Swansea City Supporters Trust chairman Phil Sumbler gives Jack Swan magazine a really honest interview about his and the trusts relationship with Huw Jenkins and the new owners and tells us about the departure of Huw Cooze. A great insight into what is going on behind the scenes at Swansea Football Club right now. Really appreciate Phil’s time, the interview is in full in issue #55 of Jack swan which is out now!
Have we seen a large increase in membership in recent weeks?
Yes, since we did the forum in October. The membership was about eight or nine hundred and when we did the latest count it was about 1700. It was pretty much the same when the last American deal was going around. We had a large peak at that point too.
What can Trust members do at this time?
It is probably a spread the word situation really. We have given two, maybe three key addresses in recent times, the first forum back in October and it’s a case of people sharing that message, if you sit amongst 6 people on a match day and you think they don’t know then tell them what is going on because the local press haven’t reported an accurate account of what has been going on. You hear it and read that ‘we got £100 million’ and we don’t and people need to understand that.
I must admit that I found it strange that your address to the forum was barely noticed in the local media.
Yeah, I don’t know whether the club are stopping them doing it or whether they are afraid to come out and say these things but right from the moment that it was first reported back in April, it was all ‘this is great, this is what is needed’ and there was nothing really that questioned what was going on. Not in the way that we would have liked it to be done.
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It has all changed from last time that we sat here. For those who didn’t read the 5000 words we printed in issue 53 in Jack Swan which was from your address to the trust; I think the main parts was that the Trust was kept totally out of the loop with regards to the sale of the shares but what I think really upset and surprised a lot of people was the solicitors letter which the Trust was asked to sign. Could you tell us a bit about that?
This goes back to before the sale of the club, we got a letter from the solicitor who dealt with some of the sellers and the letter basically said ‘here is the new shareholders agreement, this has now been agreed by everyone and it is there to be digested’. It is a document which we can’t buy into and it is a document which effectively gives 75% of voting rights to the new shareholders, it’s a document which doesn’t give any protection against dilution, it’s a document that effectively says that we would have to be dragged along with a sale, You assume that at some point the Americans will want to make a profit and if in four or five years time they want to sell then we want to have that option to decide if it is the right thing to do or not. I don’t think we should ever be in a position where we are forced to sell, I think it should be what is right for us and right for the club.
After we did our form in October, we received a letter about 2 or 3 days later from a solicitor. It was written to us on behalf of Swansea City football club so our first question was ‘how can you be writing to us on behalf of Swansea City Football Club when we are 21% of Swansea City football club and so you have to clarify who you are acting on behalf of and there was a whole host of things that he misinterpreted but I think the key one which seemed a lot like bullying was him effectively saying ‘please don’t talk to the press about these things because they are all un-truths’ and nothing in that statement do we believe was un-true and there was certainly nothing that was liable because it had been through a liable lawyer before we released it to make sure that there was nothing liable in there. We wrote back and we haven’t heard anything about it since, it did feel like it was just them hoping to tell us off and expect us to never say anything again. We had a good lawyer from London who Dai suggested and they picked so many holes in the letter and sent a response back that I think we put them back in the box, it was basically a case of ‘you may think that we are going to go away but we are here for the long haul’. When people say that we don’t fight, we do fight and when we fight we are actually very good at it.
I’ve had the impression that yourself and Huw Jeknkins have always got on pretty well, travelled to away matches together at times. Are you and Huw Jenkins currently on talking terms?
To answer the first part of that, I don’t think I have ever travelled to an away match with Huw Jenkins. Huw and I have always had a relationship that has been chairman to chairman. I don’t want to talk out of turn here but I don’t expect that he classifies me as a friend and I wouldn’t class him as a friends but we had a working relationship which is one head of the football club and one head of the supporters trust. We are still on talking terms, that relationship is still there. It will always stick in the trusts throat that all of this was done behind our backs and they didn’t want to bring the largest individual share holder into it. I think Huw Cooze was very friendly with Huw Jenkins, he did travel to away matches with Huw Jenkins and I think that it did hit him personally, for me and as an organisation then we were hit on a professional level but I think it did hit Huw Cooze as a friend too.
I’ve stated in the magazine and I’ve mentioned to you before that I only comment as I see things but I feel that Huw Jenkins has been distracted over the last 12 months and possibly longer and that the sale of the club took priority over manager appointments and player recruitment, do you agree with this?
Yes 100%. I don’t think that is necessarily just Huw. I think that all share holders have been distracted by the potential sale and the prospect of money coming through and I think that without a doubt, the last transfer window was a massive missed opportunities because of the sale going through. I know it went through 21st July but by the time the new owners come in and decide what you are going to do then it’s a missed window. I think you are right that pretty much since the first deal went off the table, there has been a distraction and that’s another thing where you fee that if it had all been straight and honest and all pulling together then that distraction could never have happened.
