On a quiet, sunny July afternoon, as the rest of the country was bathing in the Sunday sunshine, trouble was brewing in Southend-on-Sea. The much-maligned Southend United chairman Ron Martin, who reportedly failed to pay his staff on numerous occasions over the season, laid the blame of relegation to League Two on club legend Steve Tilson and gave him the boot.
Tilson’s reign at Southend typified the cyclical nature of Football League clubs, having taken the Shrimpers from League Two to the Championship in successive promotions, culminating in the south Essex club pipping county rivals Colchester United to the League One title in 2006. However, Tilson was unable to keep the club in the second-tier and last season’s disastrous campaign led to the club’s return to the basement division.
Just one day later, the club announced that Paul Sturrock was the man tasked with rebuilding a sinking ship. Southend were a club with five players, after the majority chose to cancel their contracts due to lack of payment, and supporters feared relegation from the Football League for what would have been the first time in the club’s 105-year history. The mood amongst the Roots Hall crowd was gloomy, expectations were low and finishing 22nd seemed the best they could hope for.
Sturrock signed seventeen players with mixed results before the end of the transfer window. Ryan Hall, a free transfer from Conference South’s Bromley, ended the 2010-11 campaign with 16 assists, topping the League Two chart. A high number of these were set up for Barry Corr, a free transfer from Exeter City, who has struggled with injury throughout his career. The Irish striker excelled, scoring 21 goals in all competitions in his best ever season. The emergence of Kane Ferdinand, a defender-turned-midfielder from the club’s ever-improving youth set-up, came as a welcome bonus as he partnered skipper Craig Easton and Anthony Grant, the only remaining Tilson regular at the club, in central midfield. Others such as Sofiane Zaaboub, Adam Bouzid and a plethora of loanee strikers were less successful, albeit expected as Sturrock utilised his array of contacts within the game to build a squad from scratch in one month.
The real find of the season for the Shrimpers, however, is centre-back and part-time centre-forward Bilel Mohsni, who has become a cult hero after joining the Seasiders from amateur Parisian side Sainte-Geneviève Sports last summer. Mohsni is the epitome of eccentricity, holding the ability to thrill and frighten in the same movement. Mohsni was thrown up front during an injury crisis amongst Southend’s strikers last season and scored the first and third goals in a 4-1 win over Macclesfield, delighting the many locals who took great pleasure in collecting their winnings having backed the Tunisian to score first at 33/1.
Southend United ended a season that began with chaos in the unfamiliar surroundings of tranquillity as an unexpected play-off push in March faded to see the club finish the campaign in a very respectable 13th position.
Under the stewardship of Paul Sturrock, the Shrimpers start the 2011/12 season in much better shape. The Scotsman has added to his settled squad with the arrival of Millwall’s record goalscorer, and lifelong Shrimper, Neil Harris. He is joined by the imposing Alassane N’Diaye from Crystal Palace and winger Jemal Johnson, who returns to English football after a stint in Bulgaria with Lokomotiv Sofia.
The most common player collective in the Football League, a group that have transcended all rivalries to be present at every club, were released. Of course, I am referring to the group of players that blights every club up and down the country when the 46th game is finished and the summer begins: ‘Deadwood’. The only real loss (at the time of writing) is club captain Craig Easton, who left after failing to agree a new deal, with the ever-reliable defender Chris Barker taking over the captaincy.
Barry Corr, with 21 goals in 2010/11, starts the campaign injured, leaving Sturrock wanting another striker. With Ryan Hall, who topped League Two’s assists chart with 16 in his first season in the Football League, and Jemal Johnson flanking Harris up front, the Roots Hall faithful expect plenty of goals in the upcoming season – particularly if Bilel Mohsni continues his chaotic influence at both ends of the pitch.
If the Shrimpers can continue their impressive progression, a desperately-desired return to English football’s third tier may just be on the horizon.
EDIT: Since this was published, Southend have added right-back Ryan Leonard, centre-midfielder Jean-Paul Kalala and striker Liam Dickinson to their squad.