Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The rise and fall of Swansea City

There is a possibility that Swansea City will be relegated from the top flight this season. But surely the situation will not be as dire as the last time they suffered this fate.

Swansea City Football Club lived the dream at the end of the 70s and the early part of the 80s. Their rise from the Football League basement to the top table between 1978 and 1981 was rapid, and their debut season in Division One was a thing of joy to their supporters. But the fall from grace was just as quick. The demise of Swansea City after their party with the A-listers was the stuff of nightmares.

Building on the foundations set by previous manager Harry Griffiths, John Toshack arrived at Vetch Field in February 1978 as player-manager, and assisted by his predecessor, the former Liverpool striker led the club to promotion out of Division Four at the end of the season; sadly Griffiths would die of a heart attack on the morning of the penultimate match of the season against Scunthorpe, but his contribution to Toshack's success has always been recognised.

The rise continued. Toshack added experience such as Tommy Smith, Ian Callaghan, Alan Waddle, and Leighton Phillips to a team built on a backbone of players nurtured by Griffiths, like Wyndham Evans, Robbie James, Jeremy Charles, and Alan Curtis. Promotion to the Second Division followed, and despite the disappointment of Curtis leaving in the summer, Swansea finished in a respectable 12th place. Piece by piece, Toshack was assembling a squad ready for another promotion push; John Mahoney, Tommy Craig, Leighton James, Dzemal Hadziabdic, and Ante Rajkovic all joined the club, and boosted by the return of Curtis, the Swans were flying.

A 3-1 win at Preston in May 1981 secured Swansea's place in the top flight for the first time in their history, but Toshack was not going to rest on his laurels. Keeper Dai Davies joined for £45,000; Bob Latchford (£125,000) and record signing Colin Irwin (£350,000) were added to the squad; later in the season, Ray Kennedy was signed for £160,000. Not huge figures given the crazy market at the time, but coupled with expenditure on the new East Stand, and compensation paid out to residents living behind the new construction, the financial strain on the club was growing.

Swept along on a wave of euphoria, the implications of the club's spending was hardly a concern to anyone associated with Swansea on August 29, 1981. On a sun-drenched day, the Swans tore into a shell-shocked Leeds, winning 5-1 as Latchford scored a hat-trick, the new boys off to the dream debut. Leeds were not alone in having their feathers ruffled. Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United all suffered at the feet of Toshack's men during an unforgettable season, as Swansea threatened to pull off the unthinkable.

After a run of 23 points from a possible 27 in the winter and spring of 1982, Swansea sat at the top of Division One with twelve matches remaining, and were realistic title contenders. However, the gruelling season, including eight Welsh Cup games, began to take its toll; Charles had missed a large chunk of the campaign, and injuries on the run-in to Leighton James, Evans, Mahoney, and Latchford hit the team hard. Five defeats in their last six matches saw the club finish in an impressive sixth place. But there was trouble ahead.

In many ways, the 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa in Swansea's last League match of 1981/82 was a sign of things to come. Five teenagers made their debuts, but as the season progressed, the mess at the club resulted in Toshack blooding far too many of his youngsters. A transfer ban imposed by the Football League due to Swansea's inability to pay Everton for the signings of Latchford and Gary Stanley, highlighted the mounting debt at the club. It also meant that Toshack could not freshen up his squad. Things were beginning to spiral out of control.

With such a small squad, the last thing Toshack needed was an injury crisis. But Toshack's luck was fast running out. Hadziabdic, Irwin, Mahoney, and Curtis all missed parts of the season, and new club captain Kennedy was starting to show the first signs of his deteriorating health. The season started in encouraging fashion, with two wins and a draw in the opening three matches, yet the nuts and bolts of the juggernaut were slowly being loosened. The team would only win four more matches before the turn of the year, and four more after that. Relegation was confirmed at Old Trafford on Saturday May 7.

For long periods, the Swans had been swimming gracefully on the surface of the water. But now everyone could see the frantic paddling going on behind the scenes. Rumoured to be £2 million in debt, a cloud of chaos descended on the club. Desperate for some income, Swansea sold a number of star players over the next year; Charles, Leighton James, Robbie James, Curtis, Latchford. Plenty of others departed, including Davies, Kennedy, and Hadziabdic. Irwin and Mahoney were forced to retire through injury.

The upheaval was not only restricted to the playing staff, though. Malcolm Struel resigned as chairman to be replaced by Doug Sharpe, and the situation surrounding Toshack reflected the instability of the club. Resigning in October 1983 with the club rock bottom of Division Two, Toshack then shocked the football world by returning to the post just 53 days later. Never go back; when Toshack was sacked in March 1984, the team had won four matches all season, and only an abysmal Cambridge United team kept them off the foot of the table.

