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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Paul MacInnes at Roots Hall

‘We’ve got our club back’: Southend fans celebrate win and takeover deal

Southend United fans celebrate after being rescued by a last minute bid to buy the club.
Southend fans celebrate during the win against Oxford City after being rescued by a last-minute bid to buy the club. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

If ever a 6ft polyester crustacean could be said to have captured the mood of a city, this was the moment. Bouncing up and down on the touchline, arms aloft and pointy plush head waggling, Sammy the Shrimp was a picture of delight. Admittedly that’s the way his costume is designed, but still, the mascot’s smile echoed those of every Southend United fan in Roots Hall.

This match, a National League fixture against Oxford City, had been expected to be a wake. A winding up order was to be heard in the high court on Wednesday, the final, inexorable verdict on the 25-year ownership of Ron Martin, a property developer who took Southend to the Championship and promised an even brighter future, only for everything to come crashing down over the past half a dozen years, league position included.

At 5pm on Tuesday, however, news came through that the wake could become a party. A deal to sell Southend had been agreed at the last minute, with Martin transferring ownership to a consortium led by the Australian investor Justin Rees. Little is currently known about the details of the deal, or even the full makeup of the consortium, but while the abiding sentiment among fans coming into Roots Hall was one of relief, there is at least now the possibility that hope may yet take its place.

Further to the agreement of a deal for a takeover of Southend United, the club was able to have winding-up proceedings against it dismissed on Wednesday.

Part of the terms of the takeover was that the investment consortium led by Justin Rees resolved a debt of £170,000 owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

Confirmation of that settlement was heard in the high court and the winding-up petition brought by HMRC was dismissed with Southend required to cover the costs. Paul MacInnes

“The last six years have been downhill. To see this beautiful place – not the ground but the people – hard done by has been painful” said 78-year-old Colin Rickards who has supported Southend for half a century and wasn’t going to miss this match. “Today is a landmark,” his wife, Chris, said. “We don’t quite know what our [new] owners have got in store. But we want this club to go upwards and we know we’ve got the support of the fans and the council to do it.”

The mobilisation of fans proved critical in focusing minds on resolving Southend’s decline and the Shrimpers Trust was at the heart of the movement. The Trust has not only raised awareness as Martin’s ownership drifted on to the rocks amid a stream of unpaid bills, it even covered staff wages and other crucial running costs. On Tuesday it gave a “cautious welcome” to the takeover news, which has a proposed completion date of 1 November.

“It is a relief that this deal has been confirmed, at the 11th hour,” the Trust said in a statement. “Whilst we have had the opportunity to meet with the head of the new consortium, Justin Rees, and have maintained a dialogue with him over a period of time, we are keen for the identities of the other members of the consortium and full details of their proposed ownership structure to be disclosed.

“The ‘Martin Model’ of football club ownership has had its day, and we hope this announcement signals a new dawn at Roots Hall, with all staff being able to look forward to receiving their wages on time, creditors being paid promptly and supporters being fully engaged with club operations.

“Over the course of the past 12 months Southend United supporters have found a voice, whether that is through raising money for our hardworking and dedicated staff, the lobbying of local and national politicians and councillors, marching through the streets of the city, or participating in consultations. Everyone deserves to enjoy a period where our club is not under existential threat.”

Southend United in action against Oxford City
Southend, in action against Oxford City, have agreed to be taken over by a consortium. The deal was announced 24 hours before the club were due in court facing closure. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Perhaps such a period began here, under the lights, on a mild October night. With 6,035 home fans chanting, “We’ve got our club back”, the Shrimpers comfortably dispatched Oxford City 2-0. Strong, well drilled and – unsurprisingly – effervescent in their play, Kevin Maher’s side scored twice within seven minutes around the half-hour to kill the match.

Chris Rickards describes Maher as a “miracle worker” and, despite a 10-point deduction already incurred due to Martin’s failure to pay a debt to HMRC in timely fashion, the manager has Southend in decent form and, after this result, are a point away from climbing out of the relegation zone.

“I’m just immensely proud of everyone connected with the football club,” Maher said, standing on the Roots Hall turf shortly after completing a tour of the pitch where he was met by rapturous fans and the odd tube of blue pyro.

“Tonight shows what can happen with the fans behind us, especially after everything they have been through, and the staff as well. We feel that this club is ready to take off in a lot of areas and I hope this news can galvanise everyone because there’s been a lot of difficult years. Now we have the hope of what the future can bring and hopefully tonight is the first step along the way.”

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