In towns like Scunthorpe the local football club is a source of considerable local pride, but Scunthorpe United are suffering at the moment.
The North Lincolnshire town of Scunthorpe doesn’t just have a relationship with iron and steel through the local football club’s nickname and badge. This is an area that has been associated with steel for more than a century and a half. At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, more than 20,000 people were employed at the three works in town, with many more working elsewhere in the supply chain.
Indeed, Scunthorpe probably wouldn’t exist in anything like its current form were it not for steel. Iron ore first started getting mined in the area in 1859. According to the 1851 census, the population of the town was 1,245. By 1901 this had grown to 11,167, and by 1941 to 45,840. Those other two hallmarks of a town swollen by the industrial revolution, the railway and a football club, Scunthorpe & Lindsey United, arrived in 1864 and 1899 respectively.
Elected into the Football League in 1950, Scunthorpe & Lindsey United shortened their name eight years later after winning the Third Division North championship. They held their own in the Second and Third Divisions for a decade, before relegation into the Fourth in 1969. But following this they spent just two seasons of the next 32 playing above that level, mirroring the town’s troubles throughout this time. In 1967 ore production at Scunthorpe had been 4.7 million tons per year, but the steel crisis led to British Steel axing thousands of jobs, and production was similarly affected.
But the club did blaze one trail that proved to be very popular with other clubs. When new safety regulations were introduced after the Bradford fire in 1985, it quickly became apparent to the club that renovating The Old Show Ground, which had been their home since 1899, was not going to be practical, so the site was sold to the Safeway supermarket chain for £2.3m and a new ground was built on the easternmost edge of the town. Glanford Park opened for business with a pre-season friendly against a Football League XI managed by local boy made good Kevin Keegan in August 1988. It was the first time since Southend United moved into Roots Hall in 1955 that a Football League club had moved into a new ground.
— Aidan McCartney (@aidanmccartney) April 30, 2014
A quarter of a century later, Peter Swann arrived. Swann wasn’t wet behind the ears when it came to running a football club. Over the previous five years, it is said that he’d put £1.5m into National League North club Gainsborough Trinity, but this had been to little effect. They’d managed one play-off final appearance over that time, much of which had been spent in the lower reaches of the division.
The years immediately prior to Swann’s arrival had been a mixed bunch for Scunthorpe, too. Two promotions in three seasons took them into the Championship in 2007; they were relegated at the first attempt, then promoted straight back through the play-offs, this time staying up for two seasons, even finishing above Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday at one point.
But by the time Swann arrived, the club were starting to slide. They’d struggled upon returning to League One 2011, and finished 18th in the first season back, while the following season they’d been relegated again. Swann’s arrival saw them return to the third tier and the improvement continued. In 2016 they only missed out on a play-off place for a return to the Championship on goal difference to Barnsley. In 2017 they finished third, four points shy of an automatic promotion place, and were beaten in the play-off semi-finals by Millwall. The following season they finished fifth, but were beaten in the play-off semi-finals again, this time by Rotherham United.
Despite the fact that Scunthorpe had only been at Glanford Park for 25 years the ground was already starting to show its age somewhat, and Swann intended to build the club a new £12m home. The project was planned to begin during the 2015/2016 season, but following issues regarding procurement of the land and with one of the developers, the construction start date was pushed back to the second half of 2017. But when that time came around, the club announced that these plans had been dropped and they would instead look to redevelop and extend Glanford Park.
In July 2019, planning permission was granted for the stadium redevelopment to begin, and in February 2020 agreement was reached over a separate application to build 160 apartments on the site. It took just six months, with the pandemic by this time in full flow and the financial prospects of all EFL clubs looking more precarious than ever, for these plans to also be put on hold.
On the pitch, the four years since have been a slow motion car crash. On the March 24, 2018, manager Graham Alexander left after two years; his team had gone eight games without a win, though he left with Scunthorpe fifth in League One. Nick Daws was appointed as his replacement, initially on a temporary basis which was made permanent at the end of the season, even after they lost in the play-offs. But he was sacked four games into the following campaign. Stuart McCall replaced him; he was sacked seven months later in March 2019. With Andy Dawson in temporary charge, Scunthorpe were relegated into League Two at the end of the season.
Paul Hurst had taken the job that May but left in January 2020 after falling out with Swann. Russ Wilcox took over until the end of the season and Scunthorpe finished 2019/20 in 20th place in League Two. Last season, the club finished 22nd under Neil Cox, having lost six of their last seven matches. Cox lasted until November 2021, whereupon he was replaced by Keith Hill, their 11th manager in the nine years since Swann took control. They’re now bottom, four points behind Oldham Athletic and six points from third-bottom Carlisle United.
The company accounts show an equally grim picture of the club’s health. Scunthorpe lost almost £1m in the year to July 2020 (PDF) and £3.6m in each of the two years before that. The club’s total debt by this point was £11.5m, but in April 2021 it was revealed that Glanford Park and other assets had been transferred into the name of Coolslik, a company owned by Swann, with £11m owed to the company being written off in the process. Swann, his son Chris and wife Karin all sit on the board of the club. Another of his sons is the club’s chief scout.
Crowds have collapsed this season at Glanford Park. It’s estimated that around 500 supporters are boycotting the club. On the opening day of the season, their home match against Swindon was attended by 3,602 people. Their last home match against Walsall was watched by just 2,123. They won that match by a goal to nil, but the three points they collected on February 8 were the first they’d earned in 2022, and at the eighth attempt.
The ship is sinking and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do. The Walsall match came three days after a home relegation six-pointer against Oldham Athletic. Oldham have long-standing issues of their own, and the two teams went into the match locked together at the bottom on 19 points each, both eight adrift of Carlisle United and Colchester United just above them. A win would have closed the gap, but more than 5,000 turned out to see a hooked shot from Junior Luamba with seven minutes to play win it for Oldham, cutting Scunthorpe adrift.
🗣️ "What a goal that could be in the context of the season"
Oldham fans crank this one up to 🔟 as Junior Luamba scored late on at Scunthorpe!
Latics now five points from safety.
— BBC Sport Manchester (@BBCRMsport) February 5, 2022
When the steel industry went into decline in the 1970s, there was no evident plan for Scunthorpe, just the same as for everywhere else that was stripped bare as Britain deindustrialised. The latest incarnation of British Steel still employs about 3,200 people at a steelworks which has been under Chinese ownership since it was nearly liquidated in 2019, but even that close shave cost 400 jobs. It was the latest in a long line of blows to a town that is within its rights to feel as though it has been left behind. There was a time when more than 25,000 people were employed by the steelworks. Little thought ever seems to have been put into what might come next.
And in such an environment, football clubs matter. Today, Scunthorpe is a town of 83,000 people, and not many of that size are so well nationally recognised for its football teams. EFL status confers status upon clubs, and by extension on towns themselves. They are a source of enormous local pride and this is part of the reason why they cannot and should not be treated like ‘just another business’ by those who run them. The emotional attachment that those several thousand people have with that club matters and cannot merely be dismissed as an irrelevance.
It is clear that Scunthorpe United overspent for several years, but there is a fundamental perversity in the fact that the person who poured the money in to be overspent, who was legally responsible for the running of that business, can convert the money that he decided to gamble into ownership of its stadium. But the story of Scunthorpe United is about more than names on legal documents or the niceties of business law. It’s about local pride, the things we’ve lost and communities and people who’ve been repeatedly let down. After everything that happened to the steel industry in the town, supporters of its football club are right to be angry at what’s been allowed to happen to that, too.