In the shadow of the Super League, Swindon Town fans demand answers
"If you keep ignoring us, you’re doing our hard work for us. Our voice will only get louder."
News of Swindon Town's relegation barely cast a ripple on Saturday afternoon, lost amidst the ongoing fallout from the Super League fiasco.
A 5-0 hammering away to MK Dons, their 28th defeat of a wretched league campaign, confirmed what many supporters had accepted weeks ago: The Robins would be making an abrupt return to League Two, a mere ten months on from celebrating their promotion as champions of the same division.
The fourth tier of English football may not represent the base of that same football pyramid Joel Glazer suddenly - and briefly - felt qualified enough to talk about last week, but it's far enough from the capstone for those clubs that call it home to know invites to lucrative continental breakaway leagues will likely never come their way.
And yet, while the meek surrender of their League One status seemed to take place somewhere far, far away from the Super League, the backdrop to Swindon's miserable season also offered another stark reminder of just how little consideration is paid to a club's supporters in the modern game.
At a glance, Swindon's sorry tale is depressingly familiar: another lower league English football club, caught up in a cycle of troubling headlines about financial uncertainty, potential administration and dates in court - all while a dedicated band of fans do all within their limited powers to steer them away from harm.
Days before a ball had been kicked in Milton Keynes, some Swindon supporters listened in as a High Court judge described their club as "hopelessly insolvent", likening them to a speeding car on a collision course with a wall.
Swindon's owner and chairman, Lee Power, had hoped the judge would overturn an injunction banning 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. Power had also wanted to reverse a separate order, preventing him from putting the club into administration.
Power had admitted in a radio interview in February that the club was teetering "on the brink" of bankruptcy, prompting widespread outcry from across the fanbase. He hopes to sell the club to American company, AC Sports Wiltshire LLC, more commonly known as Able.
The good town folk of Swindon are speaking... #FanPowerNotLeePower #STFC 🔴
Please send us all of your creative artwork Town fans (keep it to bedsheets please, no damage of property)! 👊 https://t.co/fNwJWTrsub
— Trust STFC (@TrustSTFC) April 25, 2021
Legal representatives for Standing and Clem Morfuni, a 15 per cent shareholder in the club, had sought to prevent Power from lifting the injunctions. Morfuni, an Australian businessman, is also interested in buying Swindon through his company, Axis Football Investments Ltd, but has received no correspondence after requesting details of the offer Power has had from Able.
"There's a lot to take in," admits Alex Pollock, board member of Swindon Town's Supporters' Trust, as he reflects on the turbulence of the last few weeks. "It's quite difficult to know how far back we go with it all."
Pollock is one of those to have followed court proceedings from the start.
"The last time that we as fans heard publicly from Lee Power was the fans' phone-in on BBC Wiltshire back in February. From our perspective, that was the first time we'd really heard of the perilous financial situation."
The Supporters' Trust, Pollock explains, have repeatedly - and unsuccessfully - attempted to engage with the club since Power's comments.
"We don’t actually know how the club is being funded," he says. "We've always called for openness and transparency. We asked if we were able to see management accounts to get a grasp of the finances. So far none of that information has been forthcoming.
"The club don't produce full accounts. We don't have any understanding of the incomings and outgoings.
"As the Trust, we’re willing to work with whoever owns the football club as long as they are open with us and in communication with us. Recently, though, it's been radio silence."
In contrast, the trust have been in open dialogue with Morfuni, who has been willing to provide details of his intentions for Swindon should he become owner. Morfuni also asked the trust to submit a witness statement in support of his attempts to purchase the club prior to the recent court hearing.
"As soon as the court case finished, we had an email from the CEO of the football club effectively saying we’ve now been excommunicated. The club don’t want anything to do with us. They feel we are no longer an entity that sits on the fence."
With Swindon's future shrouded in uncertainty, supporters are yet to be refunded for season tickets they bought ahead of the current campaign. Power said in his infamous radio interview that the impact of the pandemic explained some of the financial strain placed on the club, though not everyone agrees.
"I accept Covid has had a huge impact on football clubs, but it’s not affected Swindon any more or less than anyone else," says Terry Pierce, also from the club's supporters' trust. "We’re not a special case for the impact of the pandemic has had."
There is a frustration, Pierce says, that the club appear to be haemorrhaging money, in spite of crowds being unable to attend games.
"You think about all the other revenue streams that were available to us. You add in the fact that we made player sales and had sell-on clauses coming in January. We know that we were on the hook for a decent chunk there. For me, Covid feels like a smokescreen, but ultimately, we shouldn’t be guessing.
"If we had transparency about how much it cost to run the club each month, then okay, that’s business and every business is struggling at the moment. We'd understand. The more secretive you are, the more crazy the conspiracy theories get."
The judge upheld the existing orders on Power, preventing him from selling the club or placing it into administration. He was also given until April 30 to provide relevant documentation to help Axis finalise its offer to buy the club. A further court hearing is expected to take place next month.
"What we're really hoping for now is for Lee Power to follow these court orders," Pollock adds. "We just want him to do the right thing and look at the long-term interests of the football club, not his own personal gain."
The threat of administration - at least for now - appears to have subsided. There is cautious optimism amongst supporters that Swindon will not suffer a similar fate to others and can begin again with a new owner. Their story, though, is a timely reminder in a week when the anger of many a football fan was directed elsewhere, that problems with ownership go much deeper than the greed of those pushing for a money-spinning Super League.
"The situation with the Super League is very different to some of the issues we have in the lower leagues," says Pierce. "Ultimately, however, the motivation is the same: individuals with no cultural or emotional connection to the institution, using it to their own benefit.
"We don’t know if any of that is true at our club, but ultimately, they are the parallels. There's no consideration for the wider picture; no consideration for the supporters.
"Football clubs are one of the most unique businesses in the world. You can treat your customers with absolute disdain. You can increase the price every year, invest nothing in the business and you’ll still have a loyal customer base."
Swindon's Supporters' Trust has seen its number of paying members treble in the last week. While there is an acceptance that fan power cannot always win the day, recent events have only highlighted the need to take a stand.
"We saw last week how people at the absolute top of this game ignore fans at their peril," Pierce adds. "In the same 24-hour period in a court case, representatives for the current ownership of Swindon Town referred to our own Supporters' Trust as something that can be dismissed out of hand as a small bunch of people who have no real interest or authority.
"While I accept we have no authority, we do represent the interests of this institution. Ignore us at your peril. If you keep ignoring us, you’re doing our hard work for us.
"Our voice will only get louder."