EXCLUSIVE: 'Ron the Rat' speaks out after almost sinking Southend

Fans call him Ron the Rat for almost sinking Southend… but the owner insists he always had club’s interests at heart: Condemned chairman RON MARTIN pleads his case to Mail Sport – you decide if he deserves sympathy 

  • Condemned former Southend chairman Ron Martin pleads his case to Mail Sport
  • He admits it’s ‘hurtful’ that Southend are viewed as one of the worst-run clubs 
  • It’s the world against Everton – it can galvanise the players to stay up – IAKO

Some of the details of Ron Martin’s recent years as owner of Southend United — the winding-up petitions, the furious fans outside his house, the toy rats thrown on the pitch at home games — are such that you instinctively want to lower your voice when discussing them with him in the library of the five-star London hotel where he asks that we meet.

Martin does not seem overly concerned about discretion, though. A man in the corner of the room feigns indifference to our conversation but he does not leave his sofa once. And little wonder.

Martin effortlessly charts his 25-year rollercoaster on the Essex coast — from beating Manchester United 1-0 in the League Cup to walking down his drive to address protesters at the end of it. He wants to talk about the good times. He skates elegantly and effortlessly over the bad.

There is a jarring incongruity about Martin being in this grand place, ordering cappuccinos and embarking on a discussion which touches on helicopter travel and his £3million home, when his refusal to pay HMRC on time has seen Southend dragged repeatedly to the High Court and now docked 10 points. All that on top of being relegated to non-league for the first time in their 101-year history.

Among many who have gone unpaid in the past year are St John Ambulance. Pressed on why he ‘didn’t pay the little people’, he replies: ‘Yes, that hurts.’ Well, just imagine how they must feel.

Condemned chairman Ron Martin pleads his case — you decide if he deserves sympathy

Southend supporters have nicknamed the chairman ‘Ron the Rat’ for almost sinking their club

Virtually anyone owed money by Southend has had to chase them through the courts in the past year, from sponsors to electricity providers to the water supplier. Fans raised £40,000 to ensure staff were paid last Christmas, then brought cleaning equipment and paint to prepare Roots Hall for this season. No wonder Southend have been dubbed one of the worst-run clubs in the country.

‘That’s really hurtful,’ Martin says, reaching for that word again. ‘It’s not one of the worst-run. It might need more money than we can afford. That doesn’t mean to say we didn’t give the same consideration and attention to it that we would do if we had money. It’s just a shortfall of funds.’

Most Southend supporters, who call him ‘Ron the Rat’, would put things rather differently.

There have been plenty of false dawns, but if all goes to plan Martin will this week sell up to a 10-strong consortium and walk away, hoping that he will be remembered as the man who has invested £27million — via loans from his property company — to keep alive a club which at times has barely had a pulse.

Martin looks on as Southend take on Burton Albion in the League Two playoffs in 2014

‘I’m less wealthy now, by a long chalk, than if I’d never been involved in football,’ he says. ‘You just hope you get to a sustainable environment but you never know at the time.’ Sustainable it most certainly isn’t. The club and the stadium are on their knees.

Martin considered himself a winner before all this. A remarkable image captures him at the top of a bobsleigh run with Great Britain’s four-man team in Winterberg, Germany, in 1980.

It looks like a scene from Thunderbirds, with Martin, bobsleigh driver Major Jonnie Woodall and John Howell displaying very white teeth and impressive physiques. Martin says they won their race for the ‘GB1’ team — going on to compete for Britain at the European Championships in St Moritz that year.

‘I was first reserve for the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid,’ Martin says, relaying that he had been recruited from athletics by a GB bobsleigh talent-spotter.

‘I had to come back from Switzerland early for business reasons, so I was placed in the ‘GB 3’ team. I regret that decision in many ways because to have competed at the Olympics would have been something. But the business mattered most.’

The business also mattered most when he arrived at Southend United as a property entrepreneur in the 1990s, after the ailing club’s chairman, Vic Jobson, a neighbour, had asked him for £400,000 credit.

He rejected the request, instead acquiring half of Jobson’s 55 per cent share of the club before buying him out in 1998, when his property company also bought Roots Hall from the club.

‘I recognised the opportunity to build a new stadium and create a much better football club than they had,’ says Martin. He had never set foot in the place before that and supported Liverpool, he says, because his father had. 

