The saga of Sven

For Notts County fans the last few months have been like no other. Julian McDougall tries to keep up with things

In the second half of 2009 ordinary long-standing Notts County fans were subjected to a series of psycho-political experiments. Novelists from Charles Dickens to Margaret Atwood have stretched social reality to develop extreme scenarios which allow readers to explore their anxieties about the world – blending utopia and dystopia to produce complexity which reflects the ambiguous nature of human thought. But if a writer had made up events at Meadow Lane this season, their publisher would likely reject it as “too far-fetched”. Sven-Göran Eriksson arrives, Kasper Schmeichel signs, Sol Campbell comes, rumours link us to David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Roberto Mancini and Kevin Keegan. Sol goes. The Guardian print allegations of corruption on a daily basis. Bust before bloody Christmas.

At the time of writing (and this is a vital detail given the turbulent state of things) Notts have just thrashed Burton 4-1 away to creep close to the automatic promotion places, Sven is in Oslo trying to secure new investment and a fan email is read out on the Football League Show celebrating the continuation of “Sven’s beautiful project”. We really don’t know where we are.

Imagine supporting Notts since 1979. Your first season ticket is in Division One so, ignoring for a moment what Clough is achieving over the Trent, you start out watching Notts play Liverpool, Arsenal, Man Utd, Spurs – three of whom you beat at home in your first couple of years. Three decades later, you are rooted to the bottom half of Division Four. Between these polar states, Neil Warnock and Sam Allardyce offered glorious intermissions but now you are stuck down there.

The game has moved on and, as a trust-owned club, you have no chance of moving up the leagues. You are doomed to watch ethical defeat. Staying in the League is the annual target. Periods of economic stability are combined with managers who buy poor players and better managers hamstrung by administration. You live away from Nottingham so it is a monthly disruption to family life when you steadfastly set off on the rushed journey, returning with a dull headache and the memory of a defeat to Accrington or Barnet which you put before spending time with the kids.

Now imagine it is late 2009 and you take one of those kids to his first game. You buy him a shirt, encourage him to wave at Sven (who waves back), explain that Sven was England manager when you travelled to Niigata to see the World Cup victory over Denmark before he was born and comfort him when it gets too noisy (it hasn’t been noisy for a very long time). When he sees a 0-0 you feel guilty as previous trips this season have resulted in 5-2, 2-0 and 3-0 wins. When asked about Sol Campbell, you react with mirth – at this stage Campbell is demonised as unstable, a villain. What did he expect? It will take five years to get to the top, not five games.

Two weeks later, it turns out that Munto Finance don’t really exist. Sven is pursuing a large sum of money he believes he is owed by this elusive “holdings” company and Hans Backe – Sven’s mate, his second appointment after Sol – has “done a Campbell”. The club is now owned by Peter Trembling who is desperately haggling for investment to “keep the dream alive”. Without this we have two months’ wages left in the kitty. Sol is now a blameless prophet.

There is, I am told, a name for this well-worn economic strategy – you buy a business with false promises of funds, attract well-known names to give momentum and then do a runner. But I still can’t see why anyone would choose Notts County for any kind of moneymaking scam.

So it lasted five months in total and will probably go down in football history as one of the most embarrassing examples of a club naively believing in the over-reaching potential of crass capitalism. As fans, we feel ashamed – Ian McParland was a hero and a decent manager and our bereavement for his sacking lasted as long as it took for Backe to return consecutive victories. Now what?

The boardroom events at Notts this season represent everything that is wrong in my mind with the modern game. When the Supporters Trust sold away the whole club, Notts County ceased to exist, replaced immediately with a bizarre hybrid animal. Talk about the legacy of Jimmy Sirrel and being the oldest League club rooted in its community sat alongside trips to the Far East to “generate a global branding strategy”. So it was rags to riches and then back to rags but with jeopardy – we went along with it and now we look very foolish. We are no better than those Man City fans in Arabic dress – the same ones who demonised United for years for being more a brand than a club rooted in the city.

And yet, what would be a neat parable is disrupted by the lingering presence of Sven. Why is Sven still at Notts? On the one hand, it is very clear that Sven, Campbell and Backe were all offered riches by the Munto group. The incentive for these big names to descend upon a club who can’t serve chips in the most popular stand “due to the layout of the kiosks” has not materialised. But Sven is the only one not to do a runner. Perhaps he is holding out so he is better placed to fight a legal battle.

But you wonder if he wants the money so badly that it is worth coming in to work every day in League Two and how much is adequate reward for making his home at a club where the scoreboard doesn’t work because the software disk is lost. His appearances at every match, every club function, every charity event – he even turned on the Christmas lights in Nottingham – might even suggest that he really has fallen in love with the club. At the moment Sven appears to be a rom­antic hero. But by the time you read this…

From WSC 276 February 2010