Monsieur Salut writes: it is not often we get a club official to sit in the ‘Who are You?’ hot seat but Rhys Ellingham*, head of commercial for Southend United, immediately agreed to answer our questions. Rhys says Sunderland won’t be the last big club to tumble through the divisions but predicts a rosier future – with a possible playoff place for his own club, which he believes will be capable, with a bigger new ground, of matching the rise of pre-relegation Swansea City. Read on …
Salut! Sunderland: you work for the club but it’s a labour of love since you were a long-standing season ticket holder before that. Why Southend and have you ever been tempted to follow a bigger club?
Rhys Ellingham: I moved over to Essex at a young age and it was the closest club to where I lived, that’s where it all started! As soon as I came to Roots Hall I was hooked and was soon following them up and down the country.
It was a weird transition going from a fan in the stands to then having to look at each situation in a work capacity, but I think it’s put me in good stead because I understand what the fans want and need to a certain extent.
Don’t get me wrong, not everything a fan wants or needs is possible but there is always an alternative or middle ground.
Can nice guys succeed in football? Chris Powell, your manager, was once described as one of the nicest men in the game. He’s a Southend cult hero, having played so many games for you, and was rewarded with England caps later in his playing career. Describe him, his style and his importance to your club
I would agree and say he is one of the nicest men in the game, but I also think he’s got that streak in him to show who’s in charge which is obviously needed as a manager. His playing career and management career cannot be faulted, and I think his history with Southend United has certainly helped since he’s came back in charge. He understands what the fans want, and he has the same vision, to be in the Championship.
We’ve used a couple of formations this season, the classic 4-4-2 but he’s also shaken it up a bit with 3-5-2. He’s not afraid to change it around during the match if it’s not working and that’s what got us three points away to Burton Albion last month.
He’s very important to the club and his connection with the fans is also important, he’s honest in his assessment before and after matches and I think at any club fans just want the manager to be transparent.
Your goalkeeper Mark Oxley, club captain and winner of the player of the last season award, must be a key part of the side but who else has impressed you?
Mark was a key asset to us last season and we have done very well to tie him down to a three-year contract. He’s a very good shot stopper and has proved his worth since being with us.
Tom Hopper joined in the summer on a free transfer and he has been excellent, he’s got seven goals already for us this season but it’s also the work he does off the ball which is quickly making him a fan favourite.
Our central midfield trio of Dru Yearwood, Timothee Dieng and Sam Mantom are also probably up there as the best in the division. Dieng came in this summer and Mantom signed permanently following a brief loan spell last year, Dru has come through our youth set-up and was poised to join the England U18’s on their tour of China last summer but suffered a hamstring injury.
From Roots Hall to Fossetts Farm. When will it happen and will it, for you, be a wrench or a cause for excitement?
After submitting the application to the council in April 2017 we recently announced we have now answered all the questions asked of us, so we are hoping to find out in the coming months.
It’s most definitely a cause for excitement as it will improve the experience for everyone including players, staff and more importantly the fans from the minute they arrive on a matchday due to the improved facilities and pre-match entertainment available.
You had some seasons in the Championship but have played mostly in the lower leagues. How far, especially in a bigger stadium, can you realistically go?
For me personally, I look at Swansea City and how being in the Liberty Stadium has taken them to the next level, I know they were relegated from the Premier League last season, but they sustained a place in that league for seven years and competed in the Europa League.
Why I choose Swansea as a team to look at and how you can build on a new stadium is we got promoted from League One in 2006 at the Liberty and after that we went our opposite ways with Swansea progressing through the leagues.
Who has given you most pleasure in Southend colours over the years?
Freddy Eastwood is an obvious one for most fans, after signing from Grays Athletic he was prolific in front of goal for Southend. A hat-trick on his debut including a goal after seven seconds isn’t bad and he’s also famously known for his winning free-kick against Manchester United in the League Cup.
Adam Barrett and Kevin Maher are also another two players who were a pleasure to watch, between them they played over 800 games for Blues and always gave 110 per cent on the pitch.
And who – if you can be undiplomatic enough to say so – has, shall we say, disappointed?
I wouldn’t want to name anyone and if I did I would probably be typing for a long time! We lost a lot of players after our relegation to League Two and our squad was depleted so you can imagine some of the players we recruited to get by in the short term.
