23 July ~ Southend United fans who turned up to Dartford for their club's first pre-season friendly on Friday July 16 took a while to figure out which was their team when the players were warming up. Only two players from last season's squad featured, the managerial team was new, and the side was made up almost exclusively of trialists. The game didn't exactly go to form either, with the non-Leaguers easing to a 2-0 victory against the bunch of assembled strangers.
New Shrimpers manager Paul Sturrock said in his opening press conference he likes a challenge. Which is just as well really. He has taken over at a club which has regularly failed to pay its players on time, is still under a transfer embargo, has just dismissed one of the most popular and longest serving managers in English football in Steve Tilson, and has had a string of senior players, including popular captain Adam Barrett, walk out of the club citing persistent breach of contract.
Sturrock is working within these constraints to boost a squad that has eight contracted players, four of whom were left out at Dartford after signalling their intention to leave. He has signed 12 on pre-contract agreements who will become full signings when the embargo is lifted.
Southend owe money to the PFA, other clubs and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and cannot sign players until these debts are settled. Fans fear that the club will be starting the season against Stockport with a youth team, if at all. On August 2 the club must convince a High Court judge that it is financially viable or face being wound up altogether. A growing list of other creditors is headed by Charterhouse Commercial Finance, who served a winding-up order on the club which will be heard on August 11. The Shrimpers Trust, who handed over a £60,000 loan from fundraising measures taken in October when the seriousness of the tax debt first surfaced, has also not been paid back.
Chairman Ron Martin is adamant that arrangements are in place to pay all creditors, with supermarket Sainsbury's believed to be picking up the bill. However, unconvinced supporters remember Martin's broken promises and bizarre outbursts which have in the recent past accused the editor of the Southend Echo of being a supporter of rivals Colchester and HMRC of taking “Machiavellian” action against the club.
Sainsbury's, which plans to build on Roots Hall once a new 22,000-seat stadium at nearby Fossetts Farm is complete, has now provided several million pounds to bail out the club over the past year. These loans were secured against shares that would make them the major shareholder if the club does not complete repayments.
All supporters have left is the hope that Sturrock's revolution will arrest what seems an unstoppable slide into non-League football. A 1-1 draw at home to Derby last Monday provided unlikely optimism about the players brought in. Even if, according to Sturrock: “Half of them still don't know each other’s names.” Jamie Forsyth