Simon Hart: Peckham's Lee Power is driving Swindon upwards – with a little help from his friends in high places
Life beyond the Premier League
Wednesday 19 March 2014
Modern English football offers a fair few examples of club owners new to the game – and indeed to this country – who end up losing their way in "the jungle", as Lee Power calls it. Power, by contrast, could hardly be accused of not knowing the terrain. The chairman and owner of League One side Swindon Town is a man who once cleaned Andy Townsend's boots as a Norwich City apprentice, before embarking on a career that took in nine different Football League clubs, another couple in Scotland and Under-21 caps with the Republic of Ireland. "I have been fortunate enough – or unfortunate enough – to play in every league in England and the top two in Scotland," he tells The Independent. And he has already used his contacts to create one of the Football League's more interesting recruitment models.
As a former house-mate of Tim Sherwood during their Norwich days – "he was best man at my wedding" – Power, 41, has established a now well-trodden trail from White Hart Lane to the County Ground, with Swindon's squad featuring three players loaned from Tottenham – Grant Hall, Ryan Mason and Alex Pritchard – and another three signed permanently in Australian international Massimo Luongo, Jack Barthram and Nathan Byrne.
"All the alarm bells went ringing around football that all of a sudden we'd become a feeder club but that wasn't the case. Tim is a friend of mine," says Power. As if to prove the point, he is now discussing a similar arrangement with another, unnamed top-flight club. "I have been in talks with a chairman of a Premier League team for the last two months," he explains.
Power, with his Peckham roots and Del Boy accent, is by his own admission a ducker and diver, but he is adamant Swindon would "never" become a feeder club. "We'll always have our own identity. What we will do is borrow and steal what we can off the big boys, but it won't necessarily be one club. We average over 8,000 people every week and want to stand on our own two feet.
"Using the loan market is the only way forward because [the club] just can't afford the wages out there. They have been down that route with [former owner] Andrew Black when he funded it to the tune of £11m–£12m in a three-year period. He didn't leave any debt but we still inherited contracts that were phenomenal. There were people on nearly £14,000 a week, which was ridiculous – obviously, that was the manager. It just doesn't work."
Power became involved last year as part of a consortium led by Jed McCrory, which took over from Black, who had funded Swindon's rise out of League Two under Paolo Di Canio. Power's initial £1.2m investment – a sum now standing at £2m – helped lift a transfer embargo and in December the erstwhile director of football took outright control.
His path from pitch to boardroom began with a spell as an agent which gave him "an understanding of the money side". He had a brief involvement at board level at Luton Town and Rushden & Diamonds, and in between an 18-month stint as Cambridge United chairman. "That was nice for me to cut my teeth at Conference level."
Power's experience of setting up Cre8 Publishing, producing match programmes, helped him "know a lot of the commercial people in football" but also led to negative headlines after the company was liquidated. "They said I left owing football clubs millions of pounds but I had already sold the company," he counters, pointing to the fact one of the reported creditors was Tottenham. "I am sure they wouldn't be loaning me players if I owed them the [sums] mentioned."
The Geneva-based Power, who co-owns the weekly Racing Plus newspaper, has ruffled a few feathers in Wiltshire. A frosty relationship with the Swindon Advertiser worsened when, before Swindon faced Peterborough in January, its reporter tweeted news of Nile Ranger's involvement before the line-ups were named. "Peterborough changed their team," he says.
Yet he promises he is in it for the long haul and, under manager Mark Cooper, Swindon lie ninth in League One. "Everyone thought we'd be relegated but we've been sat outside the play-offs all year. With the budget in place and contacts I've got, I want a team that is going to be competitive. There is another £5m worth of revenue if we get to the Championship and it makes a huge difference. That is what we are striving for, but we are not going to put the club at risk at the same time."
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