Birch Brings a Sliver of Hope – But Big Question Still Remains

Clever Trevor BirchIt’s testament to how badly Swansea City has been run over the last few years that a couple of thorough statements followed up with some positive action by Chairman Trevor Birch has fans buzzing.

But the BIG question over Birch still remains…has he been given equity as part of his remuneration and if so, from whom?

Let’s come back to that question and deal first with the positives – because there are plenty of those and it makes a nice change to comment and revel in some.

Leon and Curt

One of the biggest takeaways of Birch’s official statement in the aftermath of Potter’s departure was that Leon Britton was to be appointed as Football Advisor to the board of directors. Leon would also join another Legend, the recently retired and now Club President Alan Curtis, as part of a new recruitment set up that would assist in the appointment of a new manager as well as identifying potential incoming players.

It would be easy to be cynical about these appointments – and let’s be fair the club hasn’t been shy lately of using our favourite figures in emotive ways to deflect or damped down criticism – but whatever the motivation I still think it is a massively beneficial move for Swansea City.

If there are two former players out there that know exactly what’s need to play for the Swans, know exactly what standards are required, and exactly whether a potential player’s skill set fits what we need then it’s Leon and Curt.

The experience they have between them is enormous, the respect they command is without limits – so let’s utilise them for goodness sake, and let them help get our recruitment efforts back on track because frankly they have been diabolical for years. And it has cost us. Dearly.

And lets be fair, and to put it into context, when it comes to dealing to wheeling and dealing to get us out of our financial mess I’d much rather Trevor Birch advised by Leon and Curt to Huw Jenkins advised by Landon Donovan!!

Routledge

Another take away from Birch’s official statement was that despite being on the released list, Wayne Routledge was still in talks with the hope of agreeing a new contract to stay with the Swans. Sure enough, a couple of days later and Birch delivered. Routledge was re-signed on a one year contract with a ringing endorsement from his Chairman who suggested there may be a further future at the club for the long serving player once he hung up his boots.

The retention of Routledge has been enthusiastically welcomed by Swans fans starved of good news on the squad side. Now I’m not Routs’ biggest fan, as anyone that has read my previous thoughts on the subject will know (!), but even I agree with those that said it was critical to keep a player that excelled at Championship level in the latter half of last season. His experience, his technique and his presence will all be vital to what is likely to be another painfully young and inexperienced squad next season.

And fair play, Routledge deserves brownie points for waiving an automatic contract renewal clause midway through last season just so that he could get out there, play, and make a contribution to our cause.

Birch deserves credit too for recognising how important it was to keep Routledge and also driving through a deal that is financially acceptable to us in our current predicament.

New Manager Search

If there is one thing that Huw Jenkins got more right than wrong it was the appointment of managers. Hopefully Birch can continue this trend and get his first Swansea City managerial appointment spot on because that will be crucial for the coming season. There have been all sorts of rumours, names thrown about in the Press (mostly just repeating spurious online rumours from the most unreliable of sources) and most of them have been pretty underwhelming for fans.

Birch’s insistence that a key criteria for any new appointment is an ability and track record to work with and develop the Under 23 talent we have (as Potter did so successfully) shows that he is being realistic and not selling any potential candidate or the fans a pup; we will have very little money to bring in players for next season unless we are spectacularly successful in shifting unwanted high earners or we flog a few of our crown jewels. Therefore any incoming manager will have to rely on promoting youngsters to fill the gaps and Birch is targeting someone with a track record in doing that. At least he is honest about seeking the right fit for our tenuous circumstances.

This all adds a bit more credence to the rumours about Michael Appleton. The former Portsmouth, Blackburn and Oxford manager has extensive experience of working with clubs in distress and making the most of the meagre resources at his disposal. On the down side he’s also never been shy in just walking away when a perceived better offer has come along and with the Potter wound still gaping open is that something we really want?

let’s hope that whether it is Appleton or A N Other, Birch and his Legendary advisors Leon and Curt will make the right call and appoint a manager we can afford that can develop youth and keep the ball on the floor whilst still delivering results. Tough task and will be a severe test of Birch’s credentials.

No Puppet?

A couple of days ago Birch followed up his official site statement with a Press briefing at the Liberty, and many of the resulting articles picked up on his views on his relationship with the owners and led with headlines declaring him No Puppet. Whilst what little he said on the subject was scant justification for such a firm declaration nevertheless it was encouraging. Whatever the relationship between Jenkins and his American masters, whether they really did rate our former Chairman that much or there was a contractual obligation to keep him in post for a set time, the very differing ideas on running the club between them led a muddled strategy that cost us our Premier League place.

