Swansea City and the fans’ long road back to Jack…

Date published: Thursday 25th January 2018 7:53

The Liberty Stadium appears as the train sweeps in from Neath. Guarded by branded restaurants and stranded on an island away from its community, its white fascia and architectural flourishes are far removed from the incongruous sheds of the Vetch Field.

Swansea itself is also a place of contrasts. Turn left out of the station for the modernity. The city centre is lined with the usual high street staples and, on a summer’s day, the spacious urban courtyards are buttered by sunshine. Turn right, though, for a better understanding of where you actually are.

The walk to the stadium is just over a mile, rising up out of the town and plunging down into the valley. The narrow streets are lined with tightly packed concrete housing and, like many parts of
south Wales, it feels like somewhere which has suffered at the hands of industrial decline. This is not Copperopolis anymore and neither is it somewhere you’d expect to find a Premier League football stadium.

But then, for a long time this was part of the Swansea tale. When the club won promotion to the top flight in 2011, the sporting world gathered at its feet to hear its story – of the wolves being beaten back from the door, of the Football League being conquered, and of the vibrant football which had blossomed under the most unlikely circumstances.

The framing was important, too. Swansea have never been an investor’s vanity project and as the team became more visible, the ideals they represented grew more vivid. Supporters from other
parts of the country, their senses deadened by the corporate inertia at their own clubs, saw the ties between the boardroom and community and recognised that – yes – there was actually another way.

In the present day, that’s no longer the case. January 2018 finds the team in desperate trouble at the foot of the Premier League and the squad ill-equipped for the fight ahead. Of more concern,
however, has been the erosion of the club’s identity. Chairman Huw Jenkins, once celebrated locally, is now publicly reviled, his position almost universally described as untenable. The Supporters’ Trust, a tenet of the resurgence and for a long time envied from afar, has become splintered and silent.

And, of course, in July 2016 a controlling interest in the club was sold to an American consortium headed by Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan. Given how much local energy has been used to animate the club’s rise, the resulting acrimony was entirely predictable. More so because the Trust – and by proxy that same public – were partially circumvented during the sale.

Hours before the recent game with Liverpool, which Swansea will somehow win, I meet Mark Beevers, a founding member of the newly-formed Swansea City Supporters’ Alliance (SCSA).

“I’ve been a Swansea fan since the age of three and both my mum and dad were actually stewards at the Vetch Field,” he explains by way of an introduction.

Rage is common among contemporary football supporters, especially those who have been drawn into opposition with their clubs. But Mark isn’t like that. The SCSA’s committee are intent on repairing the frayed tethers.

Understandably, Jenkins is the focus of much of our conversation – and Mark is balanced in his assessment, more circumspect than others.

“I want to praise him in many ways. What he did for the club in the beginning was phenomenal but, whether through greed or an inability to handle the Premier League environment, I think he’s let the fans down.”

The circumstances around the sale are currently being debated in the national and local press, but it seems clear that communication with the fans – either through the Supporters Trust or directly – has been minimal. According to Mark, the justifications for the sale have at best been vague and, at worst, misleading. To this day, nobody is really sure what motivates the owners or what their intentions for the club actually are.

“First of all, we were only told of two investors – Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan – and we were assured that they would take us to the next level financially and commercially. Other than opening a club shop in the city centre, I don’t see much commercial benefit.”

As evidenced by recent spending patterns, there appear to be few financial advantages either – the team has grown weaker, key players have been sold, and relegation is probable rather than just possible.

Now 18 months after the sale, the situation remains troublingly opaque. Levien and Kaplan granted a BBC interview shortly after completing the purchase and then took part in a Supporters’ Trust meeting with selected members several months later, but have chosen not to engage with supporters since.

“It’s been negative after negative since they came in,” says Mark, “and they may be frightened (to meet the fans), but I think they need to. Even the Supporters Trust, who own 21% of this club, have been kept in the dark.”

The fate of that Supporters Trust is perhaps the most regrettable aspect. Phil Sumbler, who chaired the organisation for 11 years (and belonged to it for 20) resigned in November, citing differences with his fellow board members. The effect has been two-fold: many fans no longer understand the Trust’s aims and objectives, or – crucially – feel represented by it. The conduit has been lost.

“Before, I paid my £10 a year for membership and I’d receive two newsletters a month to tell me what was going on. That stopped almost a year ago. I still pay my subscription, but now I don’t know what they’re doing. How are they representing the fans?” asks Mark.

The SCSA’s objective is not to displace the Trust but to help in restoring its function. At this point in Swansea’s history, accountability is critical and Mark evidently understands the need for public consensus.

“We need the support of the fans. Loads of people were complaining that nothing has been done or were demanding that Huw Jenkins has to go, but the first step is to show the club that we are united as a fanbase and that we’re not going to put up with this anymore.”