Succumbing to the inevitable, surely things couldn't get any worse for Swansea? Oh dear. Colin Appleton was appointed as manager in May 1984, but he was soon to discover at the start of the 1984/85 campaign that the job in hand was a thankless task. Winning just four League matches during his time at the club, Appleton was sacked in December, a defeat in the FA Cup against Isthmian League Bognor Regis hardly helping his cause. John Bond was handed the poisoned chalice, but a strong end to the season at least saw the Swans stay up by a point.

If Bond and Swansea fans had hoped that the last day escape was the start of something good, then they were sorely mistaken. As early as June, speculation mounted that the club would go out of business, with the financial struggles now well documented. Owing money to a variety of bodies - players, football clubs, local residents, South Wales Police, Customs and Excise - and needing to find between £65,000 and £100,000 for ground improvements, there was a very real threat of closure. Eventually, the club directors all agreed to take a weekly pay cut of £4,000 for six weeks, giving Swansea a stay of execution.

Bond had made noises that he would leave the club if the financial situation was not sorted, yet he remained in charge for the new season. None of this seemed to matter, though, as the year drew to a close. Results on the pitch were understandably poor, yet this paled into insignificance when the Inland Revenue came knocking. "In effect the Inland Revenue has told us to pay up or shut up," club director Harry Hyde revealed. Owing a reported £102,178 in taxes, Swansea City Football Club was put up for sale. The asking price was between £750,000 and £1 million.

The first hearing was delayed for fourteen days, as Swansea successfully applied for an adjournment whilst talks were continuing with the Swansea City Council. Time was not on the side of the club, however. When the Council refused to help, and Mr Justice Harman of the High Court gave the directors two weeks to come up with a rescue plan, Swansea Commercial Manager Dave Savage was not optimistic. "It's touch and go whether we survive. I rate our chances of survival at only 20 percent at the most, whereas if we had been given 28 days we would have an 85 percent chance of winning through."

Luckily the case was adjourned again. But come Friday December 20, the decision could be delayed no more. Harman refused another adjournment, and issued a winding-up order. "The club has misappropriated tax and national insurance deductions from employees' wages, spent on heaven only knows what," Harman said. "The company comes before me and throws itself at the mercy of the court. Nothing encourages me to extend the club any mercy."

The club pleaded for an extension, and the chance to play the League match against Walsall on the following day. But the appeals fell upon deaf ears, and it looked as if Swansea would be the first club to go out of business during a season since Accrington Stanley in 1962. "There are four matches for Swansea over Christmas and I don't think anyone will be able to put the money together before that, so it looks bleak," PFA Secretary Gordon Taylor stated. Bond and Swansea's players were handed official dismissal notices. Just four years after topping Division One, it looked like the end of the road had been reached.

Fortunately, there were five men involved who simply refused to let the club die. Peter Howard, Harry Hyde, Bobby Jones, Mel Nurse, and Dave Savage would become known as the "Famous Five", and their determination to fight until the end gave Swansea City a kiss of life. After listening to financial proposals made by the Famous Five, and Sharpe and Struel, Mr Justice Scott agreed to give the club until January 13 to come up with a financial proposal to keep the club afloat.

Just three days after what had appeared to be the end, Tommy Hutchison was appointed player-manager, with Jimmy Rimmer the player-coach, and the reassembled playing staff could now get on with actually playing football. A friendly with Manchester United was arranged for the day of the hearing - a crowd of over 20,000 bringing in much needed gate receipts - and when news broke that Sharpe's financial package had given Swansea another 28 days grace, there was now light at the end of the tunnel.

When it was announced on March 24 that the club could continue running until the end of the season, a sense of relief flooded the city. Admittedly the team were struggling, and heading to Division Four, but the fact that the club was still running at all was a blessing. Finally came the news all concerned with Swansea wanted to hear; in July 1986, Harman declared that the winding-up order had been dropped. Swansea may have been back where they started in 1978, but at least under chairman Sharpe, and new manager Terry Yorath, there was optimism for the future.

Swansea City were not alone in a decade of financial mismanagement within football. Paying the price for spending beyond their means, the city and the supporters can thank the determination of a few individuals for saving the club back in 1985/86. Things might seem bad for fans if the club gets relegated this season. But nothing can compare to the situation the club found itself in when it suffered the same fate back in 1983.

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