‘When I walked into the club, it seemed stuck in the 1950s and I thought, “We could improve this massively”. The whole environment was in the dark ages. We could see that we could bring more sophistication to it. I wanted to make a bigger stadium.’

Southend have been dubbed one of the worst-run clubs in the country in recent years

The club stormed to a shock 2-1 win over National League leaders Chesterfield on Saturday

That bigger stadium has been the be-all and end-all of the past 25 years for Martin. Property was the golden egg for an ‘investor-developer’ like him. He wanted to move Southend United to land he had purchased at nearby Fossetts Farm, leaving him free to build houses on the site of Roots Hall. But despite owning both, he has tried and failed for a quarter of a century to make these property developments happen.

Roots Hall — a stadium lovingly built in the 1950s by legendary groundsman Sid Broomfield with the entire £74,000 provided by fans — fell into decline. 

Southend had their moments under Martin. There were back-to-back promotions to League One and the Championship in 2005 and 2006, then the night of all nights: that 1-0 win over Sir Alex Ferguson’s United — Ronaldo, Rooney and all — in November 2006, sealed by Freddy Eastwood. Every wall of the Blue Boar pub beside Roots Hall is decorated with some artefact of that famous win.

All this brought Martin a role in the Christmas lights switch-on, a friendship with club legend David Webb and journeys up and down the land with his son to watch Southend play. ‘When you get into any club in the minutiae that I did, you have to love it,’ he says. Even at that journey’s height, he was trying to get the stadium built.

Martin oozed confidence at moments which would have spooked less ebullient owners. On the occasion, for example, when his home and Roots Hall were raided by police and he was arrested on suspicion of corruption in relation to a Gloucestershire property deal in March 2007.

A vivid 1,000-word article, beneath his byline, followed in the Southend Echo, detailing the police’s 7am arrival on his ‘shingle drive’, his wife offering them beverages, and them arriving mob-handed. Martin denied any wrongdoing and was not charged.

Martin admits to Mail Sport that being labelled as a ‘lying rat’ by fans is extremely hurtful

‘Martin out!’: Frustrated Southend supporters take to the streets in protest of their chairman

Southend’s one season back in the Championship ended two months later, leaving Martin to reflect on what might have been. ‘We changed seven players in the Championship and probably had a better team spirit — a sense of “we’re all in it together” — in League One,’ he says of that time. ‘Maybe that was our error. We should have only changed three or four individuals.’

Greater storms were to follow. There was the financial crash of 2008. ‘Painful for everyone and because I rely on property income to supplement the football club, it was probably going to hit me worse,’ Martin relates.

Southend were relegated to League Two in 2010 and they were back in the courts, too: back to winding-up orders and transfer embargoes.

Phil Brown led the club back up via the play-offs in 2015 before it all unravelled again. Amid six ill-fated managerial appointments from 2018 — Chris Powell, Sol Campbell and Kevin Bond among them — there were successive relegations from League One to the National League in the depths of Covid. That left Southend in non-League football with players on League One wages. And still the stadium was not built.

All downhill from here: Martin (top right) in the GB bobsleigh team at Winterberg in 1980

Some owners would have bailed, but Martin says he wanted to get the club back into the Football League first. He says he received a call from one of the executives who would help Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney buy Wrexham, asking if he was interested in selling.

‘I said no and that was it,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t tempted at all because I wanted to fulfil my own objectives, create something for the fans. Leaving it then, just because someone offered more money? No, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t entertain it.’

It is unlikely any such deal would have transpired. The executive who approached Martin was engaged to work with Reynolds and McElhenney, and the Wrexham deal was well advanced. Extraordinary, though, that Martin, the owner of a club in such dire straits, was not even interested. The prospect of building that new stadium — the golden egg — was just too much.

It takes an extraordinarily thick skin to stay on when supporters are disgruntled enough to throw missiles on to your driveway and scrawl images of your face in black marker-pen on balloons which they burst at games.

For the home match against Maidenhead in September, Southend were down to 12 available players, had no fit goalkeeper, had been docked 10 points for non-payment of tax, and had appeared in magistrates’ court over an unpaid energy bill. They won 2-0.

Martin maintains his unruffled equanimity as all this is laid out before him. ‘There wasn’t enough money to go around,’ he says. ‘What are the alternatives? Put the club into administration? Or for everyone to roll with us?

