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The Paul and Tommy Show - Q&A Report - 23rd September 2010
Report by Rob Craven, Pictures by Scott Barbe
New Southend United management duo Paul Sturrock and Tommy Widdrington answered questions in an open forum for Shrimpers Trust members in the Shrimpers Bar at Roots Hall on Thursday evening.

Former Dundee United forward Sturrock and ex-Southampton midfielder Widdrington arrived at Roots Hall in July and quickly set about assembling a squad capable of competing in npower League Two. However, as Sturrock took up the microphone after a short introduction from Shrimpers Trust vice-chairman Bryan Woodford, he revealed that he still had high hopes of pushing for a play-off spot at the end of his first season in charge.

“I don’t think we can look at it as just a season of consolidation,” he said. “That might well be the case, but it will take time for us to find our feet and we have to look at it positively. We have played seven games now and we haven’t been outplayed by anyone. We’ve still got to add to the squad, and we will have to take away, but hopefully by the transfer window, we’ll have a settled squad. Hopefully at that time we will be there or thereabouts.”

The pair arrived hot on the heels of the departure of Steve Tilson on 4th July, although there was widespread speculation as the squad was built up that neither had put pen to paper on their own deals. When quizzed on whether they had been paid, the Scotland international was unequivocal: “Yes, we have been paid, and we have also signed our contracts.”

Later in the evening, Sturrock paid tribute to the players who had arrived initially on pre-registration arrangements: “I was very, very pleased with the approach of the players; they signed contracts but not the registration documents, and those contracts were not really worth the paper that they were written on. I was very pleased with them, that they were prepared to come and settle here, and you have to give the players credit for that.”

“17 or 18, as I think it is now with [Chris] Barker, is a lot of players, and the worrying aspect for us is how many of those we will get right, and how many will be wrong. Some players that have started the season will go, some will come in. “Some will have to move on, and in the next couple of days there will be some surprising news regarding players.”

“I think the squad have been terrific, they have all gelled, but I believe that we are a Football Club, and the staff have to be involved as well. We had a hog roast for all the staff in one of the Directors’ gardens, because everyone works so hard at this ground every day. Every Thursday, I make an effort to go round and see members of every department, because I believe that the people here are important.”

“The players have donated a pool table at the training ground, and I think that if Bilel Mohsni doesn’t make it in football, then he’ll be a professional table-tennis player! We’ve got some lines marked out for a tennis court on the Astroturf, so I’m looking forward to playing against some of the players on there, but we are doing a lot of work in getting the right environment set up. I’m also hoping to meet with representatives at the school across the road to obtain another pitch, and we could do with about 200 yards of rabbit fencing!”

“The players have bonded together very well, and Craig Easton has done a great job. The foreign lads have not had any problems: [Sofiene] Zaaboub speaks perfect English, Bilel is good as well, and they have blended in well.”

After the much-documented transfer embargo during 2009/10, Sturrock was asked a number of questions regarding player signings. The first centred around attracting strikers to Roots Hall, with Exeter City cited as a club of similar statue that had brought in a number of high-profile front-men.

“Exeter can attract players because they are in a higher division,” the ex-Plymouth Argyle manager responded. “Jamie Cureton wanted to play in the south-west for family reasons and Daniel Nardiello couldn’t get a deal elsewhere, but you’ve had the likes of Freddy Eastwood and Gary Hooper, so they are a reasonable standard of striker.”

“We’ve only been here two or three months, and we’ve found that managers will not give up easily what I call the jewel in their crown. We looked at the lad [Jason] Walker at Barrow in the Conference, he’s scored eight or nine goals already this season, but we were quoted £100,000-£150,000. Then you look at [Richard] Brodie - he’s just left York for Crawley Town for £275,000, so that shows you what’s happening in the Conference.”

“You then look at the Premier League sides, the players say that League Two is too low for them; about 10-15 times we’ve had the door slammed in our face. I’ve never asked the question to the chairman whether we have £100,000 to spend, but I think it would be a struggle to find that sort of money and the stadium will be a big benefit to us once that’s in place.”

