100 Owners: Number 83 – Peter Swales (Manchester City)

By on Sep 24, 2012 in History, Latest | 1 comment

On the fifth of May 1996, Manchester City drew at home against Liverpool and kissed goodbye to their Premier League status. It was the third time that the club had been relegated from the top division of English football in the previous thirteen years, but this was different – the beginning of the darkest period in the clubs history, a four year spell of misery and anger which saw it drop two divisions before fighting its way back to the top flight. Before the kick-off that day, however, the crowd at Maine Road fell silent to remember a man who came to embody the two decades of decline that had preceded that win or bust game. Peter Swales didn’t live to see his clubs fall from grace. Three days earlier, Swales, reportedly a man left broken by the coup which had ousted him from the clubs boardroom two and a half years earlier, had died at home from a heart attack at just sixty-three years of age.

Peter Swales ticked many boxes that led to ridicule on the Kippax terrace during his final years with the club. A self-made Manchester businessman once described by former manager Malcolm Allison as “a little man with a scrape-over hairdo and a blazer with an England crest on it”, he had become the target of one of the most sustained campaigns of its era to secure his removal from the club, but in the years that immediately followed his departure, Manchester City supporters might even have had cause to rue his departure and subsequent passing as their club continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. At the time of his departure from the club at the start of 1994, however, it all felt, to many of the clubs supporters, like the most natural thing in the world.

Swales arrival at Maine Road had come twenty-two years earlier, in the middle of a period during which it seemed as if the future of football in the city of Manchester might just belong to City rather than United. Since winning the European Cup in 1968 Manchester United had entered into a sharp decline, which was symbolically kicked off in that year, with City winning the Football League championship on the last day of the season. It was the start of three glorious years for the club. The following year City won the Charity Shield and the FA Cup, and in 1970 they won the League Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup. In 1972 they even came close to winning the league again. Swales joined the board of the club in 1971, with Noel White – later of the Liverpool board of directors and chairman of The Football Association’s International Committee – taking the chairmanship of Altrincham.

His own story in business had begun two decades earlier with a sheet music shop set up with business partner Noel White in 1951. White & Swales would soon diversify into television rental and the sale of radios and record players, and they were very much in the right place at the right time, with the sale and rental of television sets becoming a huge market in the 1950s, and in the summer of 1961 they were invited to put a little money into one of their local clubs, Altrincham. Seven years on from this White & Swales were instrumental in the formation of the Northern Premier League, but their ambitions were unlikely to be fully satiated by what non-league football could offer them in the days well before automatic promotion and relegation from the Football League, and for the ambitious Swales the opportunity to take over the running of a club the size of Manchester City was too good to turn down.

With transfer fees starting to spiral in an upward direction, by the end of 1973 Manchester City needed extra investment and Swales, who had cashed in on White & Swales to the tune of £500,000 through selling it to the electronics giant Thorn in 1968, had money. In addition to this, he was considered a peace-maker between two factions on the board, though his later comments on his accession to the chairmanship – he would later say, “I was 38, and full of myself. I went into this pub and saw two City directors sitting there and I thought, ‘This is an opportunity.’ So I went over to them, and I said, point blank, ‘You know all this trouble you’re having, I could sort that out for you.’ I had no bloody idea, none whatsoever” – indicated, as had happened with his chain of shops, a knack for being in the right place at the right time and little more.

In 1976 the club won the League Cup final at Wembley against Newcastle United, but this was to prove to be the calm before several years of storm. In terms of the battle for supremacy in their home town (always, it was strongly suggested, a subject uppermost in Swales’ mind), Manchester Uniteds decline had bottomed out with relegation to the Second Division in 1974, but attendances at Old Trafford held up and the club was promoted straight back at the first attempt. City, meanwhile, started to falter as the decade wore on. In 1977, Tony Book took the club to the runners-up spot in the Football League just a single behind Liverpool and he followed this up by taking the team to fourth place in the final league table a year later, but in 1979 Book was replaced by Malcolm Allison, who had previously been the assistant to Joe Mercer during the clubs golden years of the late 1960s and early 1970s but – perhaps significantly – also had an unsuccessful spell in sole charge of the club following Mercers departure to Coventry City in the summer of 1972.

Allisons second spell in charge of the club would come to be remembered for money squandered and mediocrity.  He controversially proven successes such as Peter Barnes and Gary Owen, replacing  them with players such as Michael Robinson and Steve Daley, who became the subject of the British record transfer fee when he moved to Maine Road from Wolverhampton Wanderers for £1.45m in September 1979. Allison would later claim that Swales brokered the deal behind his back, and Daley flopped to such an extent that his name became a byword for the failure of many of the big money transfers that followed in the wake of the first £1m sale – of Trevor Francis from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest earlier that year. Allisons team, however, couldn’t gel in the league and, having finished in fifteenth place in the table in 1979 finished two places below this a year later and suffered the indignity of getting knocked out of the FA Cup by Fourth Division Halifax Town in front of television cameras.