Last time we spoke, we talked about the importance of Huw Jenkins remaining as chairman. With recent revelations, the clubs state on and off the pitch, Should he carry on or should he be sacked?
The Americans have got the voting rights in this and their belief is yes and Huw has built an incredible knowledge of the club over the last 13 years. He has made and I’m sure this would be by his own admission that he’s made some big mistakes. Should he be sacked? The answer to that will always be what is best for the football club. If Huw is the best person for the club then he should remain but Huws passion for the club ten years ago when he didn’t have multi millions of pounds in the bank and a big salary could be different to what it was when he was doing something that he’s passionate about and doing on a voluntary.
It can’t be good to have a chairman who has lost the trust of the Supporters Trust, I can help feel that something has to give?
I don’t even think that it’s that he’s lost the trust of us I think that he’s lost the trust of the fans over recent months. The trust has 1700 members but that’s just a number to us, it’s an important number but we are the fans representatives as well and we have to be mindful of the general feeling of the fans .
I know you have stated that the past board members shouldn’t be allowed in the director’s box and receive the benefits that they previously had, what is going on with this?
To your first point, we have a generic viewpoint which is that of you don’t have a 5% share in the football club then you shouldn’t get a seat at the board. I don’t think that 1% should give you a seat on the board because you could have thirty board members in theory and we have always said this. We do obviously have two former board members who own over 5% in their own right and that’s Huw and Martin, so their board positions are slightly different but for anyone with less than 5% then I don’t see why they should be involved in the board unless they have some special expertise which we don’t currently have, like legal expertise for example that brings something extra to the table.
Rumour has it that Van Zveeden received 100 tickets for home matches in a part of his sale deal, is there any truth in this and what are your opinions?
Yes, we looked into this. John runs a website where Dutch fans come over and I think that it’s fair to say that back in League 1 and the championship this arrangement of fans coming over from Holland was appreciated by the club. We are assured by the club that there are sufficient Jack Army memberships bought at the start of the season to allow 50 tickets per game and the tickets are purchased through the normal channels and that’s the message that we have had to the new owners that if it is all done through the right channels then we are fine with that but it has to be done properly and not through the back door.
So as far as you know everything is fine there?
That is what I’m being told.
In your view, why are the American owners here?
Swansea is a club that has clearly over performed on the pitch in recent years, off the pitch we are woefully underperforming in particular in the commercial side of the club. I give you the classic example; our kit deal with Joma was published at £2 million, Southampton’s was £8 million, so it’s a big and woeful underperformance so I think that they see an opportunity to build the commercial side of the club and the brand in the States as they become more and more into premier league football and at some point they are going to want to make a profit. What I don’t think is that that they have come here to asset strip and make a short term gain. If you look at any Premier League football club then the TV deal keeps going up, I think they probably bought the club on the cheap as well. If we are in the Premier League in three or five years time then it will probably be worth double that. So it’s important that we prepare ourselves right now because these guys might turn out to be alright but the next ones might not. We don’t know
Surely they need to invest to secure the clubs Premier League future and ultimately not lose their current investment. Can you see that happening?
This is the challenge. I don’t think personally that we will spend big in January. Premier League survival isn’t the big thing to the Americans it is being tin the Premier League at the right time. If we go down next year then our wages goes down, the big thing for them is to be on the premier league when they want to sell the club. We have to remember that they offered us a non-dilution of shares agreement until May which probably suggests that they had no interest in investing any more money in the club until at least then. Then we have the question as a trust that causes us a dilemma of do we really want to throw away money in January, Newcastle is the prime example, everyone was saying last year ‘they bought Jonjo, they bought Townsend, they have spent this much money, they are guaranteed to stay up’. They now have a very good championship squad which they have been able to maintain but we may not be able to do that and we don’t want to be in a position where we have to go up straight away should we go down. Burnley are a good example, when they go down they seem to not panic and come back slightly stronger, The club have got to balance the short term ambition with the long terms stability of the club.
Are relationships improving between the new owners and the Trust? Quite frankly, they seem to have dealt with a number of things incredibly badly.
The arrival of Chris Pearlman has made discussions a lot moiré frequent. I think I’ve met Chris three times and Stuart may be ahead of me on that so we have a better insight into the things that they are thinking, the longer thinking of the club but that is all on a working level. Where the relationship is still not where we want it to be is the next level up, shareholding and them knowing what we are about and us knowing what they are all about and that is still a working progress and its hindered massively because one of the two majority shareholders is based in California and one is based in New York and we firstly can’t just see them whenever we want but we also have to balance a 5 and an 8 hour time distance. When we got to 5 o’clock and our working day is coming to an end then its 9 o’clock in California and Steve is just getting into work. It results in some late night email chats, whatever but every opportunity when they are over here then we are in their faces.