“It’s important to find the right forward; look at the Championship, Liam Dickinson, I think he’d’ve benefited us. Heffernan at Sheffield Wednesday is another, but you’ve got to persuade the player, the agent and the club. The agent always wants a Championship fee.”

“We’ve also looked at the foreign market, but we can’t touch that ‘til January. We’re going to travel to Dublin every second Friday, and also to France and Belgium, but even in Ireland now they’re learning that there’s a value in forwards as well. I’ve taken a chance on one I’ve watched before, a lad that we’re looking to bring in for a month, but I won’t be telling you who that is now!”

More information on the scouting side came out when Tommy Widdrington was quizzed about former Shrimpers youngster Charles Ademeno: “He was a very complex lad, but intelligent as well; a great lad. I wanted to keep him, but he flashed up interest at other clubs in the Conference who were better than us. There are so many mechanics in signing a player; you have to identify the player, but then it’s not just his decision, he has a manager, his parents and agents.”

“Make no mistake, we’ve flagged up over 50 strikers, but you need to find that the player wants to come here, then the Club agrees. Even then, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn in saying that Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur had a couple of players that we’d’ve liked to have taken on, but the agents weren’t interested.”

“Players have a lot of different issues, and factors have to be built in,” Sturrock continued. “In effect, a player is a contractor, so while you are all blue-and-white right through, we want players that will bleed blue-and-white while they are here. We want to get the best out of what we have.”

“I’d also like to add that, while we got Ademeno at Salisbury, I let a young lad called Liam Feeney go the other way, and he’s now rated as a multi-million pound player at AFC Bournemouth,” Widdrington interjected.

Sturrock was asked if the difficulty in signing players was connected in any way to events off the pitch in south-east Essex last season: “Partly. The agents just read the papers, and some of them will have some players or past players who may have experienced it, but mostly it will just be because they don’t want to play at this level. Obviously they want to move players on to the Premier League or the Championship as that is where there is the most money.”

The Scot acquired a small number of players from the Steve Tilson and Paul Brush era, although he acknowledged there were difficulties in the early stages: “There were eight or nine players when I arrived and, within a week, I had letters coming through putting in a 14-day request and they were quite within their rights to do that. I would walk into the canteen, and I had to whisper as everyone could hear you, the atmosphere was so bad. The players’ minds weren’t there, but they trained and worked to the standards that you would want.”

“Their hearts were not here. The French lads that said that they wanted to stay were in a stand full of Southend fans - I’d’ve said that!” “They were under contract, so they had to come to the stadium,” Widdrington interjected. “The agents were working away. If you try to keep players like that, rotten apples, then they rot the rest, but that’s not meant to be derogatory about those players, because things had happened,” Sturrock continued.

“People have been angry about things; it’s your football club and you’re entitled to voice those opinions. My daughter is my eyes and ears on the websites; she tells me what’s going on, but it’s nice to be able to concentrate on the football.”

Throughout the evening, a number of questions were posed relating to individual players. Sturrock was keen not to reveal too much about his relationships with members of his squad, but he did answer each question, starting by touching on the improvement to Anthony Grant’s game.

“I’ll tell you a little story about Granty,” he began. “I had a few friends down for the Torquay United game, and as I was showing them around, Granty was there. I said, ‘This is Granty, he’s the best player here…in his own mind!’ He’s scored four goals in four games now, but he runs out of shape a lot. I’ve tried to tell him not to chase down other players so much, and he has been given a specific job to do to get forward and support the front players. We just need to turn him down a bit, but he is an exciting talent, as he must’ve been, having come through at Chelsea.”

How long will it take to smooth the rough edges of Bilel Mohsni? “At the moment, Bilel is costing us goals. It’s Ramadan, so it is a hard time for him due to his eating patterns. We had a lad in the reserves [Walid Bouslimani] who is also a Muslim, and he had to come off with severe cramp halfway through the second half, and it’s now two weeks since Ramadan finished, so it is tough for them.”

