Swindon Town: From the brink to Man City in the Cup - How Clem Morfuni saved the Robins

Swindon Town: From the brink to Man City in the Cup - How Clem Morfuni saved the Robins

4 months ago

"The fans are very powerful at this club and in the game itself and that needs to be remembered. In 20 year’s time, I might not be here, but they will be."

Those who have kept pace with events at Swindon Town over the last year might have appreciated the irony in them being paired with Manchester City in the FA Cup third round draw. There have been times throughout the last 12 months when the contrast between the two clubs could not have been more sharply defined.

As City were surging to Premier League glory and reaching a first ever Champions League final last April, Swindon were meekly surrendering their League One status with relegation at Milton Keynes. In July, at about the time City were finalising a record-shattering £100m bid for Jack Grealish, a manager-less Swindon team featuring just five first team players - all awaiting their wage packets from the previous month - lost a pre-season friendly to Hungerford Town of the National League South.

With good reason, some questioned at that time whether the Robins would be able to field a team for the season ahead, let alone cling to their place in the Football League.

Relegation from League One had been set against a bitter standoff between supporters and then-owner, Lee Power. It began in February, when Power told BBC Radio Wiltshire the club was teetering "on the brink" of bankruptcy, an admission which sparked a huge outcry amongst the club's supporters.

Swindon Town face Wigan Athletic at County Ground on February 2, 2021. (Credit: Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

From there, the situation swiftly nosedived. Understandably, Swindon Town Supporters' Trust quickly demanded answers from Power. When none arrived, they wrote to other parties with long-standing interest in the club. Australian businessman and minority shareholder Clem Morfuni was the only one to reply, outlining an in-depth plan of his vision for the club should he become owner in his response. The Trust backed Morfuni's proposal, and were subsequently excommunicated by the club.

Thankfully for Swindon's weary fanbase, that pre-season defeat to Hungerford saw a particularly turbulent chapter reach its nadir. Days later a High Court judge ruled that Morfuni had the option to buy out Power's stake in the club. A chaotic five months on from his infamous radio interview, the Power era was over.

Morfuni breaks into a smile when he remembers his frantic first few days at the helm. As the halfway point in the season approaches, Swindon are vying for a playoff position in League Two - possibly higher, should results go their way. So far, things have panned out considerably better than he imagined they would.

Harry McKirdy of Swindon Town celebrates scoring against Northampton Town at The Energy Check County Ground on January 1, 2022 in Swindon, England. (Credit: Pete Norton/Getty Images)

"I’m very pleased at how things have gone compared to what I was feeling a few months ago," he tells JOE.

"I think we were odds-on favourites to be relegated but where we are now, with Man City in the FA Cup, we’re very happy with the work that's been done - even though we know there's lots more to do.

By his own admission, it has been a stressful time. Morfuni was in his native Australia while most of the court case surrounding the previous regime's ownership unfolded. This reality, the added stress of the pandemic, and the sudden need to assemble a squad capable of being competitive in League Two left him with plenty to ponder.

As soon as a statement from the EFL confirmed Morfuni had become Swindon's majority shareholder, he set to work bringing in a raft of new signings. Ben Garner was quickly appointed as the club's manager along with assistants Scott Lindsey and Scott Marshall. Ben Chorley also joined the club as its director of football and, away from the football operations, Rob Angus, former vice-chair of the Supporters' Trust, left his full-time position as performance director at Nationwide Building Society to become the club's new chief executive officer.

Appointing Angus affirmed Morfuni's commitment to building a strong relationship between the club and its supporters. Swindon's fanbase played an influential role in ousting Power: not only were they proactive in contacting Morfuni, but also in launching the NoMoneyNoPower campaign, which urged fans to boycott all income-generating activities for the club in a bid to accelerate its potential sale.

"The fans are very powerful at this club and in the game itself and that needs to be remembered," Morfuni says. "In 20 year’s time, I might not be here, but they will be.

