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Relegation Looms. Where Now For The Club?

After the semi-final defeat against Huddersfield in May 2017 I sat with mates in the New Barrack Tavern as we cried into our beer. I had dark forebodings about what the future had in store for SWFC. It felt like that was the end of a short, positive era and we would move into an altogether more difficult time. On 17 March 2021 we again drew again 1-1 with Huddersfield after 90 minutes that, coupled with Birmingham’s 2-1 win, effectively ended any remote chances we might have of staying in the Championship. That draw has concluded 4 years of withering on the vine for SWFC, a period that has seen the squad stagnate with 6 permanent managers being unable to build out of it a team that can perform well consistently, a process that has accelerated at breakneck speed since Boxing Day 2019. Oh, and a little aside. Our starting 11 on Wednesday contained 7 players who were part of the squad in May 2017, I think Huddersfield’s contained 1. Says it all really.

Our club has found itself in League One 3 times so far. The 1974/75 relegation was the ‘Our Lowest Ebb’ period (read John Dyson’s excellent book of the same title for more detail), the 2002/3 relegation was a deep point in the post 99/2000 trough of despair, and 2009/10 was the bottom point of the crisis that nearly saw the end of the club due to the HMRC Winding Up Order. Through all those relegation battles we bemoaned the club, we worried about it, occasionally feared for its very existence, and quite often laughed at it, but I never thought that many active fans were alienated from the club. The 2020/21 season is a low point for the club, not quite there with the others, but as far as engagement, apathy and disregard goes it beats them hands down. Whatever happens in the rump end of 20/21 we are going down to League One and it is now time to think about 3 key things – Strategy for the club, fan engagement, finances and the future.

Strategy for the club

Currently there isn’t one! Well to be fair, according to Mr Chansiri at the Engagement Panel meeting, it is difficult to plan more than 12 months ahead due to not knowing what division we will be in. I am sure that is the strategy and planning that Norwich, Brantford and Barnsley have been working to in recent years!

My personal preference is for a club to have a philosophy and identity about how that club plays football and to have a Director of Football who oversees recruitment and retention of players and coaches who fit that model. That way when the impact of a head coach fades, he can be replaced with new one who fits the model rather than a manager who brings his own style and imprint on the team involving significant changes.  I accept the manager model can work, but the club has to give him clear authority, within a defined budget, to change the squad as he sees fit. Will DM get that authority?

In terms of Business Leadership/Direction/Management. A football club is a special type of business and it needs someone who knows how to run it. I am not convinced a management group made up of leaders of functions without a CEO, working to an owner based 1000’s of miles away with a 6 or7 hour time difference is the way to go. For me DC needs to take a massive step back and allow an experienced CEO to run the business.

Lastly the football and business operations of the club have to be working together in harmony if the club is to present a collective image of the club to fans and to new potential fans.

Engagement

Football clubs are not like normal businesses. The ‘customers’ see themselves as stakeholders in the history and the future of the business. That stakeholder mentality applies both to fans and businesses who have had a long-term relationship with the club. Buying a season ticket or an executive box is not just a transaction such as buying a cinema ticket. The people running the club need to understand this fundamental difference in the relationship and act accordingly. If a club treats its fans like customers, they will behave like customers. A good example of this is 19/20 season ticket refunds. Lincoln City has a positive approach to fan engagement, the club offered season ticket holders a choice of exchanging what they were owed for shares in the club or taking a refund – over 90% left the money in the club. SWFC offered 8 different options yet 55% took the full refund options. See the difference? And we still haven’t refunded a large number of them!

Engagement is a way of being, it is a style and culture that’s in the DNA of the club. An Engagement Strategy is more than just a few meetings of an engagement panel of fans and fans groups and the club. That way of being requires direction from the top and cascading down through all aspects of the club. Is that what SWFC are seeking to deliver?

Finances and the Future

Club accounts show that the club lost £75.3m over the last three years we have accounts for - losing £68k every day for those three years. Wages in 18/19 were 160% of revenue, i.e. for every £1 of revenue the club receives, it pays out £1.60. The club will pay £2.6m each year to use Hillsborough for 30 years, in 18/19 this was 10% of turnover and will be a greater proportion of League One turnover. This is not sustainable.

The 19/20 accounts will show the early impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic as the 5 lost games and season ticket refunds will be in those accounts. The 20/21 accounts (like those for many clubs) may well be a car crash given no income etc.

With this financial background, compounded by reduced income due to loss of the football habit, alienation from the club and League One football, I worry for the financial future and stability of the club. The club needs major change and a fundamentally new approach. It needs a strategy that has sustainability, progress and engagement at its very heart. Mr Chansiri has supported the club financially but the strategy (if that is what it was) has failed. I have said before the “Chansiri Out” is a slogan, not a strategy. But if fans don’t see evidence of a new approach to secure the future of their football club, that call for new ownership will become louder and will be heard far wider.

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12.04.2021
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