“It’s going to take a bit longer than we thought. Graham Coughlan is working with him, as are Tommy and myself as well. He played well against West Ham United and Derby County in pre-season because they played the ball in to feet along the ground, and he was used to that in France.”

“Now he is up against rough-and-ready players, and he tries to win every ball, stupidly at times. It’ll take a while. The question for me is: Do we take him out, or will he learn from his mistakes? It’s a Catch 22 situation. The goals in the past few weeks have not been totally his fault, but individual errors have cost us dearly recently.”

Johnny Herd, a 20-year-old full-back who has come through the Shrimpers youth department, was also mentioned: “He got his first team chance very young, and played around 30 games in two years. He started the season poorly, but he’s based out. In the last game he was competent, but last night he couldn’t play as he had a sore foot. I’ve got to balance things out and decide if I send him out on loan to get some games.”

With skipper Craig Easton out for a month, Sturrock has drafted in fellow midfielder Michael Timlin on a short-term loan deal: “He has definite attributes, and he has played in successful League Two sides in the past; he has settled in well. Craig was missed on Saturday, his discipline was missed. He does all the jobs that a lot of people don’t see; he’s a real players’ player.”

Like Herd, Matt Paterson is another remnant of 2009/10, and Sturrock assessed his opportunities of forcing his way into the team: “He’s down the pecking order at the moment because he’s not shown enough in the friendlies. In training sometimes you’ll see something that gives you hope and optimism. Scott Spencer and Harry Crawford come into the same category. Do I work on them, or do I look to move them on is my quandary.”

As he mused, the one-time Sheffield Wednesday manager was asked if he was prepared to work with someone who merely showed potential for the future. “If they’ve got potential, I’ll spot it,” he remarked. “I saw Gary Hooper playing at Scunthorpe United and he was excellent. Billy Paynter didn’t do it for you, but I signed him for Swindon and he scored 25 goals last season. People like Hooper come around every now and again; he has quick, he is dangerous, and he has two feet.”

“I like the boy Merrick James-Lewis, we might look to put him out on loan, and Kane Ferdinand is a centre-half who has impressed; he played in midfield last night for the reserves. I’m also told that two of the injured lads, Marcus Milner and Kyle Asante, are exciting.”

“When I was at Dundee United, I had about ten players who have since gone on to make millions in the Premier League. If we have what I call a nugget, I want service from him and I want reward. At this juncture, I’m afraid to say, we have to be like that. Not many professional football clubs run at a profit. The chairman has said to me, though, that is Mohsni is as good as he could be, then he wants service before we sell.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the more experienced Zaaboub, who has struggled so far to hold down a first-team spot. Sturrock takes up the story: “Zaaboub got Player of the Year at Walsall, but then he went on trial at Queens Park Rangers. Walsall got upset and pulled his contract, and he finished up in limbo.”

“He went to France, to north Africa and America and basically spent the season without a club. It’s taken a long time, and after a reserve performance he said to me that he felt he’s be letting us down if he went down with a slight knock. As a result, he’s been playing half-fit, but when he gets up to speed, he’ll be a good player for us.”

After a short interval, the 53-year-old returned to give an assessment of the four trialists on show in the 1-0 reserve team defeat to Stevenage 24 hours earlier. “The right winger [Bouslimani] from north Africa, he had natural talent to run with the ball, but he didn’t have the natural talent to pass it! The other one [Alexandre Tabillon] was talented, but British football didn’t suit him.”

“With John Grant, I find it strange that, when someone is looking for a new club, that they can be so out of condition. He’s been training on his own throughout pre-season and did OK in training, but he’s yards down and it showed in the game. The other boy [Nathaniel Jarvis] is a handful, I liked him. One thing I really liked about him; he’s a dirty b*stard!”

Sturrock was also asked about the goalkeepers at the club, Glenn Morris and Rhys Evans. “When we first went out, it was a difficult position to find someone. You want a decent one, and we decided that they were both pretty similar in terms of ability. We wanted competition, and I think Rhys has put enough pressure on,” he said.