"Without them, we haven’t got a club. It’s as simple as that. That’s why it’s important to have fans involved in the business side and running of the club, which is what I want to do."

Jonny Williams of Swindon Town is substituted during a match between Northampton Town and Swindon Town at Sixfields on September 18, 2021. (Credit: Pete Norton/Getty Images)

Morfuni shook hands with and thanked fans as they queued for season tickets before the season began. He later took part in a kick-about with members of the Trust, then made his way to Glanford Park for the club's opening game of the new campaign with Scunthorpe in August, where he was seen celebrating a 3-1 win in the thick of the away end. While cynics might dismiss such acts as nothing more than PR moves from a new owner trying to curry favour, he insists it is imperative supporters see how much he values and respects them. Communicating in an open and honest way is central to his approach.

"I believe transparency is key," he says. "If you want your supporters to turn up, you have to be open. They have to feel that.

"I've always had a good relationship with supporters' groups here, even before this year. There’s certain fans that might not be happy at times with what we’re doing but our aim is to make the sure they can see why we're doing things and that we’re trying to communicate with them as much as we can.

"We want it to be so that, if there were any issues, they can go via their supporters’ groups and then channel them back to us so we can address it. We’d rather run it so that everything is put on the table and addressed.

"For me, talking to the supporter groups is not an issue. We just wanted to be transparent with, warts and all. We’ve got plenty of warts over here at the moment but we want to make sure we can clear everything up.

Swindon Town manager Ben Garner, during a match against Stevenage in September 2021. (Credit: Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Angus, who has witnessed Swindon's highs and lows through 40 years as a supporter, agrees. Like Morfuni, he acknowledges that a long road lies ahead in unpicking the financial tangle left behind by the previous regime. Making tough decisions is an inevitable part of that process.

"From a club perspective, the priority is still to stabilise things," he tells JOE. "We need revenue to support the rebuild of the club and to repair the finances. We’ve inherited £4.5m of debt and got it down to just under £2.5m now, but there’s a lot more to do.

"We need to make the right decisions for the business. We know not everyone will agree but we’ve always said that we’ll take any questions and answer them as openly as we can. That's really important.

"Every penny that comes in from the Man City game, for example, we’ll be able to sit down and explain where it's going: be it repairing the finances or making investments."

Angus' role at Swindon has been a varied one, dealing with issues ranging from match day hospitality and ticketing to safety requirements and handling supporter complaints.

"It’s a very varied role, at least six days a week, often more as I’ve got to keep in contact with Clem when he’s on the other side of the world.

"It’s been great, though - really interesting but very different from the corporate and banking background I had at Nationwide."

Swindon Town's County Ground, which will host Man City in the FA Cup tonight. (Credit: Alex Burstow/Getty Images)

Swindon's medium-term aim is to establish themselves as a sustainable Championship club. Though aware that plenty of work needs to be done for them to realise this ambition, Morfuni and Angus are convinced that the club's history and catchment area mean it is well within their grasp.

Securing the County Ground, which they continue to rent from Swindon Borough Council, would be an important step in the right direction. An agreement has been reached with the council for a deal which would see the club buy the ground in a 50/50 deal with its supporters. Though further investment will be required in the ground after purchase, owning their own ground will be crucial for opening up new revenue streams into the club.

"That money can then be reinvested into the ground, the training facilities and academy facilities," says Angus. "That, coupled with the great work on the pitch, will hopefully continue to move the club forward."

Morfuni and Angus are under no illusions that there is still plenty of work to be done if this is to be deemed a success story. For now, however, the visit of City feels like moment to savour for a healing football club: an opportunity for Swindon supporters to take stock and be grateful that, having come so perilously close to financial oblivion, they can still enjoy watching their club on occasions such as this. City will likely win the game, but in a way, it doesn't matter. After the turmoil and uncertainty of last year, Swindon are still alive, looking ahead to a brighter 2022.