Monsieur Salut writes: this was to have been our promotion party, the last game of the season with a return to the Championship already sealed or to play for. Well, we know what happened to that pipedream. Sunderland can improve their playoff position by winning, and gain a modest boost to morale in the process, but that is all.
For our last Who are You? interviewee for a league game, Ian Charnock*, it’s a question of survival. It is tight at the bottom with Bradford City already relegated but Ian’s team, Southend, one of five desperately trying to avoid the other three places.
We found Ian via the football site Over the Bar, for which he has written, and thank them for putting us in touch with him …. his excellent interview could be a late candidate for one of our HAWAYs (Highly Articulate Who are You? awards)
Salut! Sunderland: Southend have had their own battle this season so you could be forgiven for caring less about our disappointments at the other end of the table. How nerve-wracking has the season been for Shrimpers and where do you now stand with just this game left?
Ian Charnock: the general feeling I have had from this season has been a huge feeling of disappointment. Towards the end of last season, Chris Powell had got us playing some good football, he had reinvigorated a side that was desperately lacking creativity towards the end of Phil Brown’s reign and there was a lot of hope going into this year.
But a few injuries that turned into a lot of injuries to so many of our key players (at one stage our first choice goalkeeper and arguably our entire first choice defence was ruled out) derailed our season and it has been a disaster since January. I watched us thrash Bradford City 4-0 away and did not think we would go winless until Easter. The slide down the table has been concerning but I think a number of fans had accepted that we may go down, yet that win against Burton has given us renewed hope going in to the last game, albeit against a side that has only lost 4 times this season.
What went wrong for Chris Powell, who commands so much respect in the game?
Being a former player, a lot of people loved Powell at the club and he was given a lot of leeway by the fans throughout his tenure. By the end of his spell, I think there were two main downfalls.
Firstly, with our lengthy injury list, Powell used this as an excuse for our poor performances on the pitch. I do understand that if he doesn’t have the players available, he can’t put out his preferred team. But the players he had on the field were still professionals and still needed to take responsibility for some truly awful performances. We played so many games against teams in the bottom half where we didn’t even compete that some responsibility needed to be taken rather than making excuses.
Secondly, and more importantly to me, he didn’t look like a leader towards the end. At Peterborough away, a match where we had taken over 900 fans and a huge must-win game, we conceded yet Powell was unmoved on the sidelines. No animation, no instructions to the team, no motivation or words of inspiration.
This riled me as a fan as I want to see some passion and fight from my manager when the going gets tough. All his post match interviews became the same script of “we must find a result from somewhere”. Well, as a manager, it is up to him to make a plan on how to find a result and he looked like he was out of ideas. He will remain an icon at the club and it is a shame it didn’t work out for him.
Is Kevin Bond a stopgap or could he get the job beyond the end of the season?
There hasn’t been the new manager bounce that you would normally expect when a change is made, and I think Bond’s position will very much rely on whether he can keep us up. His announcement as manager was a bit underwhelming to Southend fans, especially with names like Paul Hurst being suggested, but if he can keep us in the division, I think he deserves the chance to take us in to next season.
We have showed more fight in recent games (notably against Burton) so he has stopped the rot but if we drop in to League Two, of which Bond has minimal experience, I would want someone with experience of the division to take over.
I was at the first game and thought you looked lively for large parts despite the 3-0 scoreline. Was that just a case of raising your game at a big stadium or have you genuinely played better than results suggest throughout the season?
Surprisingly we always seem to turn up for the big games, be it away at the big stadia or in front of the Sky cameras. From January onwards, we have mostly played as poorly as the results would suggest. To lose so easily to fellow strugglers Wimbledon and Shrewsbury at home was poor and up until our recent 3-2 win against Burton, we hadn’t scored at home since mid-February. What has let us down is either a lack of concentration or fitness that has led us to conceding so many last minute goals. Earlier in the season, we suffered defeats at home to Peterborough and Charlton through last minute winners. Away at Blackpool in March, we conceded in the 96th minute to draw the game 2-2. These are just the games where we have conceded right at the death, there have been so many more where we have lost matches in the last 15 minutes. These extra points here and there could be so critical come the end of the season and ultimately lead to our demise.
Who has impressed you and could pose a threat to us at Roots Hall? And where are you glaringly weak?