“Glenn hasn’t let us down, but we are in discussions with the goalkeeping coach about changing a few things in his game. It is true that we had a conversation with Darryl Flahavan, but he’s signed for Portsmouth and I think he wanted to be closer to home.”

“There’s a limit of 25 players in the squad, and a wage cap of 60% of annual turnover, but there are ways around it. We’ve got one or two players at the moment that other clubs are interested in, but we have to get the best deal for the football club, maybe involving a transfer at the end of a loan spell.”

During the evening, Sturrock was asked a number of questions about his footballing philosophy and what he works on in training. The first concerned working on players’ weaknesses in training. “We showed Barry Corr some video footage this week after the Morecambe game,” he disclosed.

“He’s a bit like Peter Crouch - he’d rather use his feet than his head, but in this League, you need someone to use their head, and he doesn’t win enough headers. To give you some background, he played at Swindon for 12 games at the end of a season with a stress fracture in his back. I honestly believe he could get 20 goals this season; he will appreciate some of the criticism I’ve given him and take that on board, and he will come good.”

“If you can hold the ball up in League Two and if your two centre-halves can head the ball, you’ll invariably win games. I was surprised to see that we went forward more than half the amount of times again than Morecambe did. So many players are saying to themselves that they’ve got to score goals that we are getting out of shape, and that’s how the third goal came. We should’ve settled down at 2-2 instead of going hell for leather, but it’s a learning curve.”

Asked directly which style of play he likes, Sturrock confirmed: “I prefer to play accurate balls in to the front man, hold the ball up and get it wide where you can get crosses into the box. It’s too easy an option to launch it up to Barry; strangely with Blair [his son] there against Torquay United we didn’t do that.”

“We want diagonal balls around their box, but we don’t preach hitting it long. In the last two weeks, the back four have been too deep, and that drags the midfield back and the forwards then become isolated. I’ve been harsh on the players, but we’re only seven games in.”

Later, the Aberdeenshire-born boss discussed the type of striker he liked. “Mickey Evans,” was the quickfire answer. “He was a real target-man up front; if he didn’t get a clean head on the ball, then he’d put the defender off. The top scorer in that promotion season with Plymouth was Graham Coughlan with 15, Paul Wotton got about 15 and David Friio got 14, Mickey only got 8: it doesn’t have to be the forward scoring. I like the idea of a big one and a wee one, so I was really disappointed we didn’t get George Donnelly, who scored against us for Stockport County. Rory Fallon is a talented player, he’s been to the World Cup and I think he’ll be looking at the Championship or somewhere abroad.”

Sturrock has not been afraid to experiment with formations during his time in charge, and he revealed that he had still to fully settle on what his best system: “We were playing 4-4-2 against Torquay, but then Barry got glandular fever, so we tried 4-3-3. On Saturday we did it, and it seems to be at home we are used to it, away maybe 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 will be better.”

“I’m still trying to find the best players and you have to try the best system. We have wingers: the boy [Ryan] Hall isn’t the quickest but he us a natural talent; the boy [Louie] Soares, I told him earlier in the week that I was disappointed with his goal output; Zaaboub you’ll see and Josh Simpson, we’ve got him ‘til December. I’d like to thing we could attempt something as he’s enjoying it here.”

It was clear that both Sturrock and Widdrington think deeply about the game, and they are willing to embrace concepts such as the importance of video playback and nutritional input. Widdrington, who made over 400 senior appearances in a 15-year career, brought the former aspect into focus when discussing the perceived tiredness of players in the final ten minutes.

“Statistically, in the last two games that we have lost, we have come out going into their box ten times to the opposition’s once. We have managed to build the players up to a base level of fitness, and only now are we getting to the point where we’re more comfortable. We know when the players are working hard and when they’re not,” he said.

“We’ve been in conversation about the players’ diets with Laurence Bloom, who works closely together with the physiotherapist, Ben Clarkson; you will not find two fellas who put more effort in. They are young in their job but very conscientious. We tell players what to eat, we have breakfast and lunch prepared for them at the training ground and food is also provided on away trips. It’s all to make sure they’re fit for 100 minutes of football. Every meal is structured by Laurence, who has to be careful to cater for everyone and he puts a lot of effort into it,” Widdrington later added.

