A wider sadness surrounds Swansea’s relegation from the Premier League after an acrimonious couple of years than just the end of a romantic football flight. The “Swansea way” had more to it than the elegant style of passing football shaped through promotions by the managers Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers.
The cooperative, supporter-led ownership structure of the club was greatly admired and envied through the rise up the divisions but it was fractured by the majority shareholders’ sale in 2016 to the US investors Jason Levien and Stephen Kaplan.
Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chairman, when pushed in 2013 to identify an ideal ownership model in the era of overseas financial investors, named the alliance at Swansea. A small group of mostly lifelong supporters led by the chairman Huw Jenkins put relatively small amounts of money in to save the Swans from extinction in 2001. They worked in partnership with the mutual supporters trust, whose members raised £200,000 to own 21% of the club and have a director elected to the board.
That idealism and unity was shattered after the individual partners made millions personally by selling their shares to Levien and Kaplan, while not including the supporters in negotiations.
Swansea fans were not slow to understand the deal and, as Jenkins remained the chairman with the team struggling, home matches have been played to a regular accusatory chorus of “you greedy bastards”.
The trust, still deeply resentful, has taken legal advice about whether it has a claim that it was unfairly prejudiced as a 21% shareholder. A proposed deal agreed last year for Levien and Kaplan to buy half the trust’s stake was put on hold as the relegation battle set in.
Jenkins is considering stepping down from his position this summer. A possibility is that he will stay on for some weeks to help appoint a manager to replace Carlos Carvalhal then stand down. Levien and Kaplan are not putting Jenkins under pressure to leave but are considering the need for more structure to the recruitment of players than having Jenkins in effect running the whole football operation.
The Americans’ purchase valued Swansea at £110m, meaning Jenkins and eight other shareholders made 110 times the £1m collectively they put in to take over the then stricken club. The supporters trust – formed in those early days of the movement for fans to have mutual, democratic involvement in clubs – raised £200,000 for the 21% stake and played a major role in the wider campaign to save the Swans. The new owners quickly cut the club’s debts by entering into a company voluntary arrangement with creditors, then began the hard rebuilding. The upward trajectory was greatly boosted by the gift in 2005 of the Liberty Stadium, built with public money by Swansea council for £27m.[
After promotion to the Premier League in 2011, Jenkins and other directors began to be paid significantly for the first time and the shareholders were each paid dividends totalling £4m from 2012-15. They began to look at selling their shares but after the trust decided against selling to the US investors John Moores and Charles Noell, who eventually invested in Crystal Palace, Jenkins did not include the trust in his negotiations with Levien and Kaplan.
Their offer to buy the club for a £110m value meant Jenkins’s 13.2% shareholding, which cost him £125,000, was worth £14.5m; he is understood to have made £7.7m from selling a 7% stake. The eight other individual shareholders similarly made millions of pounds each by selling their shares.
Jenkins is now in conciliatory mood. “If, with the other shareholders, we could have done things differently, ensured the trust were on board with the sale, for the good of the club which would have benefited from a better atmosphere, I wish we had done that,” he said.
Kaplan and Levien have not been criticised as vehemently as the former shareholders who sold to them, although some fans have voiced discontent at a lack of spending, after Levien and Kaplan paid so much to buy the club. When they took over, Levien said they would develop the club but never promised they would put their own money in to sign more players or expand the stadium.
In February they did agree a new lease with the council, which they said would enable them to consider expanding the stadium. As part of the deal the club have committed to funding the construction of two new training pitches in Swansea for community use every five years.
Swansea will look to make use of the £76m relegated clubs receive in parachute payments to try to bounce back to the Premier League but the club’s embodiment of an ideal is finished and there is plenty in that for football at large to lament.