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As Phil Brown fielded questions after his return to Southend United last week, staring back at him during his virtual unveiling, on a wall behind one of the journalists, was a canvas that perfectly captured the story: Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Three years after being placed on gardening leave by the club, Brown is back, tasked with digging Southend out of an almighty hole. With five games to go, they are on the brink of successive relegations and their 100-year stay in the Football League is in danger of ending.
How did they get here? Four years ago, under Brown, they were one point away from a League One play-off place but have been sinking fast since, winning only 16 of their past 97 matches. They have chopped and changed managers – five have been and gone in the time Brown has been away – so when the chairman, Ron Martin, sacked Mark Molesley, appointed as Sol Campbell’s successor last summer, he turned to a familiar face.
“I would like to think Phil would stay beyond this season, wherever we are,” says Martin. “We’ve talked about that at some length. Southend does mean something to Phil. His wife and family come from Southend, so the town means something and he was here for five years. There’s a good connection. Sol Campbell was a mistake. I think we had continuity of management under Phil for five years.”
Brown led Southend to promotion from League Two, winning the 2015 play-off final against Wycombe on penalties after Joe Pigott found a stoppage-time equaliser in extra time. Last Saturday Brown was back on the touchline, with a greying beard and flowery scarf. Martin approached Brown in November but the 61-year-old was working as a television pundit in India, where he also had spells with Pune City and Hyderabad. “The timing of this was the no-brainer part,” says Brown. “The challenge? My word, this is one of the biggest challenges of my career. A lot of people think I must be crazy coming in but I think the challenge is doable.”
There is never a dull moment at Southend, who narrowly avoided administration in 2010. Their gradual demise has been disheartening but not entirely surprising for supporters weary of near misses – they skirted relegation to League Two on goal difference two years ago – and negative headlines, be it wages paid late or a transfer embargo lifted in December. One of their more regular opponents has been HMRC and in October they settled tax debts of almost £500,000, with a winding-up petition against the club dismissed in the high court.
“It would be a failure on my part if we got relegated,” says Martin. “But, as a club, we would be well placed to come back up again. It wouldn’t be a financial disaster necessarily; it would be a disaster for the fans and me. I don’t even like being in League Two, let alone the National League. I think Southend is a top League One, lower Championship club, potentially. It is hugely important for us to stay up but if we do go down I’ll continue to invest to make sure we get back up as soon as possible. We’ve been pushing water uphill for an entire season. I didn’t envisage being in this position.”
Southend, frankly, are in a sorry state. They overpaid experienced players in search of a return to the Championship. They have been without a chief executive since Steve Kavanagh departed for Millwall five years ago and supporters wonder whether Martin’s desire to build a new stadium at Fossetts Farm has been detrimental to the club’s progress. “There’s a huge disparity between what we’re trying to do in terms of the club’s relocation, which I’m confident will be achieved, against where we are on the pitch,” says Martin. “We expect to get planning in May and we’re already into the construction phase, talking to contractors.”
Brown’s first coaching role came at Blackpool alongside Sam Allardyce, whose record of never being relegated is under threat at West Bromwich Albion. Who faces the tougher task? Brown laughs. “Put it this way, we were well versed in survival campaigns at Bolton Wanderers, that’s for sure. You’d be amazed what you can achieve when you’re all singing off the same hymn sheet.”
Brown saw his new side draw 0-0 with Crawley last weekend, and their next outing is to Exeter on Saturday. However, next Tuesday’s trip to Colchester, one place and four points above them, looks defining. Grimsby, who are bottom, have their own problems after Stefan Payne was sent off for headbutting a teammate last weekend.
Southend have scored three goals in their past 11 matches and their 24 goals from 41 games is the Football League’s lowest goals-for tally. The left-back Tom Clifford is joint-top scorer with three, and Nile Ranger, who re-signed in February after being released owing to “recurring disciplinary issues” in 2018, sustained a groin injury 12 minutes into his comeback. The 36-year-old Greg Halford, a right-back, has been leading the line.
Brown also took over at Pune with six games to go and he is determined to bring a slice of India to Southend. “Forget about money, the currency was a smile, their facial expression was a currency and I thought that was priceless. If I can put smiles on peoples’ faces at Southend United, we will win games.”