Southend soap opera may have sad ending

'Roots Hall is a monument to supporters' love and loyalty, but to their folly as well. They could have owned the club's greatest asset'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Southend United showed David Webb into their manager's office for the third time this week, desperately hoping that he will restore The Shrimpers to what passed for glory days in his previous spell in charge, when, in 1990 and 1991, he took them up to the First Division.

Southend United showed David Webb into their manager's office for the third time this week, desperately hoping that he will restore The Shrimpers to what passed for glory days in his previous spell in charge, when, in 1990 and 1991, he took them up to the First Division.

However, Southend now need more than a mere footballing revival. The club have been burdened by debts for years, came within two days of folding in July and their future is still far from secure, depending on moving to a new stadium whose complex planning application is still in its infancy.

This is an east-coast soap opera of crises and calamities, a morality tale for these footballing times. In 1998, Southend's chairman, Vic Jobson, sold his majority stake to South Eastern Leisure (SEL), a joint venture by two property development companies, the locally-based Martin Dawn and Delancey Estates, a £295m London plc owned substantially by the currency magnate George Soros. SEL bought for £4m the club's historic Roots Hall ground, which was paid for in the 1950s entirely by supporters and built by their legendary groundsman, Sid Broomfield - plus what Broomfield calls "a small group of hardworking blokes."

The club now rent Roots Hall back at £400,000 a year, and Delancey is charging 20 per cent interest on further loans - although it has demanded no payments so far. The plan is to move the club to a proposed 16,000-seat stadium in an 80-acre leisure redevelopment in the north of the town, for which SEL finally lodged a planning application in August.

In July, only two days before a winding-up petition from the Inland Revenue was due to be heard, Delancey paid off the debt in question - £400,000 in back taxes - and loaned the club a further £1m, on the condition that the then chairman, John Main, himself a director of Delancey's partner Martin Dawn, be removed.

Main, a former stockbroker with a passion for football, is upset, angry, and warns that Delancey's rent and loan interest payments could cripple the club if demanded in the future. Supporters are worried that the club could go bust and SEL simply build on Roots Hall, or that the club could be left homeless. Delancey's deputy managing director, Colin Wagman, admits that the company is not interested in football long term, but in making money from the development. However, he says they need the club to survive.

"It would be a disaster for us too if the club went bust and the development didn't happen. I can understand supporters being worried, but we're worried, too. We want supporters, and the town, to get behind the club. There is no windfall profit in building houses on Roots Hall."

Such a scenario at Southend would be more than a local calamity. Roots Hall is a footballing monument, financed by a then considerable £74,000 raised in the 50s by Southend's supporters' club. Sid Broomfield, now 75, was working on the farm belonging to Southend's chairman, Alderman H H Smith. "He came up to me one day, and he said Sid: 'I've got a little job for you'."

The job was to transform, single-handedly at first, a huge, stinking rubbish dump into a football ground. Broomfield dug out 30 feet of sand, finding such things as cookers, bike frames and mattresses underneath. He names the few men who mucked in: "My brother Ken, brother in law Arthur, Peter Starkey, Henry Turnage, Ernie Bibby and his mate Fred, Chango Wayland ... Just a few men with heart."

Southend's players were paid 3s 6d an hour in the close season to work on the ground, marshalled by the goalkeeper, Harry Threadgold. The stadium finally opened in 1955, but it took Broomfield until 1962 to lay, block by concrete block, the 72-step South Bank terrace. "It was hard work," he says. "But I did enjoy it. The club was friendly, like a family. The supporters deserve great credit for financing it."

Peter Mason, a fan and the club's historian, believes supporters missed a great opportunity. "Roots Hall is a monument to supporters' love and loyalty, but to their folly as well. They could have owned the club's greatest asset and had a say in its future, but simply handed it over to directors."

In 1988, Vic Jobson had sold part of the South Bank for development; now a block of flats stands on the site of Bloomfield's labour. When SEL took over, the £4m it paid for Roots Hall was immediately swallowed by debt, which included two mortgages on the ground, an angry flock of creditors and nine pending court cases, including claims brought by past managers - Ronnie Whelan for one - which have since cost the club about £200,000.

John Main, who took over as chairman, committed himself to building links with supporters and the community, but Wagman claims he failed to control the finances - last year the club again lost money, £1.67m.

"He kept coming to us for more money, and seemed to have no plan for turning the club into profit and getting it to stand on its own feet." Main says he was sacked for defending the club. He argues that the club's initial 12-month rent-free period should have been extended because the planning application was delayed. He says the rent and loans, even if they have not been demanded so far, could yet cripple the club.

Ron Martin, the owner of Martin Dawn, Delancey's partner in SEL, was installed as chairman when Main was ousted. Main says Martin has a conflict of interest: "How can he argue for the club, particularly against SEL, if he jointly owns SEL and his main interest is in making money from the property deal?"

But both Martin and Wagman say that the property deal is the club's only hope, and that they are committed to seeing it through, which suits both their interest and the club's. "We're not philanthropists, and have no intention of being involved long-term in football," Wagman says. "But it is not in our interests to break the back of the club. We will review what we are owed when the development happens. But we want to see the club profitable and successful, and able to go forward, in the new stadium, without us."

Martin is making changes. He sacked the manager, Alan Little, and is looking to shed several players "who do not fit in with our medium-term plans". Eight backroom staff have been made redundant. He says he hopes to reduce Southend's losses this year to £200,000. "Under David Webb, there is no reason why we can't go up this season and soon be in the First Division," he said.

In the 50s, such an aspiration would have been a charming part of the general labour of love that sustained the football club and built the ground. Now, it is an urgent, almost life-saving requirement of a corporate property plan, of which the club itself is only the facilitator.

The planning application went in in August. Southend Borough Council says it is "supportive, in principle, of the club relocating", and that the site, at Fossetts Farm, is earmarked for development. However, they stress that the application is in the early, consultation stage.

Martin says he is confident that the application will be successful: "This is important not just to the football club, but as regeneration for Southend town." Both he and Wagman say that their "industry norm" is that property developers look to make 20 per cent on deals.

Sid Broomfield, meanwhile, says that he is a realist. "Moving is the only hope. Yes it's sad, but football's different now; it's less friendly, it's all about money. It's a shame, but Southend are broke. You have to look things in the eye and move on."

davidconn@freeuk.com

Comments