The principle aim is to work with the Trust in re-establishing lines of communication with the club. Within that broad objective, there are also short-term imperatives: Jenkins must be removed from his position and certain board members, who have now sold their shares in the club, should have their benefits and influence withdrawn.

“There are people down there who still enjoy their three-course meal before games, still get their directors’ seats and their privileges of the boardroom, and yet are nothing to do with the club.”

The SCSA will hold their first public meeting on February 1 and Jenkins has been invited to attend. Mark remains pessimistic about anyone from the club actually appearing but, given the local mood, a show of public conciliation would seem eminently wise.

When Swansea arrived in the Premier League, they came equipped with not just a pretty style of play, but also a restless spirit. Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool were all beaten at the Liberty Stadium during that first season and the supporters, players and management were all bound by that underdog mentality; they enjoyed derailing high-powered teams.

By contrast, it’s the defeatism which is striking today. There were no pitchforks outside the Liberty Stadium before the Liverpool game, but there was plenty of negativity.

Happily, on this occasion it’s misplaced. Alfie Mawson will steer home the only goal late in the second half and, improbably, Swansea will hold on. It’s a welcome win, but it’s not one which solves anything long term – or which disguises that they are a clumsily assembled football team who, on this occasion, have just been able to ride their luck.

I meet Steven Carroll underneath the shadow of the ground before the game. The editor of the Swansea Oh Swansea fanzine and another member of the newly formed SCSA, he too was there in darker times.

“I was four years old when my father took me in 1991 to see us play Bradford at home. It was Kids For A Quid, so it was the perfect chance to bring me down.”

Now in his 21st year as a season-ticket holder, Steven traces the club’s decline back beyond the takeover.

“When Garry Monk was sacked it was the right decision, but the way it was dealt with was really bad. Nobody wanted it to happen, but it had to happen – and it was best to get on with it. Instead, they left him hanging on for days. It wasn’t right, the man was a club legend. Since then, it’s got a lot worse with other issues off the pitch.”

It’s an important distinction to make. All supporters are wired to resist change and any new owner can expect to face distrust. That’s especially true in the current climate. In this instance though, the takeover occurred at a time when some supporters felt that executive standards were already deteriorating, multiplying the antipathy and deepening the sense of ideological loss.

“I was nervous when the new owners came in, because I didn’t know what to expect. Then it came out that the Supporters’ Trust had been excluded from some of the negotiations and that obviously leaves a sour taste.”

Asked what he knows about the new owners, he too has little to offer.

“They’ve been asked numerous times to put their business plan on the table and they’ve refused. I was at a Supporters Trust fans’ forum with them in April 2017 and I remember asking about the stadium expansion and where the money would come from to fund it – my point, really, was that any expansion would limit spending on the squad.”

“They didn’t answer the question, they just talked about the benefits of expansion. Somebody else in the audience actually asked them to give a proper answer, but they wouldn’t.”

Steven is more sympathetic towards the Trust. Whereas others in the community are quite venomous in their criticism, he sees them more as a victim – an organisation which has often been cut out of the information cycle and is no longer equipped to perform its function.

“They’ve suffered a little bit and were kept in the dark during the negotiations. Some people have accused them of not doing things correctly, but I think it’s been very difficult for them. The comments made recently (in response to a Guardian interview with Huw Jenkins) have been a step in the right direction.

“The statement they put out expressing their desire to see the chairman leave his post was far more in line with what a lot of the supporters want.”

Asked whether he believes a reconciliation is possible between Jenkins and the fanbase, he – like Mark before – shakes his head.

“Unfortunately, certain decisions have been made and sometimes you can’t forgive everything.”

Some of those decisions can be written about, some remain under dispute and cannot. From a pure performance perspective, both Mark and Steven refer to the chairman’s growing sporting role and to the decline in recruiting standards.

“The Supporters Trust actually described him as Director Of Football,” adds Steven. “His office – I believe – is at the training ground and not here. He seems to be making a lot of the decisions on the footballing side and many of the transfers have been very poor. Someone needs to take accountability for it.”

Regrettably, there is nothing new about any of this. At the time of writing, supporters from many different parts of the UK remain reluctantly at war with their clubs. Coventry City are still having the air squeezed from their lungs by SISU, Owen Oyston’s grandson is soon to be appointed the chief executive of Blackpool, and Roland Duchâtelet continues to own Charlton Athletic. Most Swansea City supporters would concede that their situation could be much worse.

But for this to happen here and to this club is particularly galling. All of Swansea’s points of difference have been pushed into the middle of the table and staked on a future which nobody has yet been willing to define. Consequently, an identity which was so long in the making and owes so much to so many is for now, sadly, just flapping in the wind.

Seb Stafford-Bloor – follow him on Twitter


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