Southend United Season Preview: the Powell revolution

With the 2018-19 League One season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Southend United fan Callum Connolly (@CFConnolly97).

This is Southend United’s first pre-season in six years that won’t be led by Phil Brown. Although his relationship with fans didn’t always appear an easy one, is the club better off for the work he did?

It was never going to be a case of Brown having all the fans on his side from the moment he was appointed by the chairman. His selection as Paul Sturrock’s replacement was a contentious one and his eagerness to allow his role of football manager overlap with largely unnecessary media appearances was one of the few reasons why his departure was a welcome one. That being said, he did deliver us promotion from League Two after five miserable years and solidified our status as a third division club before it began to go downhill last season. His status certainly played a part in allowing the club to sign the likes of Simon Cox and Michael Kightly and he can be credited with giving our credible roster of youth players opportunities to do well in the first team. His constant excuses, somewhat questionable tactics and blame of everyone but himself was certainly grating, but he was more of a positive to Southend United in hindsight. I along with a number of the fans are appreciative of what he tried to do and what he achieved. When Phil got things right he more than exceeded expectations, but unfortunately the opposite was a regular feature last season.

After Chris Powell took over in January, you took 32 points; more than every League One side that didn’t win promotion bar Plymouth. How did he inspire such a striking turnaround in fortunes?

Everything about the man screams charisma, desire and passion. His tenure at the club as a player was a little bit before my time, but the older generation of Southend fans in the family have often told stories of how Chrissy Powell was adored at Roots Hall. It’s usually a risk when a former player, and a considerable legend at that returns to manage his former side but we have all been delighted with his honest and direct approach at getting business done on and off the pitch. I feel that the dressing room needed a character like his after Brown’s tenure had sucked the life out of everything good within the club by the time he was dismissed. Powell has certainly delivered that and then some. Performances picked up on the pitch and I feel like a new found desire to succeed was instilled off of it as well.

You had League One’s oldest squad last season with an average age of 28.9. Are you glad that young players like Harry Kyprianou and Elvis Bwomono got some more first team exposure after Christmas?

I feel like Brown took a gamble on experienced players to get us through League One last year but that’s not to say he hasn’t ever given our youth a chance, though there does seem to be further capacity for that under the new management. Since Powell has come in, the squad as a whole have been selected more on merit than anything else, and that will continue to be the case. It’s brilliant to have players with such enormous potential like Elvis and Dru Yearwood given the right environment to flourish at a very competitive level and given our track record with the likes of Dan Bentley and Jack Payne, our youth academy will continue to be utilised for the first team.

Another one of those young players was Dru Yearwood, who unfortunately picked up an injury this summer. How big a blow is this? And are you relieved the club had at least added to the midfield area with Luke Hyam and Sam Mantom?

We’re not that concerned about Dru. He may miss the first game of the season but he is young and sensible and should be available for the vast majority of the campaign. That being said it is a relief that we’ve brought in some experienced midfielders in Hyam who has only ever played in the Championship and Mantom, who was excellent on loan with Southend last season. The club also have highly rated youngsters Renei Batlokwa and Michael Klass progressing nicely, as well as Lewis Gard, who made his first team debut in the 2017/18 campaign.

Stalwart Michael Timlin has gone to Stevenage but Timothee Dieng joins from Bradford. He should be a commanding presence in front of the back four?

I think a lot of fans were saddened to see Tims leave but it could well be for the best in terms of Southend’s long-term future. He was an exceptional servant with an unquestionable love for the club along with a desire to win. However, in Dieng we seem to have brought in a player who is not only capable of shielding the defence but also adept at launching moves and being used as an offensive threat. To have brought in the Frenchman along with Hyam and Mantom has definitely seen us considerably beef up our midfield.

Centre-backs Michael Turner and Anton Ferdinand, at 34 and 33 respectively, might not have the fitness to play every week this season. Are you pleased Harry Lennon has joined from Charlton?

