Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Satisfying the Football fan: The Impossible Dream

Southend United are embroiled in a relegation scrap at the foot of League One. With five games remaining, they have it all to do following a second-half capitulation away at Leeds United at the weekend.

If the Shrimpers are relegated to the fourth tier of English football, it probably will not send many ripples through the footballing community. But it will highlight an issue troubling many clubs of a similar ilk, and especially the die-hard supporters who turn up week in, week out to support their local team.

Southend currently have five on-loan players in a group of just twenty. Maths has never been my forte, but that makes a quarter of Steve Tilson’s squad temporary acquisitions. Ones who, by no fault of their own, have no inherent loyalty to the club.

I’ve covered a handful of Southend’s games this season, and the last visit to Roots Hall had a lasting impression on me. One disgruntled fan piped up and said he would rather see Southend in the conference with local players or those developed through the club’s youth system, than have a squad littered with loanees playing in a decent league.

That Southend have utilised 35 players to date this season (one off a club record) highlights the comings and goings at a club that has failed to show any signs of stability and continuity among its ranks.

Last weekend, Portsmouth overcame the odds to reach their second FA Cup final in three years. John Westwood, better known as the overly tattooed, bell-ringing Pompey fanatic with the big hat and blue wig, follows his side home and away and will continue to do so come rain and shine.

“I'm not worried about what level we play at,” he said.

“I started supporting the team in the old Fourth Division when I was 12. It's about where you are from, it's about your identity. It's the city, the community.

“Pompey is a working-class city. We like football and we like a drink. It's about entertainment on a Saturday afternoon, singing my heart out and watching a game. As long as we have a club to follow, it doesn't matter what league it's in.”

Although his words are reserved to the foreign owners that have crippled his club, the values he stands for sit universally among football fans up and down the land. They don’t care if they’re not competing with the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas. All they ask is their club is run transparently, and their players play with a drive and determination that mirrors their own.

As the Premier League continues to rack up the millions and sees the rich go further into the red and sees the poor, well, put into administration, it is lower down the leagues where you find the values that made football so good in the first place.

That is why when clubs like Southend flirt with extinction, or in Chester’s case actually cease to exist, it makes it all the more striking. That Tilson has had to bring in loan players to seemingly balance the books is a crying shame.

It has left the supporters watching a side play with no guile, determination and, subsequently, four points from safety and facing an uphill battle to remain in League One.

Their home game with Brentford tonight is crucial if they are to remain in League One, and takes on an added significance as Chairman Ron Martin will appear at the high court tomorrow to sort out an outstanding tax bill.

I for one hope – irrespective of relegation – they are still around next season and, once this has been negotiated, are able to put out a side that plays for the supporters and sends them away satisfied; happy in the knowledge they have put in a shift and stood for the values the club represents.