Back from the brink: Swindon Town fans savour the moment as new chapter begins
After a turbulent summer, Swindon Town started their season with a victory few would've predicted just weeks ago
Amidst the wild celebrations that followed Harry McKirdy's late, victory-clinching goal last Saturday afternoon, any Swindon Town fans found pinching themselves could have been forgiven.
The 3-1 win away at Scunthorpe not only saw Swindon start a new season on a positive note, it signalled the end of what has been a torrid chapter - one in which the club's very existence had been threatened.
Incredibly, barely three weeks before a ball had been kicked at Glanford Park, a Swindon team featuring just five first-team players had turned up for a preseason friendly against Hungerford Town of the National League South. There was no manager in charge; no assistant to step in and fill the void until one was appointed. The players that remained from the side that had been relegated from League One at the end of the previous season were still waiting to receive their full wage packets from the previous month. Swindon lost the game 3-2.
Days later, and another friendly, this time against Swansea City, was cancelled after both teams agreed it would be of little benefit to either party if the game went ahead.
Clearly, preparations for a new season for Swindon were not going smoothly. Some - with good reason - were beginning to question if the club would even have enough players to be able to field a team in the months ahead, let alone cling onto their Football League status.
"There have been times this summer where I just didn't see a way out for us," says Alex Pollock of the Swindon Town Supporters' Trust. "As someone who'd grown up supporting Swindon, you expect it to be a bit of a rollercoaster. This has been a different level though.
"I tried hard to remain positive throughout the last few months, but there were times where I feared the worst. I think we all did."
Swindon's return to League Two had been abrupt. Having won the division in 2020, a wretched campaign saw them relegated a mere ten months later. By the time their drop back to the fourth tier was confirmed in April after an appropriately dismal thumping at the hands of MK Dons, their fans had long since accepted their fate.
Relegation, though, told only half the story. By the time it arrived, Swindon were already firmly in the grips of that now-depressingly familiar cycle of High Court dates and troubling headlines about financial uncertainty which has blighted numerous lower league English clubs in recent years.
It started - at least on the surface - in February, when owner Lee Power told BBC Radio Wiltshire the club was teetering "on the brink" of bankruptcy, an admission which sparked huge outcry amongst the club's supporters. From there, things quickly turned ugly. Swindon Town Supporters' Trust sought answers from Power but none arrived. The Trust also wrote to other parties with long-standing interest in the club. Australian businessman and minority shareholder Clem Morfuni was the only one to reply, using his response to outline an in-depth plan of his vision for the club - should he become owner. Having backed Morfuni's proposal, the Trust were excommunicated by the club.
"It was such a bleak time," Pollock remembers. "We didn't actually know how the club was being funded." he says. "As the Trust, we were willing to work with whoever owned the football club on the condition they were open and in communication with us. That will always be the way. We were met with radio silence."
In April, days before their team's mauling in Milton Keynes, several supporters - Pollock included - listened in as a High Court judge described the club as "hopelessly insolvent", likening it to a speeding car on a collision course with a wall. Power, had hoped that same judge would overturn an injunction which banned him from selling the club without the permission of football agent Michael Standing, who previously stated he acquired 50 per cent of Swindon's holding company. He had also wanted to reverse a separate order, preventing him from putting the club into administration.
Power had hoped to conclude a sale to American company, AC Sports Wiltshire LLC, more commonly known as Able. Legal representatives for Standing and Morfuni had sought to prevent Power from lifting the injunctions.
By this stage, Morfuni had expressed his interest in buying the club through his company, Axis Football Investments Ltd, but had received no correspondence after requesting details of the offer Power had received from Able.
The High Court legal battle rumbled on beyond the end of the season. As it did, the extent of Swindon's plight became more apparent. At the core of their financial troubles sat several legal cases, including one from the local council, the owners of the County Ground. They had had not received rent from the club since April 2020 and were looking to recover a six-figure sum as a result.
In June, as things became increasingly desperate, the Trust called on Swindon fans to take drastic action. Launching the NoMoneyNoPower campaign, supporters were urged to boycott all income generating activities for the club while Power remained its owner. The hope, a statement explained, was that starving the club's owners of this revenue would force Power's hand and accelerate any potential sale.
Less than a month before the start of the season - just days after the friendly defeat at Hungerford - came the important breakthrough: the High Court ruled that Morfuni had the option to buy out Power's stake in the club. A statement from the EFL soon confirmed Morfuni had become Swindon's majority shareholder and that the league body would continue to investigate the matter of the club's previous ownership.
Finally, a chaotic five months on from his infamous radio interview, the Power era was over.
Morfuni was in the away end at Scunthorpe last weekend. After full-time several videos surfaced showing him being mobbed by appreciative fans in the aftermath of Swindon's goals. Though he has inherited a crumbling shell of a football club, the fact he has assembled a team capable of winning the opening game of the season is miraculous, given how little time he has had to do so.
— Joe (@joeyyv__) August 7, 2021
Ben Garner was appointed as manager almost instantly, swiftly followed by a raft of signings to replenish the first team's depleted ranks. Beyond the squad, Rob Angus, former vice-chair of the Trust, was also announced as the club's new Chief Executive, a popular move which re-establishes the close connection between the club and its fanbase.
"It's amazing to think how far we've come in such a short space of time," Pollock says. "From what we had with the previous regime, it's a complete contrast. Power wouldn't speak to us, whereas this week we've had Clem turn up on the pitches next to the football ground and have a kick-about with us!
"He turned up to shake the hands of fans who were buying season tickets to show his gratitude, too.
"It means a lot that there’s so much transparency at the moment. And yes, there’s some things that come out that aren’t the things we want to hear, but it’s honest and we can see the workings out and what’s being done to rectify the situation. We appreciate that."
Though it's impossible to quantify precisely how much of an impact they had, it's undeniable that the Supporters Trust played a role in Swindon ousting Power. In a year in which football supporters have realised the power they hold when they join forces, it is another timely reminder of the importance of fan groups.
"We’ve been seeing this growing trend of supporters being referred to as 'legacy fans' and customers. I think there’s an understanding now that the fans are the only constant. Managers, players, owners - they all come and go. Everything else at a club changes, but we're the most important part.
"The key message from this for others to take is to remember the power we have. Join your supporters' trust. Galvanise. It’s not about different groups going off in different tangents to try their own route. If it's change you want, there’s genuine power in fans uniting."
In the wave of fresh optimism that Morfuni's arrival has brought, preparations are being made for their first home game of the new season. Last week, over 100 volunteers turned up to help dust off seats and clean the County Ground for the game with Carlisle.
"What this has done for our fanbase, our town and community, words can't do justice," Pollock adds.
"As soon as kick-off comes, I’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief that we’re in League Two with 11 players, a manager that cares, a chairman in the stands and as many supporters as possible getting behind the team. After everything, it will be emotional, for all of us.
"We're realistic, we know this won't be an easy season. We all know how tall this hill is, but we’re helping each other get to the top of it. We’ll get there, too."