Does anyone care if Swindon Town goes to the wall? Even the fans aren't rallying round

Crisis in football: Time is running out for the clubs affected by the collapse of ITV Digital, as ministers try to cap stars' pay
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The Independent Online

What do you do when the football club you love looks like going bust? The answer to Swindon Town, yesterday at least, was obvious: abuse the opposition manager. "Stand up if you hate McMahon" was the chant in the Arkells Beer stand, aimed at Steve McMahon, manager of the visiting Blackpool team as he paced the touchline in the sunshine.

Never mind ITV Digital, whose collapse last week nudged this struggling club closer to extinction. McMahon made a handy vessel for all the fans' bitterness and disappointment. "Enjoy the game" said the ITV Sport adverts still stuck to the stadium steps and most of the 5,000 people managed to in that resigned, never-again way that fans have.

What else can you do but give a wry smile when a club so vulnerable fields a player called Danny Invincible? He sent over the cross that set up the goal that won the game. It was scored by an 18-year-old, one of the cheap young players clubs like Swindon may have to rely on if they survive.

The collapse of ITV Digital has exposed the shaky – some say insanely deluded – financial structure of professional football. Swindon Town is one of 30 or so clubs that may go bust as a result. The team's apprentices, who earn £250 a week, fear the Promised Land will disappear before they get there.

"It's all going to go pop," said Jimmy Fraser, the youth development officer, who is not much older than his charges. He was a player during that one glorious season a few years back when Swindon were in the top division. "When Manchester United came the whole town turned out," he said. "Not now. It's not just us, they're talking about 1,000 free transfers in the summer."

Swindon Town went into administration again last Wednesday, even before the directors were told they would have to do without £400,000 a year from television rights. A consortium headed by the former champion jockey Willie Carson had taken over the club in December and discovered Town owed more than it expected: £700,000 to the Inland Revenue, which was threatening to wind things up, and about £700,000 to other creditors. It was losing £100,000 a month.

On Friday the club "superstore" was almost as deserted as the training ground. Built when times were good, it looks tatty and empty now. "Visiting fans want to buy something to help us out of this hole, but we haven't got much," admitted Maureen Kirkland behind the counter. "They ask for badges, things like that, but we've run out."

On the top shelf, between the Baby Robins sleepsuits and teddy bears in the club colours of red, green and white was a certain woolly monkey. "We don't know what to do with it, really," said Maureen. Nobody was likely to buy a subscription to ITV Digital now, but she had no authority to take the advertising down. Brian Powell, the ticket manager, was glum. "We appealed to fans to bring a friend, but it hasn't helped much. People are not rallying round like you'd think."

None of the many new technology companies that have bases in "Silicon Gorge" seem keen to help, either. Maybe that is because Swindon has got used to its club being in financial trouble. The team was denied promotion in 1990 because of irregular payments, then got into the top division legitimately, only to go straight back down again. After another relegation in 2000 the club went into administration for several months. Now the Robins are bobbing along in the middle of the second division, attracting a quarter of the fans they used to.

The biggest star at Swindon is Neil "Razor" Ruddock, the former Liverpool defender brought in by a previous board on a contract said to be worth more than £200,000 a year, plus bonuses. That would be 20 per cent of the total wage bill. Many fans see the 34-year-old as a hero who has brought leadership to the squad; others question the wisdom of paying a veteran 10 times more than the younger players who play alongside him.

Many clubs pay star players a bigger wage than the rest, in the hope they will drive the team up to the next division where the rewards are higher. They underwrite this gamble with TV money – but that has now disappeared. At least seven of the Swindon first team will be released in the summer, and the rest will have to hope their employer survives.

"The club is in real trouble, but the problem is persuading people of that," says Tony Norris, one of 230 Swindon fans who have formed a trust in the hope of buying a seat on the board. "Football supporters have become immune to crisis talk, they don't really believe it unless they turn up and find the gates of the ground shut, like they did at Hull City. We've heard it all before – but this time it's true."