SILKY Swansea’s League Cup Wembley triumph over plucky Bradford should have struck enough notes with Boro fans to score a symphony .
A requiem dominated by slow mournful strings so sad you could cry maybe – but ending with some flashing uplifting swirls of hope, redemption and resurrection too.
It should have echoes on Teesside, and not just because of lingering poignant daydreams of our heroes’ three handled trophy triumph in Cardiff in 2004, the shining silver memory that will protect us and keep us warm through the new Ice Age of austerity.
There are some sharp lessons to be drawn from the current status of both clubs and their turbulent back-stories over a dramatic decade.
Bradford first. Having been relegated from the Premier League with a millstone wage-bill, the legacy of the crazed shopping spree in “one week of madness”, the Bantams plummeted through the divisions, through a series of fire-sales and through a series of winding up orders, owners and administrators.
The club, as so many who fall off the cash bloated gravy train, went into a financial free-fall that so very nearly ended in extinction. Players were sold at massive losses, shipped out on loan and desperately paid to leave as their salaries crushed the life out of the club. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
After rejoining the club from a loan spell at Boro, Benito Carbone was begged to rip up his contract with the then chairman showing him the books and pointing out that if he held them to his contract the club would fold. The honourable little Italian agreed. Not many others would do the same.
Look at Portsmouth where some key players – already multi-millionaires – engaged in an undignified protracted squabble with administrators over loyalty bonuses on the steps of the High Court, taking the club right to the brink.
Bradford had over-spent and didn’t slam the brakes on quickly enough. Neither did they have the protection of a well wadded human shield in the boardroom. Most clubs don’t. In many clubs the owners and directors who had overseen the meltdown were away from the scene far quicker – and with more money – than the players were.
History shows that sides relegated from the Premier League generally gamble and try to keep their expensive squad together – and maintain their toxic wage bill – in a bid to bounce straight back. Boro did.
If you succeed, as Newcastle, West Brom and West Ham have done in recent years, all well and good; the intravenous cash flow resumes and you can clear the debt. Hurray! Trebles and wage rises all round!
But if you fail….
There is a long list of clubs who didn’t go straight back up. Almost all of them imploded in the two years that followed as the economic logic of vastly slashed income and a legacy of failed players on enormous wages that made them impossible to sell hit home.
Leeds, Forest, Southampton, Charlton, Coventry, Sheffield Wednesday and United, Portsmouth, Norwich, Leicester, Charlton – all were plunged deep into a bleak crisis.
Most went down another level before bottoming out. Most ended up in administration. Most went through several changes in ownership. Most lost control of their ground – the only concrete asset – as the deeds were shuffled around in a Byzantine paper trail offshore by speculators and chancers and banks.
While some are now ‘healthy’ most are now in the hands of foreign ‘investors’ shrouded in various levels of mystery who have generally borrowed the money for the takeover against the collateral of the club and who make no secret of their quest to get the Premier League to make a profit. Some are taking salaries, paying dividends to themselves and charging for unspecified services carried out by their other companies. Many are exporting matchday income abroad and funding day-to-day running through borrowing which is being piled up on the club for future owners to deal with.
People will point to the success stories: Southampton say. But to get where they are the Saints have gone through two administrations and a complex reverse takeover by a carehome company that almost dragged the club under went it collapsed. They too are now owned offshore and have funded their successive promotions with borrowing – how do you think they managed to pay for Rickie Lambert in League One? – that they gambled on paying off on promotion. Others – Leicester and Cardiff, Forest and Hull, – are following the time honoured route pioneered by Birmingham and Portsmouth.
That is a gamble, not an a full costed model of long term planning.
Most of the clubs who fell out of the Premier League and didn’t go straight back up drifted in the wilderness for frustrating years. And most are still in dire straits now with pressing historic debts or lease payments eating into meagre incomes from lower crowds with lower expectations. This legion of the damned numbers a third of the Championship.
Bradford took that route to the extreme and crashed straight through to the fourth tier and twice flirted with winding up and lost control of their ground. Coventry and Posrtmouth are not far behind them. The Bantam Menace fairytale run to the final is the heartwarming story of the season – but their’s is a cautionary tale.
