaging person on his tv and radio appearances, it seemed as if a career in the media beckoned.
Until, of course, the unending soap opera at Southend United came calling. A new start, an opportunity to put right a reputation of being a manager that just used to be good rather than is good now. 2013-14 is just around the corner. And at the weekend Brown's new charges began their pre-season campaign with their now annual summer shindig at village side Great Wakering Rovers.
For their troubles, the Burroughs Park outfit have had their own recent tribulations. Relegation from the Ryman One (North), four divisions below Southend, was compounded with an underwhelming Essex Senior League campaign, fading away to 4th place having been touted among the title favourites, especially after an encouraging start to 2012-13 and life in the ESL.
With their own new signings, an encouraging just shy of 1,000 saw an unusually competitive game. Striker Gary Paterson, a summer signing from ESL neighbours Southend Manor, shocked the United version in the fifth minute with a smartly drilled left foot shot from 20 yards. Twenty minutes later, Paterson had doubled his tally and Great Wakering Rovers lead, after he dispossessed Luke Prosser inside the Southend penalty area and hit home from around 15 yards.
No doubt about it, Gary Paterson could do a job at a much higher level. Something that could be said for another Rovers summer signing, keeper Adam Seal, making a number of outstanding first half saves, notably from the lively Jack Payne, by some way the best player on the pitch.
Prior to the game, Phil Brown had said to his Southend United charges that whatever they did, they dare not lose, or the local press would slaughter them. This was now a test, even though it was supposed to be no more than a glorified training session to get players up to speed with match fitness. The natives would be more than restless at 2-0 down at half time.
To the squad's and Brown's credit, Southend United passed the test by full time. Cleveland Taylor halved the arrears within a minute of the resumption with a shot from the edge of the area after a corner was only half cleared. Then with nine minutes left, Ryan Augur levelled matters with a low curling shot into the left hand corner of the net, although Rovers replacement keeper Louis Godwin-Green may reflect on the speed of his reaction to it.
Southend United completely their comeback on a fine afternoon of football in the last minute, Roots Hall hero Freddy Eastwood looking sharp with shooting home even more sharply, seconds after the luckless Godwin-Green had pulled off an excellent point blank save.
So, a far from comfortable 3-2 win for the visitors, but an excellent and unexpected work-out for Phil Brown's squad. The game will quickly be forgotten, no more than a minor footnote on a results listing for 2013-14. But Phil may have just gleaned something about the character of the players he's signed and inherited.
As the local media went into action on the pitch-side, it was more illuminating to read the body language rather than the match detail. My own conversation with Phil had merely been to congratulate a Sunderland fan on getting Newcastle relegated during the height of his managerial career. So far anyway.
It was his demeanour, his attitude, his body language that was more illuminating. His feet were wide apart, hands on the base of his back as he bent back. Above all, though, there was a smile on his face, without anyone within talking distance of him. And a gleam in his eye.
This is a man who clearly wants to be at Southend United. This is a man who relishes the challenge ahead, not just to repair his tarnished reputation, but by getting a club strewn with inner turmoil back up on their feet and up the divisions. Amid all the recent drama and panic at Roots Hall, Phil Brown might just be the man for the job.
It's going to be interesting to find out/
Great Wakering Rovers 2, Southend United 3