With the whole episode captured by the cameras of Granada Television, who were in the middle of recording a documentary programme about the club called “City!”, Allison was replaced by John Bond in October 1980 and Bonds first season ended close to success when his team reached the FA Cup final and was only beaten after a replay by Tottenham Hotspur. This, however, proved to be a false dawn and two years later Manchester City were relegated, but even the circumstances of this relegation were odd. City were in place ninth in the First Division table when Swales swung the axe on John Bond on the ninth of February 1983 and replaced him with his former assistant, John Benson. It was an error of judgement of cataclysmic proportions. Manchester City went into free-fall under Benson, winning just three matches over the remainder of the season and finding themselves somehow relegated come the end of the season after a one goal home defeat at the hands of Luton Town on its final day.

John Benson was the fourth of seven managers that Manchester City employed throughout the 1980s. The club would go on to spend four years of the rest of the decade in the Second Division, but by the time that the Premier League was starting to come to fruition Swales’ at Maine Road was starting to come to an end. At the start of the 1990s, the club had two good seasons, finishing in fifth place in the First Division for two successive years, and Swales was backed by two major share-holders in the club, the Manchester businessman Stephen Boler and Greenalls Brewery, which gave him a decree of security in his position within the club. As the Premier League started to take form, however, Swales was starting to look like more and more of an anachronism, a small-time businessman in a football world that was changing more quickly than he could ever keep up with. Manchester United were emerging ominously from a quarter of a centurys worth of relative under-achievement with a team speckled with local talent, ending their twenty-six year long run without a league title by becoming the first Premier League champions in 1993. When Citys manager Peter Reid lost three of his first four games at the start of the 1993/94 season he was sacked by Swales, and this proved to be the straw that broke the camels back.

With Reids departure, the gloves came off in the battle for control of Manchester City Football Club. Former player Francis Lee talked the talk and a supporter-backed movement called Forward With Franny was vocal in its support for his take-over bid. The end, however, didn’t come quickly. Swales hung on for power for several months, cutting an increasingly pathetic figure as, it often seemed, the whole club rounded on him. Death threats against him were claimed. As the battle for control of the club became increasingly bitter, Swales’ position became less and less tenable. Eventually, in January 1994, Lee took control of the club with his vice-chairman being David Bernstein, who was then a chartered accountant but is now the chairman of the Football Association. It has been said that the last few months of Swales’ time at the club did such damage to his health that it effectively signed his death warrant. Lee, for his part, later claimed that he spent much of his time at the club trying to undo lengthy and expensive contracts signed by Swales in his last few weeks at the club. Two and a half years later, Manchester City were relegated from the Premier League, and two years after this they were relegated again, this time to the Second Division of the Football League. By this time, Lee too had fallen on his sword.

Manchester City Football Club is almost unrecognisable from the withered husk of a club that carried the name in the middle of the 1990s, of course. It is important, however, to remember that this had not ever been thus for this club, and the decline of the club can be linked directly to Swales’ ownership of the club to the point that even Francis Lees disastrous four years in charge at Maine Road could, if we are feeling generous, be ascribed to having to clear up the mess left by his predecessor. Former manager Frank Clark, one of those charged with the job of trying to keep this listing ship afloat at the time, would later say that, “It will take a very, very long time to sort things out… it is a rat-infested place.” Rumour and counter-rumour surround much of Peter Swayles’ time at Manchester City, to the extent that giving completely definitive answers about his time at Maine Road becomes somewhat difficult. It is, however, true that his time at the club coincided with a decline in its fortunes which saw the promise of the end of the 1960s fall away to nothing within little more than a decade.

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    1 Comment

  1. I lived in Manchester towards the end of Swales’ reign, and all the City fans I knew despised him. But it was all relative. Compared to the ‘businessmen’ who ran football clubs during that period in the West Midlands – where I’m from – Swales looked like Alan Sugar.

    Any of his failings were always put into sharp relief by the successes of the red enemy. But during the 80s, City had by far the best youth policy of the two clubs, and briefly looked like they might be the ‘team of the 90s’ with Lake, White, Bishop, and co. They even beat United 5-1 once, and nearly cost Fergie his job…

    By the end, Swales was an anachronism, sure, out of his depth, probably – but the vitriol he got was harsh, and as you suggest, may have led him to an early grave.

    Incidentally, I’m pretty sure John Bond fell on his own sword – so you can’t really pin City’s relegation in 1983 on Swales as well.

    Frank Heaven

    September 25, 2012

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