And, without being overly dramatic, there but for the grace of Gibbo…
Boro were sane enough not to gamble. Shrewd enough and determined enough, and possible they luckily had the corporate structure to allow them to take radical evasive action with prudent and pronounced cost control: player sales, contracts run down, wage cutting, first rescheduling and then paying off debts to the banks, freezing recruitment, redundancies behind the scenes at every level. It is a scenario that has been played out in many firms in many industries in recent years. Not least my own.
Football clubs are not immune to the vagaries of the economy and if outside the cash bubble they need a clearly defined model to survive and grow off the pitch – and a clear vision of how to prosper on it.
Which brings us to Swansea.
The swash-buckling Swans’ League Cup win was well deserved and rightly acclaimed by public and pundits alike. They play a high-pressing, positive and dynamic game built on ball retention, fluid movement and quick passing, a ‘Swanselona’ style that is adored by the purists and pragmatists alike. Not only is it good to watch, it gets results.
And, of course, that is exactly the ethos and philosophy that Tony Mowbray espouses too. Who doesn’t these days.
But while cavalier Swansea may be ‘this year’s model’ for aspiring clubs eager to break into the Magic Circle, they didn’t get there overnight. This year’s model isn’t off the peg.
Far from it. A decade ago, when Bradford were putting their neck in the noose in the Premier League, the Swans hit rock bottom. They were 92nd in the pecking order, crushed by debts, tumbling crowds and a crumbling old Vetch Field ground and an inept team had a very gloomy immediate future.
What has happened since is an admirable template for a successful and sustainable football club in a small town.
Their success on the pitch is to be lauded, but it is the result of a slow and steady construction of the foundations of a new club from the bottom up.
It has taken patience, persistence and a steadfast belief in clear footballing principles and tight budgetary control, a strategy endorsed by the well run and widely respected Supporters Trust who own 20% of the club they helped save.
It has taken a lot of hard work off the pitch – and some luck, this is football after all – to foster a footballing philosophy and some astute work by the chairman Huw Jenkins to recruit the key personnel that buy into it and to create a financial model that supports and works in harmony with it. It is an holistic approach .
Starting in the fourth tier and stabilised under Kenny Jackett, Swansea’s project started in earnest with Roberto Martinez in charge. The club trained, recruited new players and brought up the juniors with the overall shape and style in mind. They played an exotic continental 433 when that was completely alien in England and when Tiki-Taka was still just a character on Tellytubbies.
And they have stuck with the passing game. Through spells of set-back and bad-runs and initial fan dissent at the lightweight and over-elaborate approach that didn’t always work on the archetypal wet February night at Rochdale.
They made it part of the DNA of the club and subsequent bosses – Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and now Michael Laudrup – have been recruited to suit and refine the philosophy rather than to ditch it in a self-defeating cycle of erratic knee-jerks and revolutions.
Having tactical stability enabled Swansea to build a scouting system to find players low on cost and high on technique who were tailored to the long term needs of the system and had a resale potential. It is Moneyball soccernomics in action.
Again, it has been a slow process. And a cost effective one. The side that went up through the play-offs two years ago had cost next to nothing.
Keeper Dorus de Vries, defender Gary Monk and midfielder Steven Dobbie were free agents. Left-back Alan Tate came from Manchester United reserves and Leon Britton from West Ham reserves for nothing and right back Angel Rangel came on a nominal fee from Real Zaragoza
The ‘big buys’ after promotion to the Championship were defender Ashley Williams from Stockport for £400,000 and Nathan Dyer, for the same price from Southampton.
The only hefty fee was the £1m paid to Chelsea by Brendan Rodgers for Scott Sinclair, the final piece of the jigsaw.
They also had Joe Allen, a youth product that after promotion they flogged to Liverpool for £15m. That income and the £8m from Manchester City for Sinclair paid for a Michu, De Guzman and a Premier League refit of better players in the same mould.
That is what Boro are trying to do.
Having stabilised the club financially and cleared the decks after the disastrous Strachan cul-de-sac the aim of the club heirarchy is to create the space and time for Tony Mowbray to progress towards a Teesside Tiki-taka: a high tempo, technically adept style of passing and fluid movement, a club with a clear footballing identity and supported by a coherent club infrastructure and recruitment policy.
It may take time – and it will almost certainly after go through some sticky patches – but that is the plan. And that’s why, despite a recent woeful run, there’s no internal pressure on the boss to change tack.
After years of throwing cash at problems and then years of difficult downsizing, Boro are now ready to grow again.
But it will be a sustainable route based on the example of Swansea rather than the failed one that Bradford represent.