At the moment, we have two stand-out players that could cause some trouble on Saturday. Simon Cox is our current top scorer and has shown a lot of fight in the recent weeks despite being let down by his teammates. We let Theo Robinson leave in January and fellow strikers Stephen Humphrys (who was brought in as Robinson’s replacement) and Tom Hopper have been injured so Cox has pretty much had to lead the line on his own.
The other player I would mention is Sam Hart, our left-back. Despite being on loan, he has done superbly well filling in for the injured Ben Coker and was recently voted player of the month for March. He has a lot of attacking intent but is also useful in defence too. Humphrys may be risked on Saturday given the nature of the game and he was also impressive before injury ruled him out.
Our main weakness is in midfield. Our defence is slowly coming back from injury and have started to perform well as a unit recently. In midfield however, Luke Hyam looks like he will be ruled out through injury and without a settled midfield, they have not gelled as well as they could have this season. There isn’t a consistent attacking threat, although I am more than happy to be proved wrong on Saturday!
Over the years, who has given you most pleasure in Southend colours?
Only one man for me – Adam Barrett. A true leader on the pitch, I can’t remember a player that personifies Southend United as much as he did. In his first spell with us, he was our captain for so many years, scored an unusually high number of goals for a CB and led by example on the pitch.
He sadly left back in 2010 due to our relegation but when he returned in 2015, it was like Christmas all over again. Granted, he had lost a yard and the goals didn’t flow as much as they did previously, but he was instrumental in leading our team to promotion, including a penalty in the play-off shootout against Wycombe.
When we were in League One, he scored in the Essex Derby against Colchester which I took huge delight in and further strengthening his place in Southend folklore. It was a sad day when he retired from playing but I have a signed ball from him that my mum got when he visited her school that takes pride of place on my memorabilia shelf.
And who should not have been allowed to wear them?
We have had a number of deadwood players over the years, however as they have played only a smattering of games, they barely even wore the colours they didn’t deserve! But of players who lined up regularly, Blair Sturrock instantly springs to mind.
He only joined us as his dad, Paul, took over as manager in 2010 and Blair notoriously followed him wherever he went. As a striker, he was thoroughly unconvincing. Another player was Jakub Sokolik. One of the most error-prone defenders I have ever seen, he had a short successful loan spell which led to his permanent signature but he was never convincing in our backline.
Your highlights and low points as a fan?
I have three main highlights supporting the Shrimpers. The biggest highlight of my life as a fan was watching us beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 1-0 in 2006 and is a night that will live with me forever. As a 14-year old, I remember just hugging my grandad when that goal went in and jumping around in complete euphoria, before sweating nervously for the rest of the game until the ref called time. For us to beat a team that started Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo is something I don’t think will be equalled in my lifetime. A close second comes the 2015 play-off final against Wycombe and it was the only time a match has nearly reduced me to tears.
Being 1-0 down with 121 minutes on the clock at Wembley was gut-wrenching, but to level it with 20 seconds to go just sparked complete pandemonium and to win it on penalties was something else. I would also say watching Southend play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup during the 2008/09 season was also a memorable day. It was my first cup away day and we snatched a 1-1 draw which was a great feeling.
Despite these highs, there have been some big lows. Both the relegations I’ve seen as a fan were understandable (we just weren’t good enough in the Championship and then financial problems in 2010) so I wouldn’t say those. My first ever away game was a fairly low point – we took the coach to Swansea on a freezing December afternoon, we had a man sent off after 15 minutes, lost 3-0 and our coach broke down at Reading services on the way home. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in 2013 was particularly disappointing because I had flown back from Austria to watch it but despite my mammoth trip, we went 1-0 down after 5 minutes and played appallingly. Otherwise, any trip I have ever made to Home Park has been disappointing, made even more so because I usually share the journey with my Plymouth supporting friend who has always had the last laugh at these matches!
Is it a struggle to maintain local interest with the big London clubs within reach?
I think Southend as a club have a very good fanbase. We do travel in big numbers to away games and really get behind the team when it’s needed. Despite our recent struggles, the fans have turned out in their thousands to get behind the team. I will be the first to admit that a number of Southend fans have a second team, mostly West Ham, so it can be difficult. I remember a pre-season friendly years ago when we played the Hammers, and the stadium announcer asked all the West Ham fans to move to the away end, and half the stadium got up! I do think West Ham’s move to a new stadium and ever increasing prices in the Premier League are bringing more fans to us as it is more accessible, which is great looking to the future.
What did you make of our decline?
One of my best friends is a Sunderland fan so have had an eye on them for near enough the last decade.
