Scunthorpe’s fall and the story behind their Football League survival fight
No team have conceded more League Two goals than Scunthorpe this season and their worrying slide to the bottom of the Football League has been punctuated by some PR own goals too. They have banned the local paper, the Scunthorpe Telegraph, over its refusal to pay for access and in April the transfer of the stadium to another company owned by the chairman, Peter Swann, caused alarm among a disillusioned fan base, amid dwindling crowds. Then there are the accusations of nepotism, with Swann’s son Will tasked with leading player recruitment.
Swann responded promptly to questions from the Guardian, explaining each decision. Scunthorpe flirted with a return to the Championship as recently as three years ago when they reached the League One play-offs for a second successive season. Ivan Toney was on loan, Charlie Goode – also now at Brentford – was there and Conor Townsend, now of West Brom, was excelling in defence. Duane Holmes and Murray Wallace were mainstays, both now Championship regulars. Many supporters look back with bewilderment on the sacking of Graham Alexander when the club were fifth with seven games to play. Scunthorpe were relegated the following season, during which they had three managers.
There is, at least, a tinge more optimism than a few weeks ago. Keith Hill, who replaced the sacked Neil Cox at the start of November, has made Scunthorpe harder to beat – he has lost one of his four matches – and will target a first victory on Tuesday at Stevenage which could hoist them out of the relegation zone. Hill twice won promotion from the division at Rochdale and must find a successful formula. Scunthorpe have won two of their past 34 matches in all competitions and limped over the finish line last season.
There are some encouraging noises from the boardroom. The return of Simon Elliott, a respected former director who used to stand on the terraces as a supporter, as a non-executive director is regarded in some quarters as a masterstroke, and Swann, who conceded he needed to “interact better”, has reopened the lines of communication with shareholders and stakeholders. There are plans to add a fan-elected director. “It’s obvious my focus on the club has alienated some supporters and it was good to have honest and at times straightforward discussions … I apologise if you are one of those supporters I have let down,” Swann said in October.
Swann, the owner of the Sands music venue in Blackpool, cannot be criticised for a lack of trying. He has invested more than £20m since taking ownership in 2013. Upon relegation to the fourth tier the club, he says, adopted a “breakeven model”. Swann, who has about a 90% stake, maintains he would welcome prospective buyers with “open arms”.
“Not long ago you could probably get promoted out of League One on a few million [pounds],” Swann said. “That now is clearly very difficult, as you can see with the clubs sitting in that division. To survive in the Championship, let alone just getting there is virtually impossible to achieve unless you throw tens of millions at it and that is a risk a small club like Scunthorpe should not be taking, especially in these challenging times.”
Swann says he takes full responsibility for the club’s position and business decisions, including cutting ties with the local paper after “they withdrew cash support for the access to the club, players and managers”. The club has a financial agreement with the local radio station and felt the paper should “pay something and not just offer advertising pages as recompense for that access”. The Iron Trust, supported by Elliott, is negotiating a deal that, Swann says, “should enable the paper to access games”.
The transfer of the stadium and training facility to Swann’s company Coolsilk Property and Investment irked supporters. Swann says it was to help attract investors for the land adjacent to Glanford Park and create additional revenue streams, and that he has committed to returning the assets to the club. “To obtain finance for the development we have separated the football club on paper, so there is no risk to the stadium or the club and it is a more appealing project for investors, especially because of the risk involved in football,” he said. “On completion of the various projects the club will still have the ownership of its stadium and be in a far better position than when I picked the club up and settled the debt the club had accumulated, as it fell from the Championship into League Two.”
The club is under a transfer embargo pertaining to a loan from the EFL, which limits spending to 50% of turnover, within the budget set at the start of the season. Cox said appointing one of Swann’s sons, Will, a former football agent, as chief scout last year was his call. “Each time a new manager comes to a club he decides who his number two, coach and scouts are going to be; I do not influence any of those decisions,” Swann said. “He [Cox] had known William for several years, so although uncomfortable for me at the time I had confidence and no problem with his choices.”
Swann said sacking the Scunthorpe-born Cox and making Hill the club’s eighth manager in three years was done “to give us the best chance of league survival and I have full confidence in Keith to do that job.”