Both individuals have good connections in the game, with Widdrington good friends with former Newcastle United and England forward Alan Shearer. The former Salisbury City manager was asked if Shearer could be tempted down for a training masterclass: “I’m still really good friends with him and our dads are best mates, but I don’t think he’ll be coming down. Commercially, we’ve got lots of connections; hopefully it will open a few doors for others to come in for a few sessions.”

Sturrock, meanwhile, played under Alex Ferguson for Scotland in the 1986 World Cup: “I was asked to room with Charlie Nicholas, to look after him!” he quipped. “He has found the secret that, although the players may not want to play for you, they will play for each other. He’s gone on to have a not bad career! I had two of his players at Swindon, and he phoned me this week to tell me about four players available for loan, but they’re not in positions we need.”

Towards the end of the evening, the pair were asked why they came to Southend United. “This is my kind of job, looking at my career,” Sturrock declared. “I was settled for three years at Plymouth, then I had a numpty of a chairman at Southampton. Sheffield Wednesday started off very well, and the fans were great, I had a great time there for two years. I went to Swindon and then back to Plymouth; that was the stupidest decision I’ve made because the politics were all wrong there second time around.”

“The reason I took this job? I like a challenge. I’m a sucker for wanting to build foundations at a club. Southend were also the first club to ask me, but if someone wants me, then that’s one of the main ingredients. I decided quickly that I still wanted to be a manager, and besides, pottering around the garden, by wife was doing my nut in! Once you’ve been a manager, you get a taste for it, though it’s no substitute for playing.”

“The new stadium was another aspect. At St Johnstone it was really exciting, so it was definitely a factor. If it gets off the ground, and it looks that way, then it will be very exciting.”

“What’s wrong with aiming for promotion this year? We’ve shot ourselves in the foot two or three times this season, and if we’d’ve won those games, we could’ve been top. At Aldershot Town, the time we conceded, and Northampton Town, we chucked it away and that would be another four points, which would put us in the play-off positions. I think we’ve got a chance; clubs in the lower leagues go up and down. It’s exciting and it’s the most honest football you’ll see. There’re so many mistakes, it’s always great to watch.”

“What a fantastic three years you had, promotion, promotion, you got to two LDV Vans Trophy finals, it was a fantastic job. I’m hopeful that, come Christmas, we’ll be going in the right direction and if we are, that will do something about the crowds. I have to warn you that I’ve the worst Cup record as a manager, though!”

“I would be more than happy for the players to get involved in more events like this. I’ve got no problems with that. My personal opinion is that we’ve lost the support of the town, we have to win them back, so the more ventures I can get the players to, that will help us.”

“We were in discussions with Ron Martin for about 20 minutes before taking the job! We arrived on the Sunday evening and it was announced on Monday morning. I was with Kevin Summerfield and John Blackwood as my assistants; John had been with me for 15 years, but he stepped aside and it was time for a change. I was at Swindon when Tommy was at Salisbury and he used to come to training and watch reserve games.”

It was left to Widdrington to have the final say: “I know it was bad here last season, but there was worse financial trouble at Salisbury last season. I gambled at 34 to move out of the Football League to go to a club on the up, and in 4-and-a-half years we won three promotions. We would’ve finished 6th, and we got to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy, but we got demoted.”

“Thankfully someone had been watching! I always liked coaching and I always got involved at the Centre of Excellence wherever I had been, but at Salisbury I ran everything. I got knowledge of how a football club is run from top to bottom, and a lot of people could do worse than that. Sadly, I sold Matt Tubbs for £75,000 to Crawley Town three days before I learned that I was coming here, otherwise I’d’ve tried to get him here.”

The Shrimpers Trust would like to thank all those who attended the session, but particularly Paul and Tommy for giving up their Thursday evening to field questions from supporters.
Video Highlights of the Evening can be found by clicking here.
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