Whiter than white though some might claim it to be, the history of football in England is pock-marked with attempts to bend the rules as set out by the Football Association. The punishments meted out to these clubs have been many and varied, but it could be argued that few in recent have suffered a penalty as harsh as Swindon Town did in the summer of 1990. In some respects, this is perhaps unsurprising. The club had been the aim of a sustained investigation by a national newspaper, and the charges brought against the club coincided with what should have been the biggest moment in its history. At times such as these, the football authorities have to be seen to act, if for no other reason than as a deterrent to others that might have been considering a similar route.
In the case of Swindon Town, however, the matter of Swindon Towns financial irregularities didn’t end in the dusty rooms of Lancaster Gate. It ended with an Inland Revenue investigation into the financial affairs of some of the biggest clubs in the country and with a court appearance for their then-owner, Brian Hillier.
Hillier, a builder by trade and a life-long supporter of Swindon Town Football Club, had worked as a scout for Birmingham City, but our story begins in 1984, when he was appointed as the chairman of the club that he supported. Two years later the club was promoted from the Fourth Division with a record points tally of one hundred and two, by this time Hillier had already managed to court controversy with the clubs supporters. Hillier had replaced former manager Ken Beamish in the summer of 1984 with the former Manchester United player and Scotland international Lou Macari. Macari chose another former Manchester United star of the past, former goalkeeper Harry Gregg, as his assistant manager but it soon became apparent that the two disagreed on many different matters. Few, however, would have expected the events of Good Friday in 1985, however, when the club reacted to this in-fighting by sacking both Gregg and Macari. The reaction of the clubs supporters was instant and vitriolic, with protests and a petition, and the following Wednesday, the club issued a statement saying that, “Having taken into considerations all the factors the board has unanimously decided to reinstate Lou Macari.”
It was a decision that would come to have lasting ramifications for the club, for better and for worse. Macaris team won promotion at a canter at the end of the following season, and after just a year in a higher division they won a second successive promotion, this time via the newly-created play-offs after a replay win against Gillingham at Selhurst Park, with a team containing the likes of Fraser Digby, Steve White, Martin Ling, Alan McLoughlin, Phil King, Craig Maskell and Jimmy Quinn, amongst others. Macari would leave the club for West Ham United in 1989 and his replacement came in the form of the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Osvaldo Ardiles, but three weeks before the start of the 1989/90 season, a newspaper story broke which would change both Brian Hilliers life and, perhaps, the destiny of Swindon Town Football Club forever. The People newspaper ran a story alleging that Hillier had bet – in contravention of FA rules on such matters – on Swindon Town winning the Division Three title in 1987 as an “insurance policy” against bonuses that would have to be paid out to players in the eventuality of the club winning the title.
This, however, serious it was, was only the tip of the iceberg, though. Two months later, a second People exposé claimed that Hillier had bet £6,500 on Swindon Town to lose an FA Cup match played two years earlier against Newcastle United, which the team had lost by five goals to nil – he won his stake back plus £4,000 in case you were wondering. This was clearly an even more serious allegation than the first – betting on your team to win, whilst already a breach of FA rules, is one thing, but betting on your team to lose is a different matter altogether, especially in circumstances under which they subsequently do lose heavily – and Hillier was banned for six months by the Football Association, a sentence which was subsequently increased upon appeal to three years, while Lou Macari, who was still the clubs manager at the time, was eventually forced to resign his position at West Ham United in order to seek to clear his name of the allegations made against him.
By the start of 1990, however, and in spite of the fact that Ardiles had managed to keep the team playing well in Division Two regardless of what had been going on behind the scenes at the club, the storm clouds over the club were darkening still further. In January 1990, a third People exposé alleged widespread illegal payments to players. The Inland Revenue confirmed an investigation into the clubs affairs a month later and a date was scheduled for the end of the season in order to establish the clubs guilt and what further punishments should be served by those concerned. This, however, created a degree of uncertainty over the end of the Football League season. Swindon were, after all, well ensconced in the Division Two play-off places and at the end of the season, although Hillier, Macari, captain Colin Calderwood and club secretary Vince Farrar were all arrested and questioned shortly before the final match of their league season by the Inland Revenue officials over the charges (Calderwood was released without charge, the rest were only released on bail), Swindon Town beat Blackburn Rovers over two legs in the semi-finals of the play-offs to reach the final against Sunderland at Wembley.
