There are few consolations in this life for the supporter of a lower league football team. If you came for the vicarious glory, you came to the wrong place. There is no glory here. As a lower league fan, you trundle slowly from one sad little place to another, trying not think about the fact that your existence could end at any moment. It’s like being on a bus in South London.
The only thing you have is your pride. A sense that your club has principles that it will always adhere to, that mark it out as something special. Those principles speak on your behalf, they tell the world who you are. On Sunday afternoon, Southend United’s principles took to the stage, tapped the microphone once and then belched loudly, ruining everyone’s dinner.
The decision to sack manager Paul Sturrock was cruel, but ‘allowing’ him to return to manage the team at Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was so patronising it makes everyone at the club look ridiculous. Sturrock is, to all intents and purposes, now a middle-aged mascot having his grey hair ruffled for the cameras.
You can understand why he accepted their offer, but part of me is disappointed he didn’t tell the club where to go. Given that his replacement Phil Brown told reporters today that there were, “still discussion to be had,” about the final, I suspect that this isn’t over yet.
We had principles once. We had Steve Tilson as manager, a club legend who turned our tortured thrashings into something altogether more cultured. We passed the ball so much, we were a lower-league Arsenal, with the twist that our version actually won a title. Of course, after two straight promotions, Southend had their bottoms handed to them in the second division, but chairman Ron Martin didn’t just stay his hand, he offered Tilson an extended contract. That felt good. That felt right.
It didn’t last. Southend were relegated, as expected, and were forced to sell key players. With a financial storm breaking over the club and that exodus of talent, it wasn’t long before they slipped down again. Tilson was replaced with Sturrock, who inherited a squad so small that it’s no exaggeration to say that it would have struggled in a five-a-side tournament.
With a combination of loanees and freebies, Sturrock pulled the club out of a nosedive and secured mid-table safety. The following season, he missed out on automatic promotion by a single point. This season, he took the club to Wembley for the first time since 1930 when they played a league match at Clapton Orient’s temporary home.
It must be said that since their crucial first leg semi-final victory at Leyton Orient in the JPT, Southend have played eleven games and won only two of them. From chasing an automatic promotion place like a dog in pursuit of a cat, they are now chasing a play-off place like a fat man in pursuit of an accelerating bus.
I was at Underhill in February for their 0-2 defeat to relegation-threatened Barnet and it was ugly. In all likelihood, Southend would have continued to lurch to the end of the season, missing promotion by a mile. But it is not the decision to part company with Sturrock that rankles, it’s the decision to do it now.
Sturrock has Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. He isn’t going to get better and he isn’t going to get many more chances at this level. Chairman Martin insists that his replacement needs the rest of the season to assess his new squad, but why couldn’t he begin that assessment after Wembley on April 8? Why couldn’t Sturrock be allowed to continue for two more weeks without having everything tarnished by this clumsy compromise? Would the damage to Brown’s preparations really outweigh the damage that this episode has inflicted on the club’s reputation?
I’ll leave to those closer to the story to assess the reign of chairman Ron Martin and the state of a club that has repeatedly failed to pay wages on time and has been issued with five winding-up orders in four years. Suffice to say, everyone at Southend should be taking a long look at themselves this week.
Read more from the marvellous Iain Macintosh