Although the short term managerial merry-go-round seemed to work initially, ultimately there’s only so long it can be kept up. The relegation was similar to Aston Villa in that you were a team that had just clung on for a number of years and when relegation finally came, the team really were not up to the quality of Premier League standard. Going in to the Championship, I didn’t think it would end in relegation but having watched the Netflix documentary (which I’m sure you’ve heard a number of times!), it really is no surprise the club found themselves in the state they did.
I was surprised it didn’t work out for Simon Grayson but at least now under Jack Ross things are looking a lot more positive.
And what other thoughts do you have on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city and region, Jack Ross?
I wanted to make the trip to the North East in October but couldn’t make it due to other commitments, and the Black Cats are the only League One team I have never seen play! As I said, one of my best friends is a supporter as well as his dad. I think it was back in 2011, he told another friend to ask me how Southend were doing because “he doesn’t look that far down the fizzy pop league!”.
So with that, there is slight delight in the downfall but the club should be higher than League One. As a one team city, they have an incredible following and the number of away fans is always astonishing, apparently there are about 4,000 coming on Saturday which will help elevate the occasion. I am pleased to see that they have had a huge clear-out of the playing staff and brought in players that look like they want to play for the badge.
Hand on heart, where will our clubs finish the season? And any thoughts on the longer term for either?
Well, my predictions from the beginning of the season were absolutely useless! I tipped Bradford for automatic promotion, as well as Southend, Plymouth and Scunthorpe to contest the play-offs so I’m not sure how good my mystic ball is.
With Sunderland in the play-offs, it will be a tough task but if it is a Wembley rematch against Portsmouth in the final, I fancy you to go on and win. I think you will go on to be competitive in the Championship but with that division being so tight, it won’t be easy by any stretch. The likes of Leicester, Wolves, Norwich and Southampton have all dipped in to League One recently and look where they are now though.
For us, I can only say after the final whistle on Saturday! If we go down, it could lead to an exodus and a potential rebuilding job, but if we stay up, we need to strengthen, get our players back from injury and make sure we don’t end up in the same position next year.
Is cheating here to stay or will VAR help stamp it out?
I’m a fan of VAR so I hope it will help clear up the game. It does need to be sped up and made more engaging for the fans but I cannot stand diving. Patrick Bamford on Sunday against Villa was an embarrassment and incidents like these need to be kicked out of our game.
Tell us about your marathon running and charity activities.
So on Sunday, I ran the London Marathon for the first time! It was my first ever marathon as well and I had only taken up running in 2017. Being a difficult period in my life and ballooning in weight, I signed up to a number of 10K runs and 3 half marathons throughout 2018 to help shift some pounds but at the same time I raised money for Mind – the total hit over £1000 after the five events I completed.
Upon getting a sub two-hour half marathon in Southend in June 2018, I wanted to complete one last challenge which was completing a marathon. I signed up to the Brighton Marathon initially but was lucky to get a spot in the ballot for the London Marathon so chose to take part in this event.
After months of training and a lot of time spent on the streets of Bristol in all weathers, I had lost over 30kg and completed the race in 4:38:17, which I was very pleased with. So many of my friends and family came to support on the day and although my spot wasn’t attained through a charity, a number of people wanted to sponsor me, so I decided to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK and our total currently stands at £750 which is another great total. While my legs are still recovering, it’s time to think about the next challenge!
And you will doubtless be at the match, What will be the score?
Well funny story, I was meant to be going to Plymouth vs Scunthorpe with the aforementioned Plymouth-supporting friend but given it is a straight relegation shootout between our teams, we have decided to spend the day apart. With automatic promotion now unattainable, I’m hoping Jack Ross rests all his key players and fields a youth team, although I can’t see that happening.
My head says Sunderland 2-0 but given the circumstances I think anything can happen. If we do get the win, it won’t be by a lot, only 1-0 or so, but what I am certain of, my nerves will be an absolute wreck for the entire 90 minutes!
* Ian Charnock on himself: I have been supporting Southend United for over 14 years now. I currently live in Bristol doing my PGCE to become a French and German teacher, so most of my support for the Blues has been through away games this year. That being said, I am moving back to Essex to start a job in September which means I will once again be a regular at Roots Hall.
Having lived away, I’ve embarked on a journey to ‘Complete the 92’ (visit all the 92 football league grounds) and my total is currently at 46. Halfway there (sadly the Stadium of Light is missing) so hoping to continue this in to next year, fingers crossed in League One!
Interview: Colin Randall