Do you feel that they are slowly understanding the importance of the trust and the fans?
Slowly. I genuinely do think that they liked the concept of 21% of the club being owned by the fans but I don’t think they understood how it worked in practice. The Man Utd game was a classic example, it had a real poisonous atmosphere in the stadium when we went 3-0 down and the venom that went towards the directors box was something I’ve not seen in a long long time at Swansea. Jason Levien was over for that game and I saw him afterwards and I said ‘that’s what you are up against’ the fact we are bottom of the league doesn’t help but that anger isn’t because we are bottom of the league but it’s because the way things have been done and it can be so easily resolved. If we can come up with something positive then we can kill a lot of these problems and focus on what is going on on the pitch.
I know that you rightly don’t want to give away too much about negotiations but is it possible or even likely that shares could be sold between trust and the new owners? Either the trust buying more shares or indeed selling them?
The selling ship seems to have disappeared with the new owners. Their stance is that they don’t want to buy any shares at this time and they don’t want to buy our shares at this time. I don’t see us buying new shares because of the monetary costs, even to get that extra 4% will be £5 million. We have £800,000 in the bank, we expect some dividends but we are a long way away. The only way that we can get more money is to have share schemes, get people to put £10 away a month into the trust but your maths will tell you that you need a lot of ten pounds. It’s a model that can be done, if anyone wants to look at Hearts Supporters Trust, one of the things that they said last time that we spoke to them is that they have 8,000 members and each of them give at least £10 a month and their turnover because of that is £1 Million so it is a model that can work but I think it works better when you’re not in the Premier League because most people think that you got £120 million coming into the club then you don’t need it,
Will Leigh Dineen be back on the board by Christmas?
The club board meeting is next week and it has been put on the agenda. Leigh doesn’t hold a 5% share in the club. We believe that Chris Perlman has been brought into take care of the commercial side of the club and so we don’t see the need for Leigh to be on the board. They have 75% voting rights and so technically it is up to them but they know the trusts viewpoint on this. If I was to be a betting man then I don’t think he will.
Your dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. When you keep things in house then the trust aren’t doing enough, when you release statements and bring things into the public eye then your accused of hanging dirty laundry out. Is this balance difficult and are the Trust getting it right?
It close on impossible at times. I think that the people who attended the AGM on Mondays saw this, the frustration that we have is that we are all swans fans, we accept that we have made mistakes in the past but we can’t play every move in public because there has to be an element of surprise to it for the people that we are coming up against. The few times that we have put things into the public eye it has been really structured because we have been able to go this is where we are. People say why we don’t say the full legal options well we don’t want to do that because there is someone who is going to counter those options and you don’t want to do that. If you were going to sue a former employer and you wasn’t sure if your case was water tight then you would be foolish to drop them a line first and say ‘I’m likely to sue you in a few weeks, thought I’d’ let you know’.
I have to talk about Huw Cooze. When did you know he was receiving a salary from the club?
The salary and payments are slightly different things, We need to get this right, when the payments first started they were very much compensation for loss of earnings, I think that was the key but as the club has grown as has the time needed for his role. When the club was in league one, Huw did the printing, Huw did that cheaper than anyone, on deadlines that no other companies couldn’t match, he would quite often get a Wednesday addition to the programme as it was going to bed and so he would quite often do things like that and so pretty much from 2010 we were award that there was a return for loss of earnings for such things. That escalated as the SLO came in and the time he was putting into the club increased. And what he was getting in his SLO role and his loss of earnings became very clouded. We knew there was money but we didn’t really understand the extent of it. The last year was the one where we thought that we need to change this. We already contacted the club in the Summer and said that we think that this should be paid to the Trust and then for us to decide where that money goes. Ultimately if someone is giving 20 hours a week then they should get something for their loss of time or expenses or something like that.
Was he giving those 20 hours a week to the Trust or to the Club?
That’s the bit that got clouded and when we were doing the governance review it wasn’t completely clear. If you get a chance to speak with Huw you could go through the list of everything he did, he will tell you and it is a phenomenal amount of stuff but when we were sat there and we went through the list then we couldn’t really work out which ones were what because ultimately anything that is good for the club is also good for the trust because the club gets stronger. But the balance between it had got completely clouded and it was long before we received the list of payments that we decided that the supporter’s director role and the supporters liaisons role have to be undertaken by 2 different people. The director has to be totally neutral in it all and certainly not receiving a salary from the club. The timing of it all becoming public was unfortunate because I was away, it was half-term and in fact the conversation I had with Huw Cooze saying that I think he should step down was in the Trafford centre in Manchester.
So was he reluctant to?