Turner was exceptional last season both at the back and in the box but it is a good point to raise regarding his age. Rob Kiernan’s constant injuries has not allowed him to become a reliable option as of yet so to bring in Lennon was an astute move for squad depth and reinforcement more than anything. I’d expect Turner to start the season alongside John White at centre-back, but we now have Lennon and Kyprianou as back-ups in that area of the team. As for Ferdinand, Powell decided to transfer-list him quite soon after the season is over so I don’t expect to see him in Southend colours by the time the window closes.

Ever-present goalkeeper Mark Oxley won the player of the year award last season. Rightly so, in your view?

Without a doubt in the world. Ox is an absolutely outstanding goalkeeper and we are very, very fortunate to have him. I fully believe we would’ve been in a far worse situation at the end of Phil Brown’s tenure without his crucial saves and performances. The club’s outstanding achievement to get him to sign a new deal was a mark of the new Powell era for me. Previously, we would often struggle to keep our best players tied down, with some instrumental stars leaving in past years due to a weak negotiating stance from the club, but this summer the Blues have arguably extended the deals of our most formidable players who were out of contract as well as strengthening significantly elsewhere.

Tom Hopper joins from Scunthorpe while Theo Robinson finished last season in good form. Do you think Powell will start with one of those two alongside Simon Cox against Doncaster?

I would imagine with Simon Cox signing on that it will likely be him and Hopper up front against Doncaster on the opening day. Robinson did do well in the last month of the season, but I feel he still has a lot to prove over a season to establish himself as a regular starter. Hopper did reasonably well for Scunthorpe and could offer something different for us.

Right-back Jason Demetriou won a lot of plaudits for his all-action displays at Walsall. Has he replicated that form at Roots Hall?

I think it took him a little while to get going in Essex but I think there are very few fans who don’t get excited when JD starts bombing down the pitch into an opposition box. He has his off days, but he can be a terrific player with a wicked cross. I’m happy to have him at the club, and he is a good player for Bwomono to learn from.

Left winger Michael Kightly had one or two problems with his hamstring last season. Do you expect 22-year-old Sam Barratt, who has signed on a free from Maidenhead, to get opportunities?

I believe so. Kights said himself he was frustrated to be hampered with issues last season after relatively pain-free years before returning back to Southend, but even if he escapes unaffected throughout this campaign with 46 games to play it is necessary to rotate and experiment a little so of course Barratt will get opportunities. It is clear from his interviews and efforts in pre-season thus far that he is eager to make his first season in professional football a very successful one.

Stephen McLaughlin chipped in with six goals last year. As a left-footed player, do you see his best role being cutting in from the right?

When Macca is fit and gets a run of games he tends to be lethal. Achieving that can be more of an issue but he is certainly one of our finest attackers with a serious lust for a strike from distance. That certain role has worked for him in the past but you would imagine as a player that you don’t want opposition full-backs from figuring out your game so he will likely aim to invent a new box of tricks for defenders to worry about.

Shrimpers aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League One season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I think Coventry have strengthened quite well despite losing McNulty. Peterborough have taken a bit of a risk with such enormous recruitment but bringing in Siriki Dembele from Grimsby, Alex Woodyard from Lincoln (an academy graduate of ours) and especially Jason Cummings on loan will have done their chances of promotion no harm. Losing Ezri Konsa is a blow for Charlton but at the other end Lyle Taylor on a free is an excellent signing and they should definitely challenge at least for the playoffs. I think Bradford have done brilliantly in signing Jack Payne on loan as well as Sean Scannell and if they keep Charlie Wyke, I certainly can’t see why they shouldn’t aim high.

Where will you finish?

League One will be quite ridiculously competitive this season! However, I think we have the strength and desire to do quite well this season and should we bring in another forward I believe sixth place is very achievable.

Thanks to Callum for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Southend can be found on We Love Betting on 30th July.