Robins Could Be Rocked Again
Over the fortnight Sheffield Wednesday supporters should be feeling relieved and maybe still a touch groggy from imbibing a few drinks for the dink. Having been frustrated until recently by the form of Gary Megson’s side which saw Wednesday drift agonizingly close to the relegation zone of League One, Owls faithful saw the club come around on Hartlepool 2-1 and nick a point off Walsall to mathematically avoid demotion to League Two. In between, Wednesdayites celebrated the 20th anniversary of their last League Cup triumph over Manchester United, relishing the fact they are the last club outside the top flight to have taken home one of the two major domestic trophies in the English game. John Sheridan’s winner, affectionately recollected now as “The Dink,” is a lasting moment of glory for a club that can still be considered big despite not having played in the top flight for over a decade.
That sense of easement and giddiness from conquests of old cannot be felt by those SWFC last opposed in Hillsborough, though, as Wednesday condemned Swindon Town to League Two football next season with a 3-1 post-anniversary victory on Monday. As the week has progressed, Town’s chair Andrew Fitton has stood down after three years at the helm and manager Paul Hart was sacked by the interim chair Jeremy Wray rather than be allowed to finish the final two matches of a season that is finished. Hart’s record since taking over the Robins–just one win from eleven matches with six defeats–essentially doomed his short reign, so he was unlikely to be managing Town into the next season regardless. Long serving youth team coach Paul Bodin will see out the remaining fixtures for a club whose wings have melted like Icarus after flying tantalizingly close to the bright lights of the Championship with last season’s playoff run.
What should be of particular concern to Swindon Town supporters is the future of Mr. Fitton at County Ground. Having lead the consortium that initially purchased a 75% ownership stake that was finalized in 2008, Fitton’s group swiftly cleared the club’s duty owed for Prince William’s wedding, thus removing the club’s transfer embargo it had been penalized after defaults from its outstanding arrears stretching back to 2002. Fitton, Wray, and the Robins’ board of directors could be considered model owners during their tenure. Although some in Swindon might have chafed at the cautiousness with which Fitton, et al approached the transfer market in challenging for league honors following the sales of players Simon Cox, Anthony McNamee, Gordon Greer, and Charlie Austin over the years, it could be said they were attempting to do something attempted less often than Paul Hart grabbing for a hair brush by clearing all the club’s prior legal and financial entanglements so that its future would be less murky. A hindrance to Swindon Town Football Company Limited in pursuing more adventurous gambles in promotion battles might also have been its slightly odd relationship with the Football Association. Despite having seemingly met the conditions of its CVA by July 2008, administration proceedings were not officially satisfied for another two years. As the Football League passed Fitton’s group fit and proper to run the club and had lifted the transfer embargo once debts were eliminated, the FA apparently had reservations and according to Fitton, had suspended Swindon Town’s membership for still being financially delinquent per Companies House. The principal hang-up appears to be debt owed to one of the old creditors that wasn’t properly resolved along with the nearly £1 million claim from Datasat that had previously been assumed not to have been counted as a loan debt.
Presently, though, Town’s books appear less smudged than before as the club reported being nominally profitable in January this year and planned to continue expansion at County Ground. Following relegation and Mr. Fitton stepping away as chair, however, increasing seating capacity from 19,000 to 25,000 might be placed on hold as the goal of playing Championship football in a couple seasons is unlikely. Also, after enduring the drawn out saga in exiting administration, one wonders what reserves Fitton has left to remain on the board to begin again Town’s quest for Championship football. Having removed himself as chair now would appear ominous for the club’s future, as during the battles with Shaw Park and Datasat until 2010, Fitton had questioned his own commitment to the club then.
The current phrase being applied to Fitton’s current involvement with the Robins, that “he will retain some involvement within the club in the near future” could ring a bit hollow some time soon. Should he decide to recharge his batteries by departing Swindon Town altogether, this could call into question wealthy investor Sir Martyn Arbib’s continued involvement in the club as well. Arbib’s stake in the company is that of an investor when Fitton’s consortium took ownership of Town and it is said his monetary muscle largely assisted STFC Limited in righting Town’s ship from the off. If Arbib’s interest in the club is generally based out of his relationship with the local businessman Fitton, he might choose to back away if Fitton steps down from the board of directors too. Should this occur, the club would likely be back to living a financially-worrisome existence as there are no more players to sell and the current lease on County Ground expires in two years.
Certainly, this is advanced panic-mongering, but if the football world has demonstrated anything it is that calamity strikes fast and often takes no prisoners. With the individual given a great deal of the credit for Swindon Town’s resurgence stepping away from his active duties and providing the supporters no firm response to his continued length of stay other than he’s “there for now,” supporters could soon be hearing the sounds of squeaky bums. After all, in less than one year, the Robins will be transitioning from 2nd tier aspirants to 4th tier definites, and as revenue shrinks the further down the league system a club descends, an influential investor like Arbib could opt to cut his losses and move on to more fruitful ventures with a clear conscience.
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