“We are all working class people” said Huw Cooze, the Supporters Director on the board of Swansea City. This remark stayed with me throughout and after my visit to Swansea to meet the Swans Trust team.
I was fortunate to be able to take in their Europa League game against St Gallen that evening and stay over. For the first time in many years I walked through streets of little terraced houses where the front door opens on the pavement; drank in a working mens’ club after the game, and travelled back through the steel and former mining communities which dominate the rail journey between Swansea and Cardiff.
Warm, welcoming, and unfailingly modest , the Swans Trust guys seem slightly embarrassed that other Trusts from all over the UK are beating a path to their door to find out the key to their success. They are quick to claim that they ‘got lucky’ and that their situation is in some ways unique. These guys made their own luck, and no one should begrudge them the wonderful evenings in places like Valencia. However, they are indeed doing us all a favour by pointing out the specifics of the situation.
In particular it’s worth reflecting on these points:
- When the Swans Trust started, it was one minute to midnight for Swansea City and the club was worth very little. In particular the club did not own the Vetch Field or any other significant property. So, while their achievement in getting the money together should not be sniffed at, the supporters raised just £50,000. That doesn’t buy you much of present day Charlton.
- Their remarkable rise through the leagues was, from a financial viewpoint, impeccably timed. They reached the Premier League just in time to catch the latest twist upwards in TV money. They had no debts to pay off and so have been able to use that money not just to invest in the team but in the badly neglected club infrastructure.
- One thing they don’t have to spend on is the stadium. The Liberty was built and is owned by the City Council. They might have to help fund further expansion but up to now they have not faced the capital costs that we faced in the 90s in rebuilding the Valley (and which we still repay). They do also share the stadium with the Rugby League club, the Ospreys, and, as a result, the Liberty has a somewhat bland, although unquestionably comfortable feel. I wouldn’t swap the Valley for it.
Going back to the beginning of their Trust, it is important to remember how different Swansea is to a club based in London. The plight of the Swans was a hot story in a proud, self-contained city. The bulk of the money came from a ‘consortium of local businessmen”. That is an oft heard phrase in football, but not in London football. We won’t be bought by such a consortium, although it would bring similar benefits if we were bought by a ‘consortium of Charlton-supporting businessmen’. They didn’t say as much, but I suspect that the Swans Trust and the rest of the Board share the same Swansea cultural roots. There won’t be so much of a culture shock or suspicion for their Supporters Director to deal with in the boardroom. Another quite important factor is that there is a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that no one director will hold more than a 25% share (the Trust holds 20%). Although there is nothing that specifically protects the Trust against dilution of its stake, this agreement clearly helps. So far the Trust has been able to take part in all distributions of share capital.
The other distinction is that the Swans Trust dominates the relationship between fans and the boardroom because it was virtually all that was left standing in the wreckage in 2001. The Swans Trust is a solid part of the fans’ landscape.
Having said that, you might be surprised to learn that the Swans Trust feels it has an uphilll battle to retain that solid position. It seems that, soon after it was founded, it reached 3,000 paying members. I’d estimate that to represent some 60% of the core support at the time. But it has gradually dwindled. It fell below 1000, just as the promised Premier League land was reached. Everything was going well and some did not see the relevance of the Trust any more. Faced with a potential loss of legitimacy, the Trust made basic e-membership free for all season ticket holders. Then there is paid membership with enhanced rights. So now there are over 15,000 Trust “ e-members”, of which about 1,000 are ‘enhanced’. This means that in the event of a crisis, or perhaps a need to remind the Council of something, the Trust can easily mobilise. However the decline in paid membership is to me further evidence that, in the absence of a major crisis, only a relatively small number of fans are actively interested in their club beyond events on the field. In that context our current membership of 800+ is an excellent achievement.
Unquestionably the Trust has played a key role in making Swansea an exceptionally well-managed club. Last year the club turned a profit of over £15m. For the first time a dividend was paid. Of course this was controversial. Some fans wanted all the money put back into the team. However the Trust has used the money to protect the future of its 20% stake. It has £400,000 in the bank with which to participate in the next share issue.
The Swans Trust democracy works like this; the (paid up) membership elects a Trust Board of 14 people and this Board elects the Supporters Director. In the days of Charlton’s SD, much was made of the duty of confidentiality, whereby the SD could not tell us about decisions made and on which he or she had voted (including the vote to abolish the post). At Swansea the SD is allowed to share information with the rest of the Trust Board. The SD has several times voted against motions supported by other Board members, and the rest of the Trust Board know about those votes.
The Trust is the main channel for fans’ typical issues. The Liberty car park is far too new to have potholes, but the Trust organises a twice yearly Fans Forum, and also has its own small office at the Liberty which is staffed on matchdays for people to make contact and bring their issues.
Modest they are, and lucky they may have been at various points, but this Trust is obviously well thought through and managed with a quiet passion. CAS Trust is in a different position, as the Swans Trust help their visitors to understand.The cost of a stake in Charlton is dauntingly high. The chances of future investors being fans, and “people like us”, is not that high. Also, we are a “Johnny come lately” in the role of fans’ representation. Yet there is much for us to learn from the Swans Trust, and much to take heart from. The best thing about them is that they are now the Kings of the Trust world, yet the individuals are ordinary, down to earth fans who readily see the instability of English league football’s finances, and the damage it does further down the leagues. These are all people who have experienced life at the very bottom of the football ladder. Indeed there was that familiar, heartbreaking moment when they told me that Charlton as a club had been their role model, and they wondered how it all went wrong so quickly.
I looked at them and thought that, somehow, they managed to take what we had achieved through the 90s and early noughties, transpose it to Swansea, and finish the job. To have a permanent stake in the Club, to have harmony in the relationship between Board and manager which outlives a change in manager, and to be in the Europa League and heading for the knockout stage, all without a rich foreign benefactor. The Swansea Trust feel a bit lonely in their success. They need other Trusts with similar values to flourish. If we can join them, we will be able not just to secure the future of CAFC but to campaign for a better future for football in the country -because we will be able to say, “We own a piece of it”.