Tuesday 9 September ~
Manchester City supporters have seen two controversial takeovers in the last year. But 14 years ago it was fan power that removed an unpopular regime, as Steve Parish reported in WSC 86 (April 1994)
"Be patient!" cried the Reverend Jim Burns from the steps of the main entrance of Manchester City Football Club. He made the "calm, calm, calm" wrist-clasping gesture from TV's GBH, and cried "Frannie will be here!" Francis Lee, former player, former bogroll tycoon and now racehorse owner, was indeed there, acknowledging the cheers from a desperate Maine Road public. QPR fell under the spell and City won 3-0. However, it took another half-season before Lee was able to secure the deal that made him chairman, and left Peter Swales, the incumbent for 20 barren years, as life president.
Swales might have gone more gently, rather than hang on for grim death, and make City the laughing stock of the League. But his tenacity posed again a question that has often surfaced in the world of football: "Who rules?" The people who own the club, or the fans whose loyalty is taken for granted?" Foul, the great forerunner of the fanzines, was asking that when Swales took over in the early 1970s.
On paper, City were making profits, though a total valuation of the shares at £10 million suggests the finances may be more complex. Corporate entertaining and rock substantially boost the income from gate receipts: the directors could probably get a better return from not having a team at all.
Nothing new in this. Clubs like Fulham and Chelsea with valuable real estate are tempted by property deals to sell out, and the development value of the pitch as collateral is the only thing that keeps banks from foreclosing on many clubs' overdrafts. But no one accused Swales of not wanting a successful team. His decisions were no worse than those of other football club chairmen, and probably better than most. He had been the fan's champion: the cheapest entrance fees in the League, season tickets for standing customers, and the innovative and much copied Junior Blues Club for young supporters He also led the opposition to all-seaters while other chairmen calculating the extra revenue from higher prices for the scarcity value of reduced-capacity stadiums.
But by his own declared ambitions, let alone those of the fans, he had failed. And the fans were furious. Not just frustrated at City's present plight, but really angry. United winning the League took away the longest-running joke in football. Until the last couple of years City fans could claim for all the money poured into United's team, City were as good. The kudos of a 5-1 victory over the Reds in September 1989 lasted for three years. The United factor is necessary to an understanding of the campaign against Swales. He has presided over City's slump from United's equals (at the least) to the running joke of the League.
Swales might legitimately plead some bad luck – managers walking out (to add to those he sacked) and serious injuries to Colin Bell in the 1970s and to Paul Lake, City's classiest player of recent times, but Maine Road has gone from being a place where it was cheap to watch good football, to being simply a cheap place. The new Kippax Street stand would leave a maximum capacity of only 32,000. The ambition to make City the number one club has given way to a dismal settling for mediocrity on and off the field. And there had been some 'cheating' of the fans. Trevor Francis played one brilliant season at Maine Road and was used by the club to advertise season ticket sales for the following season, then - with the ticket money in the bank - Swales sold him to Italy. Even the economics looked wrong: Our Trev was putting 5,000 on the gate every time he played: enough to pay his wages and the interest on his £1 million transfer fee. He felt badly used and so did the fans. The rot had set in.
It's difficult to pin down exactly when managerial and team failures began to be blamed on the Chairman, but reporters began to record the point in each season when the first “Swales Out” chants were heard. In 1990, Howard Kendall resigned as manager, aided by a get-out clause (ostensibly so he could take the England job if offered) which he used to return to his old club, and we wanted to know how City could have agreed to such an arrangement. Peter Reid was appointed player-manager and City finished fifth two seasons running, but were playing some turgid stuff: the big boot up the middle to Niall Quinn wasn't what the fans liked. Sam Ellis was Reid's appointed assistant, and the long-ball style seemed traceable to him.
After the last match of 1992-93, a 5-2 defeat by Kendall's Everton, the first egg landed on the Chairman's back. In a League with poor standards City could still play well at times but the overall feeling was of going nowhere. Swales may still think himself unlucky to get the blame for City's failure under Reid, but it was the way in which Reid was dismissed which killed any sympathy for his employer.
Faced with mounting criticism of the handling of the club, and with a record of not keeping managers long. Swales appointed a general manager, John Maddock, an ex-sportswriter, who within a few days had sacked both the manager and his assistant and replaced them with an old buddy, Brian Horton from Oxford United. Under Horton, there were glimpses of real football again, and if City had kept a 2-0 lead over United, a lot would have been forgiven. But City lost 3-2, won only once in the next ten games, were defeated by Forest in the Coca Cola Cup and were doing worse than under Reid. A ridiculous injury list afforded Horton some excuse and several players seemed to be slacking, though it did not look like they were part of a subversive movement to oust Swales.
The media, who needed the club's goodwill to do their job, briefly latched on to the supporters' campaign but then settled into sniping at the fans' tactics. Allegations about death threats became "revelations", a story about invading the nursing homes where Swales's ageing mother lived did not bear investigation but was given credence, while the "two-minute hate" directed at Swales at each match was voluntarily curbed by the fans. But apart from gentle intimidation, what other power does the ordinary loyal fan have? I knew I couldn't take much more, and despite the offer of a 1994-95 season ticket for the new all-seat Kippax stand at early discount prices, I left it late, until the Lee deal seemed sown up.
Why did Swales try to hang on? I asked a psychiatrist friend why someone would willingly suffer such abuse, knowing they could just walk away with a few million pounds for their shares. "Just an ordinary obsessive," he said. But I'm the addict, not Mr Swales. Perhaps he really believed he could make City successful, and that to give up would be to acknowledge failure.
Still, with the “consultancy fees” Swales has been getting, and the £1.5 million he received for half his shares, he has not done too badly out of the deal (though a fifteenfold increase in the shares over 20 years cannot be seen as a brilliant investment). The receivers will not be called in; the players are worth perhaps £20 million, though you'd hardly know it at times, and it's a long while since City have had to sell a player to please the bank manager. The Lee consortium may want to restore City's fortunes, but they would not be taking risks with a club on the rocks. They're not addicts, either.
But nor are they carpetbaggers looking for just any club to run. Lee and his main partner, Colin Barlow, are former players, with memories of the good times, wanting to restore some of the friendly atmosphere that used to reign at Maine Road. And in the end, I suspect that's where Swales went wrong. City were known as a happy-go-lucky club, and Swales wanted to change it, to bring efficiency off the field and the killer instinct on it. Instead, efficiency lost to bad luck.
Lee's final accession means dancing on the terraces, what's left of them. The slump into the bottom three may take some turning around, but City fans can walk tall, for we've won a victory few other supporters have managed. 'Sack the board' chants may suddenly take on a new vigour around the country. You can't sack the board who hold the shares, but by gum you can make it uncomfy for them.