No, I think he just wanted us to confirm that it was the right decision. He offered his resignation and I think me and him spoke for about an hour and my viewpoint was simple that as an organisation we would never have recovered had he not stepped down. As much as we are getting criticism now for not making it public earlier and you are asking me questions for it now, we wouldn’t have recovered if we hadn’t made that change. We are fortunate that in Stuart we have someone with fantastic passion and drive to take the Trust and club forward and I think we are already seeing that.
And is Huw still in that role for the club?
As SLO? To my knowledge, no, I think the club want him to carry on it than role, the last time that we spoke with him, he told us that he wasn’t. Ultimately Huw is no longer a part of the Trust board, he’s not aware of our strategy and so if the club want to take him on then he’s free to do so but as far as I’m aware then he isn’t right now.
Should this have been made public at the time? Can you understand people’s frustration with having the fans representative on the board receiving payments from the club?
Completely, yeah. Hindsight in any form of life is a wonderful thing and we get heavily criticised for not bringing it out earlier and they are right, we should have done that but we can’t go back and change that now. All we can do is make sure that the mistakes aren’t repeated again and steps have already been taken and so the club has been told that if there are any payments to be made to the supporters director then that is to be paid directly to the trust and the viewpoint is a simple one, it should only ever be for expenses. For arguments sake if Stuart was attending a board meeting in Birmingham then it is my belief that as a volunteer then he should have his trabelloing expenses covered. If he decides that he wants to watch Swansea away at Middlesboro then that is because he wants to go and so he shouldn’t be compensated.
That money then comes from the trust?
From the trust yeah, so we can be completely visible and our accounts can show exactly what we are paying out in terms of expenses, the ultimate plan is to have an expenses chart or whatever you want to call it so that we can show that if we paid Stuart £300 this month for arguments sake for a trip to London, train to Birmingham and a drive to Cardiff and it all has to be trust related activities.
And just quickly and for the record, there are no other skeletons in the cupboard, as far as you know, yourself or any other trust member received any direct payments from the club?
No, we have looked into things; I have never received any payments from the club. The odd expenses claim from the trust but I’ve managed to keep that down the a minimum because I have always tried to tie things in with other things so if I’m in London with work then I try and combine anything I do with that and so its funded by the company I work for. The only one and this is publically available and that is Jim White, he used to do some work with the club for marketing and things like that but that was probably 4 or 5 years ago. Ian James who is a member of the trust board, is also the disability liaisons officer at the club, Ian is deaf and he does a lot of work with the disabled. The club actually approached him a few months ago and said that they wanted that position to be a part time paid position and Ian has turned that position down because he felt that there would be a conflict of interest. He told us and we actually said that we’d back him if he wanted to take the role because he is a really good person and the club have had excellent reports for how we treat disabled people and our facilities and a lot of that is down to the work that Ian has done but he felt that his work with the trust is more important. So with this one there are no skeletons out there, the only one who receives anything is Dai on the legal side but that’s essential part of what we do and that isn’t to Dai it is to his company.
Tell me about Huw’s replacement. I don’t think I’ve ever met him personally. What do we need to know about Stuart McDonald?
I’ve known Stuart for about 15 years, used to talk to him a little bit when the trust first started. He’s an accountant by trade and spent a lot of time with the Swansea senior league. He’s treasurer for that and has been for a long long time so he’s got a lot of knowledge about football in Swansea. He’s a Morriston guy. I don’t know how many games he attends each season but I’d say it was 30 plus and so he’s a real regular at away games. I think where we went wrong with Huw Cooze was that he was always with the directors, he always had his seat in the directors box at match day and mine and Stuarts belief is that Stuart shouldn’t always be with the directors in the directors box. It is important that we have a seat in the box and see what’s going on but by rotating who sits in that seat then we actually lose the complacency, if I went in there for arguments sake and I hadn’t been there for 2 months and see some guy in there who I ‘haven’t seen before then I might go over and ask what they are doing whereas if you see the same faces week in week out then you don’t.
And finally, are you happy in your role? Are you going to stay here for a while?
This is massively challenging at this time, it’s a very tiring time because you are trying to balance the getting the situation resolved and building relationships with people that you don’t have and trying to lead all that is a challenging time and then you got the family life and your day to day job to go with it at all. I do have a renewed energy to be pushing on all these fronts, ultimately I want to get to a place where we have a working relationship with the new owners and we have a say in our football club. If we can get one part resolved then we can ultimately improve on other things and get people believing in us, we have made mistakes, we know that we have made mistakes, we understand why some people don’t want to be members and we are trying to resolve that. Am I here for the long term? I’m here for now. I have always said that if there is an election next summer and there is a better person than me or if people vote someone else in over me then I will hold my hands up and say ‘yep that is what the organisation needs’ and I will never lose my belief in what the supporters trust stands for and I can’t ever see that changing.