What happened that afternoon was probably not what either the FA or the Football League wanted. Swindon won the match at Wembley, which was watched by a crowd of almost 73,000 people, by a goal to nil, with the winning goal coming thanks to a deflected shot after twenty-five minutes from Alan McLoughlin. The clubs joy, however, was short-lived. It took just ten days after the end of the season for the club to face the wrath of the FA, admitting thirty-six charges of breaching Football League rules, of which thirty-five related to illegal payments made to players. The punishment was severe, too. The club was demoted two divisions and would start the following season back in Division Three of the Football League. The club immediately appealed the decision and, although they couldn’t take the matter to court, and noisy protests from supporters might not have been expected to achieve anything, the clubs sentence was upon appeal commuted to a one division relegation. With an incoming new chairman tightening the purse strings at The County Ground, though, Ardiles couldn’t build upon the side that he had taken to fourth place in the table at the end of the previous season and the sale of players such as Paul Bodin and Alan McLoughlin meant that when Newcastle United approached him about their vacant managerial position in March of 1991, they found him eager to jump ship. He was replaced by Glenn Hoddle.
For Brian Hillier and Vince Farrar, however, the story didn’t end here. In the summer of 1992, they ended up in the dock of Winchester Crown Court on charges of conspiring to make payments to staff without deduction of income tax and national insurance contributions. The court heard that over £100,000 – since repaid – had been made through signing-on fees, top-ups of wages and man-of-the-match awards, and had been financed by diverting cash from match programme sales, gate receipts, sponsorship and supporters’ club funds. Farrar, who was not a qualified accountant, had accepted a position as a part-time book-keeper at the club and when he became aware of the illegal activities he had admitted it was difficult for him to give up his job because of family commitments. He was sentenced to a six month suspended prison sentence while Hillier, whose defence seemed to have been based around the his belief that such practices were widespread throughout the game (the judges comment on that was to say that, ‘If that were to be the case, though I do not accept that, it is high time someone was made an example of to see it does not happen again’), was sentenced to twelve months in prison, a sentence which was later reduced to six months upon appeal. Club secretary David King, who was also charged, admitted the offences and also received a suspended prison sentence.
Hilliers involvement in professional football was over. He returned to the game as the chairman of non-league Calne Town, and died after suffering a stroke and a brain haemorrhage in October 2008 at the age of sixty-five. Swindon Town, meanwhile, did get their chance at the top division. Glenn Hoddle took them there in 1993, but upon getting promotion he promptly left the club for Chelsea, leaving the hapless John Gorman to preside over the club finishing in bottom place in the Premier League and conceding one hundred goals in their thirty-eight matches. Might things have been different had Lou Macari or Osvaldo Ardiles still been in charge? We’ll never know, and similarly unanswerable is the question of whether the team of 1990 would have fared better in the First Division during the 1990/91 season. If it had, it’s possible that Swindon Town might have ended up amongst the founders of the Premier League, with financial advantages that might have allowed the club to establish itself in the top division. The FA, meanwhile, did investigate illegal payments in football, but no other club was ever punished to the extent that Swindon Town was as a result of their findings. In 1994, Tottenham Hotspur were docked twelve points, banned from the FA Cup for a season and fined £600,000 over financial irregularities, but their sentence was commuted to just a fine upon appeal. Spurs finished the 1994/95 season in seventh place in the Premier League table and got to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
Was the punishment served by Swindon Town too harsh, though? Probably not. The combination on betting on your club to lose coupled with widespread illegal payments to players paints a picture of toxic financial management at the club at that time, and the involvement of a national newspaper coupled with an investigation by the Inland Revenue forced the hands of those that had to be seen to be acting. The question of whether Swindon Town was picked up on, however, is a subtly different one and a case can be made for seeing the discrepancy between the punishment eventually served by Tottenham Hotspur over their misdemeanours just four years after Swindon were so severely censured through the prism of all football clubs being equal, but some more equal than others. In Brian Hilliers mitigation, it might also be suggested that at least his behaviour was to the benefit of his club, which is more than can be said for some of the other characters in this series. Ultimately, though, justice was done in the case of Swindon Town and the Inland Revenue in terms of those caught with their fingers in the till at The County Ground during the late 1980s. There was, however, no such restitution for those supporters that saw the promised land of First Division football in the summer of 1990 before having it snatched away through the misdemeanours of others. Ever, we might choose to reflect, was it thus, and ever will it likely be.
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