A Different Way
After the success of his first post, we’ve welcomed back Scarf with open arms. Here, he considers Swansea City and the factors that have led to them holding such an enviable position today.
On Monday 21 April 2003, Swansea City hosted Exeter at the Vetch Field. Sitting 90th of the 92 teams in the Football League, they lost 1-0 to the team directly below, putting them in grave danger of relegation. Both clubs were in a horrible mess; deeply in debt, neither owned their grounds and both were experiencing serious off-the-field disruption. Neglect, mismanagement and a lack of a sustained income stream meant that the future of professional football was at risk in both cities. Of the two, it was Swansea who survived after winning their final two matches, but, playing in a dilapidated stadium before dwindling crowds, the Swan’s immediate prospects did not look good.
Today the situation is somewhat different. Since relegation to the Conference, Exeter have been reinvigorated under the ownership of their Supporters’ Trust, and are currently competing in League One. Swansea, meanwhile, have acquired a reputation as the ‘Arsenal of the Championship’ due to their slick, flowing style of football, regularly attract crowds of 15,000 or more at their new Liberty Stadium home and are owned by a consortium of local investors, including the Supporters’ Trust, who possess nearly 20% of the club and occupy a seat on the board. Whilst their despised rivals Cardiff teeter on the brink of administration, Swansea fans can look to the future with genuine excitement.
The era since the establishment of the Premier League in 1992 has been one of inequality, with ever-increasing sums of money exchanging hands at the top of the game, and plenty facing extinction at the opposite end. David Conn reports that there have been 53 cases of administration amongst the member clubs of England’s professional leagues since the Premiership came into being. Even allowing for the fact that some have entered more than once and others are no longer part of the Football League, it still means that over half of the current 92 have gone bankrupt at some point. It is not necessary at this juncture to depress everyone by pointing out what this says about the state of our national game. Instead, it’s refreshing to see how some clubs have managed to reverse the trend.
The comparison between Swansea and Arsenal is a good one, and works off the pitch as well as on it. Like Arsenal, Swansea employ a prudent wage structure and have built their team around young, hungry players with a desire to succeed. This has allowed them to achieve and sustain success whilst remaining debt free. Players like Joe Allen have, in recent seasons, become mainstays after coming through the youth ranks, whilst the signings of players from lower leagues such as Ashley Williams and Mark Gower have also reaped rewards. Finally, a continental flavour has been added by players such as Jordi Lopez, Ferrie Bodde and Andrea Orlandi, all brought in either on frees or for relatively modest amounts, which has helped Swansea put together a stylish yet affordable Championship outfit.
Swansea’s rise over the course of the decade from basement deadwood to an established Championship outfit has not come about through good fortune or the investment of a sugar daddy, as has happened at Hull and Wigan. Instead, it has come as a result of careful planning, foresight and the formation of mutually beneficial partnerships with other parties. Faced with the prospect of their club folding in 2001 after owners Ninth Floor had removed the chairman and announced they were no longer interested in continuing as owners, the Swans Trust was formed with the intention of saving the club, becoming part-owners and investing in a way that would benefit the supporters. The Trust continued to grow through the disastrous ownerships of Mike Lewis and then Tony Petty, neither of whom were able to repay the £801,000 owed to Ninth Floor as a condition of their sale of the club to Lewis for £1. Having attracted interest from numerous local businesses during initial, unsuccessful, attempts to buy out Petty , the Trust set themselves the task of co-ordinating these groups in order to form a consortium that would, together, have more power, financial muscle and influence amongst the fanbase than any one group individually. In exchange for this, the Trust would gain the opportunity to invest £50,000 in the club, with the option to invest another £50,000 and gain another seat on the Board at a later date. After protracted negotiations and a court case, the Trust-backed consortium, fronted by Mel Nurse, took over Swansea City FC in early 2002. Since then the club has continued to be owned by this combination of local businessmen and the Supporters’ Trust, all of whom care about the club and the city itself.
The role of football club as cornerstone of the community is often forgotten, but it is nice to note that, in Swansea at least, the link is still intact. Whilst the Swans have worked actively in the local area with schemes such as their ambitious ‘Swans4Schools’ programme, they have in turn been generously backed by Swansea City Council, who were the club’s shirt sponsors from 2007-9. Even more significantly, the Council were proactive in finding a solution when it became clear that neither the Swans nor the Ospreys, the city’s rugby union club, were able to finance the redevelopment of their crumbling stadia, acting in partnership with a property developer to build the impressive 20,000-seater Liberty Stadium between 2003-5. The move has improved Swansea City’s image considerably, increasing their attraction to potential players, managers, sponsors and new fans, as well as aiding greatly the club’s revenue streams since the matchday hospitality facilities available at the Liberty far outmatch those at the old Vetch. Operated by a management committee comprised equally of Swansea City directors, Ospreys directors and council officials, the stadium is run for the mutual benefit of all parties, making it one of the few instances in English sport where football and rugby union seem to sit alongside one another harmoniously.
Swansea City is not a perfect football club, but in a season that has been dominated by impending doom at second tier rivals Cardiff and Crystal Palace, as well as former Championship clubs Portsmouth and Southend, it is important to note that there are football clubs who are holding their own financially. Whilst the majority will no doubt continue to put their long-term existence at stake in a scramble to clamber aboard the Premiership gravy train, it is worth, as fans, reminding ourselves what good, prudent management, with the right support from the local authority, can achieve. If, like me, you believe football is about supporting your local team, and that team is a vehicle for togetherness in your local community, then you will wish Swansea well.