What’s gone wrong? A considered analysis

floodlightDRIVING home from the Oldham game, the post-mortem was in full swing on BBC Essex. Interspersed with the light relief of Col Ewe fans contemplating self-harm after surrendering a lead away to Crewe, plenty of Southend fans were giving their opinions on the recent slump, which has seen one win in the last six games.

These ranged from the need for a proven goalscorer (generally sought after by roughly every football club in the world) to the uncertainty surrounding Phil Brown’s future, to certain players playing for themselves and not the club.

The hours immediately following a depressing 1-0 home defeat on a Tuesday night (which seem to be so regular they congeal together in the memory banks – in 12 months’ time people will think this game was against Chesterfield) are the absolute worst time to be making public your heavily biased opinions, but there may be some truth to these statements.
The simple fact is though there is no one thing to blame for Southend’s slow descent down the League One table. And if you look at the bigger picture, it is even more alarming. Never mind the last six games. In 2016, we’ve lost half of our 20 fixtures and won only 6. That is relegation form right there, over the course of almost half a season. So you can’t put it down to speculation over Brown’s future, which has only been up in the air for a couple of months.

Passionate football fans tend to lack perspective and tend to forget that during every match, there are 11 opposition players hell-bent on stopping your team from winning. Sometimes those opposition players will be more on their game than yours, and you will lose. Sounds simple, but football fans in today’s high-demand world do appear to have forgotten this.

In Southend’s context, at the start of the season we had two things going for us. We were an unknown quantity to the other sides in this league, and we had valuable momentum from a promotion campaign. I’d be willing to bet that, whatever they said in public, managers of clubs that played us in the first few months of the season would have expected three points from those respective fixtures. But our confidence was high, the defence was still stubborn and teams found they couldn’t break us down as easily as they thought. We’d often go up the other end and score, quite contrary to all expectations, and win the game (to the dissent from the opposing fans who held the view that ‘we should be beating the likes of Southend’).

However, with Southend challenging for a play-off spot at the turn of the year, the tide started to turn. Suddenly it was us who rocked up at Roots Hall on a Saturday expecting to lay waste to the likes of Fleetwood, Oldham and Chesterfield. Our players who maybe pushed that little too hard for a winner and lost their discipline, and with it the points. Teams started to realise what those League Two minnows had known for all those depressing basement years – sit back against Southend and they won’t be able to break you down.

This theory appears to be backed up statistically. Martin Cass’s article for AAS earlier in the season showed that our lofty league position (at the time) was hugely false based on Expected Goals stats. This new-fangled analysis showed our expected goals per game was among the lowest in the league, with expected goals conceded among the highest. In short, we should have been in the drop zone based on chances created at both ends. Martin went on to predict an end-of-season slump as things evened themselves out, the sage.

Other factors have accelerated our demise. There was the high-profile fallout at the Swindon game when at least two players fell out with Phil Brown. For Luke Prosser, it was terminal and he got to play a part in a second promotion in two years with Northampton. Later, Cian Bolger was sent out despite some decent displays this season, leaving us with just two recognised centre backs, one of them with a long injury history and the other a 36-year-old.

The uncertainty surrounding Brown, Bentley and Payne has certainly not helped although it’s a valid point that Payne certainly may have been waiting to see what division we were going to be in next season before plotting his future. Bentley’s heart seems set on a move and while the Bolton vacancy remains, there will always be question marks about Brown (speculation which, it has to be said, has mainly come from the media/fans and not the man himself).

The defeat to Oldham though showed that another issue is simply a lack of quality. In Forte and Holmes-Dennis, Oldham had the two best players on the pitch and this is a team that has spent the season battling the drop. With the promotion momentum a fading memory for Southend, there are only a handful of players you’d be confident can continue to hold their own at League One level. Others are simply too inconsistent, injury-ravaged or not good enough.

Tactically, Brown still feels the pressure when on a poor run and this has been the case throughout his managerial career. He changes too much too often after a defeat, but after a win inevitably keeps the same side regardless of whether this approach will work against a different opposition at a different venue. A classic example was when he switched to a 3-5-2 to counter Sheffield United’s wing-back system. It worked a treat, so he decided to do the same for the games with relegation candidates Blackpool and Fleetwood, resulting in a return of one point.

Expectations among the fans need to be lowered. Despite an average attendance of a top-half side, this does not translate into revenue. We make barely any money from Roots Hall, which is falling down and in need of serious work. As a result, we have one of the lowest budgets in the league, and have overperformed this season. Next season, with the addition of big-budget Charlton, Bolton and the Franchise, not to mention Oxford, Bristol Rovers and possibly Plymouth or Pompey coming up from the division below and there are some heavyweights to replace Colchester, Crewe and perhaps Burton. Money doesn’t guarantee success of course but as Wigan, parachuting into this division with £6m of parachute payments in their pockets – three times our wage budget – will testify, it is quite helpful.

Many fans will believe we should be aiming for promotion next year but given the evidence, this is extremely ambitious. Until the chairman gets Fossetts Farm moving, we will always find it difficult to step up to the next level. The new TV deal will make it even tougher. There’s still hope of course – Gillingham, Walsall and Burton have shown this season that you don’t have to be a huge club to compete. But for this to happen, there needs to be a solid platform built with a manager who wants to be here and a higher quality of player brought to the club in the summer.

In the meantime, let’s not get too down, we’ve had some great days this season – Burton and Sheffield United in front of the cameras, the craziness of Oldham away, and of course a double against our Essex rivals which we’ll be able to savour for at least another year as they negotiate the basement league as we had to for so long.

I’ll be off to Wigan on Saturday on the train with at least ten good mates, on the ale from the crack of dawn, ticking off a new ground, supporting my club and singing songs about how Kevin Keen should cheer up. That’s what supporting a crap football team is all about, when all is said and done.