Book Review: From Graveyard to Ambition: The Official History of the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust
From Graveyard to Ambition by Phil Sumbler
Published by Amberley Publishing
Perhaps the most successful manifestation of supporter involvement in football ownership is the story of Swansea City who, despite some icky form of late, have enjoyed a quite ludicrous rise to prominence over the last decade while being held up as a poster child for all that is good in soccer governance. Here, Alex Quayle, an exiled Manchester City and part-time Swansea City fan runs the rule of Phil Sumbler’s account of the whole process. Alex lives in Reading, where he mentions the 2011 Championship Playoff final often and loudly while he can be followed on twitter at @MisterQuayle.
This eloquent and engaging book does justice to the improbability of Swansea City’s rise through the divisions, and the role the Supporters’ Trust played in saving the club and laying a sustainable foundation. It speaks to the worries of so many football fans about unscrupulous or even simply uncommunicative owners, and proves that fan power matters, especially to a club on its knees. However, the book suffers from a lack of insight into anything other than the balance sheet, and leaves the impression of having barely peeked into the inner workings of the best known supporters trust in Britain.
A football team in South Wales are at odds with an owner ignoring tradition and identity to introduce a red home shirt. However, the year is 2000 and it is Swansea City fans, not Cardiff City yet, who protest as the attempt to change Swansea’s traditional black trim to red. History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce (to quote Joey Barton, I think). Silver Shield, who bought the club for only £100 in 1997, set this precedent so nobly espoused by Vincent Tan. Yet this is only one example of the mismanagement of a succession of owners that led to the anger in which the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust was forged.
The story of Swansea City Football Club’s rise is now well-trodden; the genesis of the trust is less-so. It grew from the internet, where communication and mobilization of fans was facilitated by unofficial club forums (and worrying information about new owners easily available). The book describes the parade of pantomime villains that the club was tossed between for loose change, the inevitable ensuing uncertainty around the club, followed by the fervent efforts of the fans to gain a stake, or more importantly a vote, in their club. Such is the struggle related in the book and the honesty of narrative voice that when the Trust finally do gain control, as part of a local business consortium, you share the relief.
The author, Phil Sumbler, is an engaging and authentic writer. He is egalitarian in his attention to the multitude of people who made the Trust in its early days, and it is very soon clear that his knowledge of each individual’s role is extensive. The reader is always comfortable with his narrator and has total trust in his knowledge and balance, biased only by the absolute knowledge that the Swansea model is a bright light in the graceless Barclay’s Premier League cash-fizz.
It is hard not to be intimidated by the depth of the financial problems Swansea faced at the time, and the discussion of early fire-fighting is rewardingly intricate – especially when presented with the reality of how close Swansea came to oblivion (forget relegation to non-league football, Swansea City faced non-existence). It is a similar spiral to that of Portsmouth FC following the escape from sheik-infested waters, and they too have emerged with a strong supporters’ trust, with perhaps even greater potential.
With this in mind, you might expect to share in the fruits of the Trust’s knowledge. How do you do it? What should fans across the country know? Did you ever make any mistakes? Unfortunately, the book is too partial to be viewed as a textbook or ‘traveller’s guide’ to owning part of your football club. It is too ‘official’ an official history. Success, dedication and intelligence are rightly lauded in detail, yet inevitable early mistakes, such as the spat with Bryan Flynn, are reported blandly and briefly, and quickly dismissed.
The book is clear about how ‘lifting the lid’ isn’t the Swansea style, and my criticism is not that the book lacks “juicy revelations”. It is simply the absence of self-assessment to the same degree as the Trust are critical of other parties. The narrative lacks a level of introspection or opinion beyond ‘Trust good, Tony Petty bad’. It reports but does not evaluate, which may be expected of an official history, but as a reader with an interest in the model of the club and the potential of it to spread I found that there was a disappointing lack of analysis regarding the missteps that a supporters’ organisation could make. There is no deception, but the earnest, even pleading, tone (in case people didn’t know, the Trust arranged for the anti-slip paint at The Liberty — You’re welcome everyone!) that begs the reader for approval is incompatible with the reader’s desire for depth.
Yet, the neediness of the Supporter’s Trust is justly founded. Though it sounds strange today, there was initial reluctance to embrace the Trust from some fans, and nobody knew if fans would actually be interested in buying part of the club. Even today, the Trust only owns 21% of Swansea City FC, which is often overlooked in accounts of the rise up the divisions. They face an uphill struggle to simply maintain their level of investment when new shares are released.
The Supporters’ Trust retain the need to present a united front. The book is never a victory parade, but a manifesto resetting out the importance of continuing the work of the Trust, and Sumbler is always upfront that the club is not safe forever. The minor claims of anti-slip paint are important in this context, if not electrifying. This is not a fable; Swansea are a business, one with which the Trust has proven they are wholly compatible.
Ultimately, I found it very difficult to be critical of the party-line that the book treads, though it can be occasionally uninspiring to read. The problem it presents is that the book is too heavily directed at Swansea fans and not sufficiently at football fans. I doubt very much that the Trust would recognise this as a legitimate criticism, as this is the very revenue stream that means Swansea City exist to this day.