Cry of the sinking Swans must be heeded

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The Independent Online

The swan, the unruffled, regal symbol of Swansea City, has never been less appropriate at the Vetch Field as the club flaps from one state of panic to another.

A brief account of the latest turmoil is as follows: former owners, the London-based security company Ninth Floor Plc, finally cut its losses in the summer and handed the club for £1 to the former commercial manager, Mike Lewis; Lewis found no buyers then sold on the financially crippled club, again for £1, to Tony Petty, a London businessman based in Australia of whom Swansea knows little. Petty flew in from Australia a fortnight ago, sacked seven players and told eight more he is dramatically reducing their wages, then flew back to Brisbane. The Football League told Petty that his actions are against its rules, which protect players' contracts.

More than 1,000 Swansea fans joined a "Petty Out" march through the city last Saturday before John Shuttleworth, a former insolvency practitioner whom Petty appointed as chief executive, cut short his night out in Swansea when he was escorted out of a nightclub for his own protection.

The Swans' brief paddle in the First Division in the 1980s is now long forgotten. That attempt to buy success under John Toshack bequeathed financial problems with which the club's chairman, Doug Sharpe, wrestled for years afterwards. Then, in 1997, during City's short-lived infatuation with football as a ticket to riches, Ninth Floor took over Swansea, talking of taking them into the Premier League and a new stadium to be built by the River Morfa.

So called because they occupy the ninth floor of an office block on Old Marylebone Road, the company, whose main business was windscreens, put some money into developing Swansea's commercial activities. They also funded a £2m wage bill, latterly for a 34-player squad under manager John Hollins, which was relegated to the Third Division last season.

Altogether Ninth Floor lost "north of £5m" on Swansea, according to the chairman, Alan Wix, who said the company had disposed of the club to concentrate on its core businesses of security and IT systems. In the fickle City, football clubs are now embarrassments. "We are a commercial company with profitable businesses and we could not keep going with Swansea in our portfolio," Wix said.

The terms of departure were not ungenerous: the club is saddled with an unsustainable wage bill, but has no debts or overdraft. Ninth Floor handed the club to Lewis together with £200,000, for which they took the security of Swansea's car park and club shop. They are owed a further £800,000, which Wix has said he will not be calling in.

"Whoever is in charge should make us a respectable offer," Wix said, "but it is not in my or anybody else's interests to call the debt in, because that would push Swansea into administration."

Lewis, once Newport County's commercial manager, sacked Hollins and appointed Colin Addison as manager, instructing him to cut Swansea's playing staff to 22. Nobody, Lewis said, made an offer for the club, and as time and the £200,000 ran out, he said he received a call from Petty, who had read about the club's availability on the internet. Petty flew in from Brisbane, where he has had some involvement in Australian football, keen to do the deal in three days.

He brought with him two directors from the Brisbane Lions who said they might invest in Swansea. The plan is partly about importing cheaper Australian players and hoping to sell them on – two are on trial at the Vetch. Swansea's directors were not consulted. Petty and Lewis did the deal and Petty became Swansea's new chairman.

A week later, he sold Swansea's best player, the Welsh Under-21 forward Stuart Roberts, to Wycombe Wanderers for £100,000, which many in the club saw as a steal, particularly as Swansea had agreed a £250,000 fee with Rotherham during the summer. Petty then told seven players they would not be paid at the end of this month, and eight others that their pay packets would be considerably slimmer. The same night he flew back to Brisbane.

Cue uproar. In August, concerned Swansea fans formed a trust with the help of the Government-backed initiative Supporters Direct. With membership now close to 1,000 strong, the Trust organised last week's demonstration and has called on the local council not to deal with Petty on the Morfa development. More importantly, the Trust has formed a focus for supporters to ask questions about Swansea's affairs.

Companies House records show that Petty, who states his occupation as a stationer, holds no directorship of any British company. Six companies of which he was a director have been dissolved and three are in liquidation. On his form to register his appointment as a Swansea City director, he stated he was a director of a company called Axis Europe Plc and resigned in April 1999.

Mike Lewis, who is staying at home because he fears for his safety after he received abuse from aggressive supporters, was defiant: "Swansea may not recover under Tony Petty, or his measures might work. This club, and football generally, needs drastic action or it faces disaster. None of the people complaining now made offers before. Mr Petty's was the only offer and I had no choice."

Mel Nurse, a Swansea director and centre-half in the 1950s and '60s, criticised Lewis for not consulting the board: "That was a mistake. Then Mr Petty has been very cold and drastic, and acted against League rules. It isn't palatable."

Informed that League rules protect players' contracts, Petty and Shuttleworth sought an agreements with them. The Professional Footballers' Association is understood to have advised the players not to compromise, for fear that they will not then be paid in full if the club goes into administration under Petty. Hollins, the former manager, is in dispute over his pay-off.

Dave Boyle of Supporters Direct said the débâcle demonstrates the need for the Football Association to more closely oversee the sale of football clubs. "Even if the FA were only to require people to explain who they are and their plans, it might at least give everybody a chance to pause and reflect."

Nic Coward, the FA's head of regulation, told a Supporters Direct conference last month there were no plans to introduce any such requirement, even though this has been urged on the FA by two official reports, including the Government's Football Task Force. Coward told the conference: "Most football club directors are supporters of the club and are trying to do their best."

Perhaps the experience at Swansea, where ownership has passed from a London-based windscreen company to an Australia-based stationer, will make him think again. Or perhaps not.

Others, though, must consider the wider circumstances which have made football's historic clubs so vulnerable. Because footballers' contracts are sacrosanct and must be paid in full even if a club goes bust, players are effectively immune from the consequences of their unrealistic wages.

Swansea's wage bill last year was £2.1m, higher than the club's income. Four players are understood to be paid more than £100,000 a year. Hollins, a distinguished football man, was paid £115,000 a year. The club lost £1m last year and no local interest would consider taking it on. Three people have lost their jobs: Ron Walton, the youth team coach responsible for developing Stuart Roberts; Glen Letheran, the goalkeeping coach, and Martin Burgess, the financial director.

Swansea's ordeal makes more urgent the need for proper regulation by the FA. But how many crises will it take, how many club collapses, before the FA, League and the PFA get a grip of the game's finances, which are now clearly spiralling out of control?

davidconn@freeuk.com

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