From beyond a joke to beyond the grave

Southend United v Walsall – Sky Bet League Two – Roots Hall Stadium – Saturday 3pm – Preview

I’ve got to admit, there isn’t much that gets to me in footballing terms these days.

Perhaps it’s part of the territory? I cover several teams. Players and managers come and go, staff move on, nothing stays the same for very long. I guess I’ve accepted it and become immune to it.

During my stint with Yellow Sport I’ve covered West Ham almost annually flirting with the drop, while Southend, Colchester and the O’s have all at some point or another slipped through the proverbial trap door into the abyss below. It’s not all that pleasant, but you get you head around it – that’s football!

But last Saturday, things were different. I’ve managed to keep things pretty much in check. After all, what will be, will be. But the Blues annihilation at Vale Park touched a nerve. I’ve recognised for some time that Southend United was in considerable trouble, but as goal after goal breached a beleaguered backline in the Potteries, a gut-wrenching feeling of ‘this is it’ came over me. I felt quite sick.

OK, so the cat is out of the bag (if ever it was in it?) By now, readers of a U’s, O’s or Hammers persuasion have realised that I’m a life-long Southend supporter. As a nipper, they were my local team. It seemed the decent thing to do.

For me, rivalries have diminished during my time as a football writer. I have friends working at the other clubs. I recognise that poor performances on the pitch can affect their positions off it. Whoever they support and work for, they still have to pay the bills and put food on the table. In that respect, the beautiful game is much the same as for thoughts employed in an office or on the factory floor.

Anyway, I’m going off track a bit, Where was I? Ah yes – Port Vale – Emotions – What to do?

I’m wondering if some sort of divine intervention is required? You know, help from above. Unfortunately, I’m not really religious-minded and besides, is the big man – or women – upstairs really that bothered about the fortunes of my ailing football club? To be honest, I doubt it!

I know, I could stand by dad’s grave and ask him for some advice. He always knew what to do. But then again, the old man supported West Ham and wanted me to follow suit. He warned me about this eventuality almost every time I came home from Roots Hall as a kid, bemoaning our luck following another catastrophic setback. On this occasion, I’ll give him a wide berth.

It dawns on me only one man can help. I make my way to his final resting place at the Sutton Road Cemetary, close my eyes and imagine he’s ready to hold court.

As far as I’m concerned, Oliver Trigg, landlord of the Blue Boar public house and founder of Southend United Football Club is the only man prepared to listen – the only one who will really care. He’ll know what to do.

I lean towards his crumbling monument and begin: “Mr Trigg, the Blues are in a spot of bother,” I explain.

“We’ve always had a few scraps, particularly at the beginning. We usually found a way to pull through,” I visualize him responding.

“But this is really big this time,” I added. “We are bottom of the Football League and are showing no signs of scoring any goals. How did you feel when we lost that first-ever game to Swindon Town Reserves back in 1906. Was it a concern?

Trigg adjusts his bowler hat and smiles: “Not really,” he replied. “We had Harold Halse. He scored 91 goals in 65 matches. Who have we got leading the line nowadays?

“Emile Acquah,” I muttered. For a few seconds, there was an uneasy pause.

Trigg jovially moves the conversation along: “That first season was halcyon times. We score 222 goals in 65 matches. We played with five in attack – Arthur Holden, Harry Mitchell, Halse, Fred Watkins and Bob Jack. It was an honest team on two-bob a week – a crowd, curious and enthusiastic – it was heady times – the start of something special for the town.

“True, we were a few quid out of pocket at the end of the season – We always were. It sometimes led to confrontations in the boardroom. We sold Holden and Arthur Johnson to Plymouth and Sheffield United. That was the nature of the game. We got by.”

“Football has changed, I’m sure. We sold Halse to Manchester United for £350. But over the years, you’ve had Stubbs, Best, Taylor, Collymore, Angell, Eastwood and Crown. There must be plenty in the coffers to cover expenses and bring in lavish new signings.

Realising the average wage in 1906 was around five shillings a week, I tried to clarify Southend United’s current financial plight. I’m disturbed by an unusual noise, seemingly from below the ground. It crossed my mind that explaining that the Blues debt was approaching £20m might, erm… make him spin in his grave: “Times are hard just now,” I sketchily explained and decide it best not to mention the clubs’ fragile economics again.

Trigg tells me about Bob Jack, the Blues first manager: “Bob really had a blank canvas. He started from scratch, bringing in some fabulous players such as Halse, goalkeeper, Charlie Cotton from West Ham and George Molyneux who’d played for Everton, Southampton and England.

“He had real pulling power. With those players, we won the Southern League Second Division in successive seasons and South-Eastern League. Really good footballers wanted to join Southend United,” the conversation fell silent.

As fans, we can all reminisce the good times. Winning the old Fourth Division under Dave Smith, back-to-back promotions under David Webb and Steve Tilson, beating Manchester United. I could go on… not quite forever, but I could go on.

Anyway, realising our trip down Memory Lane wasn’t getting us anywhere, I skip back to the present: “So what do we do, the situation is quite desperate and the fans are largely tired, fed-up and angry,” I explain.

“If you feel that strongly and love the football club you need a voice, get your points across constructively,” Trigg answers.

“It’s no good looking back saying ‘what if?’ Football, like life, isn’t played out in the past. It’s all about now. You’re a long time dead, make yourselves heard.”

But as I begin to walk away, I wonder if the voice of the fans is ever heard and respected? After all, if it was, there wouldn’t be so many dissenting voices and I wouldn’t be stood in the freezing rain having an imaginary conversation with a man who died 102-years-ago!

Oh well, I suppose at this point I should start thinking about Saturday – Walsall – A team Blues actually beat on their travels thanks to a stunning last-minute strike from that man Acquah.

The Saddlers have lost the services of their leading goalscorer, Elijah Adebayo. Sold to Luton Town and leaving a huge void in their striking options.

But they are unbeaten in three and with just five points separating them from the top seven, a reasonable run could bring them into contention for a play-off place.

I think it’s fair to say, I have a bit of a soft spot for Walsall. I’m married to a Black Country girl and have friends and family in the West Midlands, a number of whom are season ticket holders at the Bescot Stadium. They are a bit like a ‘second-team’ to me. I’ve always been made welcome and enjoyed my visits.

But there’s no room for sentiment, Southend’s needs, as far as I’m concerned, are far greater just now – Nothing less than three points will do.

But the long and the short of it is I’m not confident. Blues seem shot, out of energy, out of ideas and soon likely to be out of the league.

I hope Southend can prove me wrong. I hope it’s my friends from up the road who are left crotchety come 4:45pm on Saturday evening.

But most of all, I hope they, and for that matter, all the friends I’ve made at all the clubs I cover, never feel as downhearted, dispirited and disenchanted with their particular favourites as I do with Southend United right now.

Jeevesie’s prediction: Southend United 0-1 Walsall

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Brian Jeeves

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