Rough ride in the 2.15 at Swindon

The odds of success in the Survival Stakes are long for Carson as he calls on football to go racing: lower wages with big bonuses
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The Independent Online

In betting ring parlance, he has almost certainly done his money. It was like contributing to the bookies' benefit fund with a sizeable punt on an unconsidered outsider when Willie Carson loaned Swindon Town £400,000 and became a director five years ago upon his retirement from the saddle. Now, rather than allow his beloved club to fold, he finds himself chairman.

Sometimes it's impossible to explain what prompts a man to commit such apparent folly. "I've been slowly sucked in," is his only explanation. "Because you do get a great kick out of winning."

It may be thought that the former royal jockey has enjoyed rather more than his due share of victories already in a horseracing career in which his tally amounted to 3,828 wins, including numerous Classics. Before and since, he has bred many winners at his Minster Stud in Gloucestershire and he harbours great hopes in this year's Oaks for a home-bred filly, Shadow Dancing, in training with Marcus Tregoning. "That's my hobby which makes a lot of money," he breaks into that familiar infectious laughter. "Football is my hobby which costs me money."

So why then become involved with an impoverished Second Division football club, you persist, particularly as, according to reputation, you aren't one of life's philanthropists? "When I was a young boy I set out to do one thing in life – to be a jockey," says Carson, one half of that entertaining and informative BBC racing presentation partnership with Clare Balding during the Flat season. "I did that, and a lot more. I ended up champion five times. I've also run a successful breeding business. This is quite a different challenge. This is the only thing I've ever been involved with that's been struggling."

He adds: "I only give money away to real deserving cases, not willy-nilly. If I was rich enough, I'd put the money in, and it wouldn't be just a few million either. I'd love to buy the club, like Mohamed Al Fayed up at Fulham, and do it my way, me being the boss. I think I'd succeed. But it's not going to happen. This is just about survival."

As the team prepare for today's game against Bristol City (kick-off 2.15), we meet at the County Ground after a board meeting, in which ways of clearing £6m worth of debts have been discussed. "That's not bad really for a football club, some of that is directors' loans, anyway," says the Scot. "The main problem is that the last board have left us with a major headache. They came along, were interested in doing a property deal, building a new stadium and this being developed, and we let them get on with it. But it fell through. Now we're picking up the pieces."

He is now the figurehead of a group of five businessmen determined to make reparations to a club that less than a decade ago was in the Premiership. "We stepped in because we're all fans of the club and we feared that it could go to the wall,"says the 59-year-old chairman. "That's still not certain even now, but we're working on it. It's difficult without new funds coming in, and my main aim is to get more backing. But we're respectable people and we're trying to do the right thing for the club."

Swindon, who lost Roy Evans before Christmas and have reappointed their former manager, Andy King, are suffering from that familiar problem of a club descending through the leagues but which remains locked in to lucrative contracts. "Football has got to get back to normality. It's paying far too high players' wages," Carson says. "What they get here, bearing in mind the number of people who come through the gate [the average is fewer than 7,000] is just not realistic. Basically, it's the players who have got us into trouble. We're in the Second Division now, but we've bought and paid players to keep us in the First. Before that, we were paying them money to try to get us into the Premiership. When it doesn't work you're left with people on three-, four-year contracts. It's crazy."

He adds, though not, you suspect, with total seriousness: "The PFA are too strong in the sense that the players' contracts have to be honoured even if they break down the day after they have signed, and the clubs do suffer. If you've got a broken-down horse you just shoot it, sell it, or turn it out in a field, pension it off. But you can't do that with a footballer. You still have to keep paying him."

Carson advocates the horseracing system of payment by results. "If I ever get my way, players will get smaller wages but big bonuses. We'd pay for success. That's the only way in life. You can't pay people who aren't successful. As a jockey, I got a nominal riding fee and a percentage of first, second and third prize money. If you're out of the first three, that's it, you get nowt. You don't expect anything. It would gives the players an incentive to go out there and play their hearts out rather than going out there and saying, 'Well, it don't really matter today. It's not a big club. We don't need the points' – whatever it is that goes through their heads.

"You see, it doesn't matter who they are, Beckham, Van Nistelrooy, they need incentives to go and do the job, even at the top. I did it myself. I went through the motions. I'd go out thinking 'I'm sitting on this donkey. How can this win?' You look at the form. It's got nothing but 0s next to its name. So, you go out and it's unplaced again. But if you got somebody saying 'Bet you can't get this placed', you're thinking 'Oh, yes. We'll see about that'. That just stirs you up and you go out and you end up getting a place."

It will be observed that Carson is not always the most tactful of men. Once, at Watford, this most enthusiastic supporter of fox-hunting stirred up a Hornet's nest when the new Labour MP, who was also a guest at the club, denounced the sport. "We did have a bit of a heated half-time," Carson recalls. "I'm not a diplomat. Never have been. Sometimes I'll say things to get a reaction. I'll go for them, to get the truth from other people, see what they're really thinking. I don't say things to make people feel happy. My wife keeps telling me, 'Think, think, think before you talk'. But I can't, which means I regret a lot of things I say."

This weekend he's off to Barbados for three weeks' holiday, "but first I've got to go home and move 20 tons of fertiliser". There's a joke there somewhere involving Swindon Town. But it's not amusing for Carson. "It's not enjoyable at the moment because it's serious bloody stuff, this. If I can get through all this nasty stuff then I'll be able to enjoy it." With his energy and eye for a potential champion, you wouldn't sneer at his chances of success.

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