Profile: Man who wields the axe: Peter Swales

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The Independent Online
PETER SWALES has a bit of a reputation. In 20-odd years as chairman of Manchester City he has sacked 11 managers. He was the Football Association committee man who in 1990 said that he was not unhappy that England had failed to reach the World Cup final because that meant that they could still get rid of Bobby Robson. Now he chairs that same International Committee as it considers the future of Graham Taylor. He is reckoned to be one of the two most powerful influences on that committee, along with Sir Bert Millichip, chairman of the FA. His past record - he is headmaster of the sack-'em-and-see school of management - suggests that he will be the first to vote for Taylor's dismissal. In fact, however, neither the man nor the situation is as simple as that.

In the week following England's defeat in Rotterdam, the FA were shocked to discover not only that they would have to sell the family silver (the FA Cup) to make up for the financial cost of World Cup failure, but also that nobody was queuing up to take over from Taylor. For Swales, it must have been a familiar situation. Few managers with reputations to protect want to cross his threshold at Maine Road either.

Nobody at Lancaster Gate actually said that Taylor should stay. Instead, the feeling simply grew that he might just be kept on. Graham Kelly, chief executive of the FA, was among those who argued that the England manager's job would remain impossible until England had a long-term plan; and that in the meantime Taylor's experience could be invaluable. Now it looks as though Taylor may survive in some advisory role while someone like Ray Wilkins or Glenn Hoddle acts as apprentice. Can Swales, that most trigger-happy of football potentates, have had a change of heart?

Swales has been dogged by controversy for most of his 25 years in football. The 59-year-old son of a fishmonger, he had some early training in accountancy, then had his appetite for entrepreneurship whetted during his National Service, when he set up a little

uniform-pressing business. Back on civvy street he met Noel White, whose career in football has run parallel to his but without the controversy. White, a director of Liverpool, is now vice-chairman of the International Board.

Swales and White began a sheet-music business in Altrincham; then became agents for some fairly hopeless pop groups; and then, seeing the future of television, sold a lot of black-and-white sets before Thorn, in 1968, bought them out for about pounds 500,000.

Swales was by now the archetypal northern achiever: a well-heeled (often Cuban-heeled) Manchester businessman, over-tanned and over-the-top. He had always been an enthusiastic follower of football, and with money invested in local retail businesses he had enough to spare to buy his way into non-League Altrincham. Then, in 1971, he was invited on to the board at Manchester City. White took over from him as chairman of Altrincham.

Even then, there were rows going on at Maine Road, particularly over the promotion of Malcolm Allison to team manager, and it took determination, political nous and more tact than he is credited with for Swales to become chairman two years later with the support of all the board members.

His reputation as a sacking chairman started with the departure of Allison and gathered apace. Three managers came and went in the first year. Johnny Hart suffered a heart attack. The abrasive Ron Saunders was brought in, and although he took City to the 1974 League Cup final, his style grated with too many influential players, not least Francis Lee. As City slid, Swales bowed to player-power, and Tony Book took over. Book has never left, filling the Swales-made breach five times as caretaker manager. In 1977 he guided City to the runners-up position, but he was ditched as manager proper the following season. Swales wanted someone more charismatic. Allison came back and spent millions, but City kept falling lower in the table. 'That was my first blunder,' Swales says.

Before satellite money came along, football would have died without people like Peter Swales: people who were prepared to risk their own funds in the precarious business. Yet he remains the fanzines' favourite ogre. He swears devotion to Manchester City. That, he says, is why he has sacked so many managers: 'in order to secure the future of the club'. He also insists that his reputation for interfering with managers' work has been exaggerated. 'I've never picked a team in my life, neither have I been in the dressing-room before the game.' He is also on record as saying: 'If a manager was falling down on the job, I wouldn't interfere, I'd have him sacked.'

Swales's years in the thankless bear pit of football administration brought him recognition (which he clearly enjoys), but without widespread respect or personal fulfilment. According to the sharp tongue of Tommy Docherty, recognition was all he wanted anyway. 'He likes publicity. He wears a card around his neck saying 'In case of heart attack, call a press conference'. '

He cannot have relished the publicity he has received recently. For years, Manchester City's fans have offered him the benefit of the doubt. This season, they seem to have given up. The manner in which he allowed an old crony, the former journalist John Maddock, to take over as general manager and sack City's manager, Peter Reid, was widely seen as a clumsy way of avoiding doing the job himself. Many fans disputed that the job had to be done at all. With Manchester United breaking their 26-year championship famine and City starting the season with three defeats in four matches, the writing on the Maine Road walls was demanding that a head should roll. But it was Swales's, not Reid's.

Reid has been replaced by the well-grounded but almost anonymous Brian Horton. Swales's critics see this as evidence that none of the better known managers wanted anything to do with City. But despite speculation about takeover bids, Swales remains in charge, just as he retains his influential position on the FA. Although Swales voted for his appointment in 1990, Graham Taylor cannot be relishing the thought that, to a considerable extent, his future is in this man's hands.