‘The club’s losing £160,000 every month — in the National League, that’s a lot to find. We ran out of money. We didn’t have the money to do all the work that was required. We didn’t do it deliberately. When you are in the tax authorities’ focus — attacked if you like — you get no latitude, so when you go into arrears a (winding-up) petition comes quickly.’

The supporters describe it as something different — incompetence — while a leading authority on tax and accountancy legislation sees a moral bankruptcy at play. ‘Courts don’t want to bankrupt clubs because they are community assets, and I suspect this owner knows that,’ he said. ‘There’s a moral angle here. It’s our taxes that he isn’t paying.’

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Several fans took the opportunity to protest the mismanagement of the club when Daily Mail photographer KEVIN QUIGLEY attended Southend’s league clash against Barnet in March

As Southend have struggled, a fanbase led by the Shrimpers Trust have watched Martin closely. There has been much talk of him having use of a helicopter, with the club’s name emblazoned on the side.

‘I learned to fly helicopters when I was in my 20s so I have a natural interest in them and once a year, on my wife’s birthday, we go to Ascot,’ Martin explains. ‘A picture (has circulated) of me taking our two sons and their wives to Ascot on my wife’s birthday.

‘We don’t have a helicopter. You can hire helicopters and we did that every year for 40 years. The club’s name on the side was an advertisement for the club.

‘People outside our house wanted me to sell my home. “Your house is worth £3million. Why don’t you sell it? Why don’t you sell your car?” You have to stop somewhere and that’s unfair when I’ve put millions into the club for a long, long time. If I was a fly-by-night, that’s different, but 25 years going to every match and being as committed to the success of it as they are?’

He insists he has never charged Southend rent on the stadium, despite invoicing the club for it. An insolvency lawyer, who has worked at several distressed football clubs, suggests this has tax benefits. Martin hasn’t been to a Southend match since December. ‘When there are chants of, “We want Martin out”, it’s going to detract from the football,’ he says.

So now he will leave for good. A consortium, led by Australian IT entrepreneur Justin Rees, will acquire the club, Roots Hall’s freehold and the training ground for a nominal £1.

The angry signs of protest have extended to the roads and pavements (pictured in July 2023)

Non-league outfit Southend have been under a transfer ban since September 2022 and were deducted 10 points at the start of this season after failing to clear a £275,000 HMRC debt

It will also take on Southend’s future operating costs and debts believed to be in excess of £2.5m. Martin will write off his loans to the club and contribute £20m to the refurbishment of Roots Hall, where the club will stay.

As always, the club finds its future inextricably linked to property deals. Planning permission has just been granted to a company, owned by Martin’s son Jack, for a substantial housing development — minus the new stadium — at Fossetts Farm. There will be 1,300 homes built, including 500 which were to have gone up at Roots Hall, had the stadium switch materialised.

Councillors heard the club’s sale was contingent on planning for the homes. ‘We won’t build the stadium and haven’t got the cost of that, but we are putting the equivalent money back into Roots Hall,’ Martin says. His family will do extremely well out of the deal, though.

The protests have not affected Martin or contributed to his decision to go, he insists. ‘It was necessary to have security at the house, but did it disrupt our lives? No. We continued the same way.

‘I’ve tried to understand the fans’ feelings but I think the narrative that has existed in recent times is no reflection on what we, as a family, have done for the club.

‘I’m selling at the wrong time for me and my family but I had no choice. I was 70 and my weekends were still committed. I was thinking, “How many years have you got to go?”’

The insolvency expert suggests Martin is selling because things are so bad he is in a very tight financial corner. ‘It doesn’t make sense to keep it going in that league, pumping that money in,’ he said.

Southend are now 14th in the National League, having finished eighth in the league last season

Southend United face a severe player shortage, naming only two substitutes for a match

Martin has put the National League on notice for a legal challenge against the 10-point deduction and expects the club to receive a date for that in six to eight weeks. But the squad have played their way out of difficulty. They are 14th in the table under their excellent manager, Kevin Maher, after Saturday’s home win over league leaders Chesterfield.

‘There were great times, such really great times,’ Martin reflects as the interview draws to an end and he prepares to carry out other business in the hotel’s elegant surroundings. ‘I would do it all again. I wouldn’t overlook the great times because of the people standing outside my house.

‘It’s been a tremendous ride and we’ve created some tremendous memories.’

The cataclysmic recent years are something that Southend fans would rather forget.


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