That tension came to a head when Jenkins finally discovered a sliver of a spine and scuppered the Dan James transfer to Leeds for four Yorkshire puddings and a whippet at the very last minute. It cost Jenkins his highly paid job and opened up the opportunity to appoint Birch. The new Chairman seems pretty cavalier about his position and wants to highlight his autonomy. As he talked about his position and delivered a warning about reduced season ticket sales Birch also moved to distance himself from the Hedgefunders in charge:

I enjoy it. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be here. I don’t need it.

Fans will make up their own minds. We are going to be down on season ticket holders – thats’ their choice. But the club is at the heart of the community and therefore why wouldn’t you support it?

You are not supporting the ownership group, you are supporting the club. I am here not supporting the ownership group, I am supporting the club.

I can say that because I am independent. I don’t need to be here. I am doing it because I want to do it.

Whilst I don’t agree with Birch’s comments on season ticket holders not renewing – there are many reasons for this and many fans feel disenfranchised, disillusioned and disinclined to hand their money over to the Hedgefunders that own us – it is good to see him stamp his independent authority on his position. maybe I read too much into what he says but I hope he’s sending a signal to Pearlman as much as Kaplan & Levien in that when it comes to day to day operations Birch is the Big Boss.

He’s certainly right when he says he doesn’t need to be at Swansea City; he’s an affluent man in his own right, pulls in significant money from his accountancy work and really could take a position at most clubs in the Football League given his credentials and experience. If he’s given the autonomy he professes to have then he will do a good job at Swansea City, I’m sure, and at this particular precarious time he’s an asset without a doubt.

If he’s “independent” enough to stop the Americans installing another Bob Bradley or flogging rising superstars on the absolute cheap then we’ve got half a chance next season!

The Big Question!

The question of Birch’s independence though brings us nicely to that disturbing big question I mentioned at the start of the article. It’s suggested that Birch will receive equity as part of his pay packet but once more something as significant as this affecting the ownership of the club and the dynamic of the Board/voting rights is shrouded in ambiguity as the Americans look to keep people guessing or muddy the waters to cover their dubious intentions and practices.

The Trust brought this issue to the fore in its statement on Birch’s appointment:-

However, the Trust does have concerns regarding some aspects of his remuneration package, which we have been informed contains an equity element. The details and conditions of this are unclear but, if true, would potentially dilute the Trust’s shareholding and further prejudice our position as a minority shareholder in the football club. Therefore, the Trust is unable to support this element of the proposal. The Trust raised our objections to the majority owners prior to the appointment but, not for the first time, we have not received a response.

To my knowledge this issue still hasn’t been resolved and the Trust still remain unaware of the implications of Birch being offered a stake in the club.

I raised this issue again on Twitter with Wales Online journalist Ian Mitchelmore:-

 

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You can read Ian’s piece, the one he links to, by clicking HERE but the pertinent part of the article is quoted below for you:

It’s understood that Birch is earning significantly less than the £600,000-a-year sum that former chairman Jenkins was given, and also that his salary is significantly less than he would bank in a similar role elsewhere.

However, WalesOnline understands that Birch will be rewarded by the owners with equity further down the line if he can help to stabilise the club, although he will not be receiving an immediate shareholding.

And regarding the equity element highlighted by the Trust, the conditions would – in time – dilute all shareholdings and not just that of the Trust, although given the long-term nature of Birch’s tasks, this will not happen in the immediate future.

As I said in my reply tweets to Ian this hardly makes the situation clear with more vague suggestions coming from the club’s owners on what is a crucial issue. How on Earth can we allow the Americans to dilute the Trust’s (and by extension the FANS’) stake in the club to reward a very handsomely paid individual when the whole question of the club’s ownership and unfair prejudice against the Trust remains the African bull elephant in the changing room?

Having ducked and dived once more and basically failed at any point to engage with the mediation process, it speaks volumes that the Americans would once more play fast and loose with the Trust’s stake without telling them exactly what’s going whilst facing the very real prospect of legal action for doing exactly that when buying a controlling stake in the club.

It’s this behaviour that has set me personally against the owners from the moment they emerged on the scene as potential buyers – there isn’t an ounce of integrity in their bodies.

Birch’s possible reward of equity in the club at the expense of the fans’ stake is a huge question mark against him and it should serve to focus everyone’s minds that Potter’s departure is not the biggest crisis at the club. That accolade remains the whole issue of the ownership structure of the club, the validity of the purchase and the treatment of the Trust from the very start and every day and major decision since.

Against that backdrop Birch’s recent public updates have been a refreshing improvement in communication and cause for optimism that we have a real professional now at the helm…but there are serious concerns around his potential rewards for success and his true purpose on behalf of an increasingly distanced ownership pairing.