Your own highs as a supporter?
The League Two play-off final against Wycombe Wanderers was a day to never forget especially after equalising in the 120th minute before winning on penalties.
Winning promotion to the Championship at Swansea City was a great afternoon, beating Manchester United in the League Cup [the clip below is found at at this link; it opens for me using Firefox but not Safari – Ed] and drawing away to Chelsea in the FA Cup years ago are also up there.
And the lows?
If I’m honest I didn’t expect to be in the Championship for long and it was an enjoyable experience visiting several stadiums (including the Stadium of Light) so relegation wasn’t too disheartening.
After being relegated back to League One, we flirted around the playoffs for a number of years before being relegated to League Two which was a low as Paul Sturrock came in with only a handful of players in pre-season.
Do the Shrimpers command strong community support despite the tendency of younger supporters in general to latch on to clubs in places they may never even have visited?
We have strong junior fanbase called Junior Blues giving the younger fans the opportunity to meet the players at exclusive events etc, which help us grow that target audience.
We also work with a local train company ‘c2c’ and our community department who help fund our Future Blues programme which gives us the opportunity to delve into local schools and clubs and give them the chance to watch live football locally.
Did Sunderland’s sharp decline surprise you?
I think seeing a club of Sunderland’s size and fanbase drop into the lower leagues is always going to be a shock but they’re not the first or going to be the last.
Sometimes it’s needed to get rid of a few bad apples in the camp and push on which Sunderland seem to be doing so far this season.
What other thoughts on the club, its fans, the city and region, Jack Ross?
The size of the fanbase speaks volumes about the club and to have over 20,000 season card holders says it all. I didn’t know much about Jack Ross until he became manager, but it seems to be a very astute decision coupled with the rise of Josh Maja up front I think Sunderland will have a successful season.
Hand on heart, where will our two clubs finish this season?
I think Sunderland will go up automatically and I have hope that we will sneak in the playoffs. It was our target at the start of the season and now we’ve overcome a few injuries I think we will be there or thereabouts, so our last game of the season fixture against yourselves could be an interesting one!
The 2018 World Cup: a treat to savour until Qatar or already a fading memory?
I would say a treat to savour. The whole nation was gripped on England and there was a buzz around the country which hasn’t happened for a long, long time. We fizzled out towards the end of the tournament and I think Croatia’s big players took control in the semi-final but for a team of that age and experience in a World Cup to get to a semi-final can only make us excited for what’s to come.
I think the recent Nations League game against Spain shows that – that first half was the best football I have seen England play for years and it was a pleasure to watch. The Nations League has been a breath of fresh air and gives the usual friendly matches that added edge needed to make it more competitive.
You are or have been a liaison officer between Southend supporters and club. Name one step the football authorities could take to improve the matchday experience?
The big talking points now seem to be safe standing and being able to drink in the stands like you can at rugby and European matches.
I think safe standing can work and should be tried and tested at clubs, you look at Borussia Dortmund’s “yellow wall” as an example and it’s something else! But each club is unique and what works at some might not work at others.
The problem at some lower league clubs (including us) is the space you have at the stadium and the surrounding areas enabling you to have pre-match entertainment and family fun zones.
To be able to grow the fanbase, the key is targeting the younger age group and entertainment is needed to get them to the stadium early as well as something for the parent bringing them along.
Will VAR help eliminate diving and other forms of cheating or do we have to accept them as part of the modern game?
I think it will always be part of the modern game. VAR has helped or tried to curb the diving issue as well as other offences but ultimately it is still the referee’s decision. Where VAR is used I think players are less likely to take the risk, but the game is a matter of opinions and a dive to someone could also be a foul to someone else.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
I will be indeed and looking forward to it, the last time I visited the Stadium of Light was in the Championship back in the 06/07 season where you beat us 4-0! I think this game will be a bit closer and I’m going to sit on the fence and say 1-1 draw with us equalising in the second half.
Rhys Ellingham on himself: I’m currently head of commercial at Southend United FC. I have worked at the club for three years and my previous position was head of marketing. I was a season card holder at Roots Hall for over 10 years attending home and away games. I have seen three promotions and two relegations during my time as a fan and hopefully I will soon be seeing another promotion in a work capacity!
Interview: Colin Randall