Puppet on a string?
by Nigel Davies
Looking across the Swansea City Boardroom table, my first close up impression of Trevor Birch is of a kind and gentle man, full of enthusiasm for the almost extinct romantic elements of football.
And whilst this first impression of the man now in charge of the Swans is pretty accurate, it only tells half the story.
Don’t ever be fooled by the mild mannered, softly spoken, genteel exterior for it masks a burning desire to succeed and a steely resolve to do so in the right way…HIS WAY.
Birch has received plenty of plaudits for his handling of the financial and football troubles at the club, and his ability to effectively communicate with fans that simply want to know the cold, hard truth of where we stand has been particularly well received.
However, I have seen plenty of suggestions from those not yet convinced that Birch is simply a puppet of the Americans – a man brought in for his reputation as someone that can quickly stabilise clubs in trouble and then sell them on to rich new owners.
Birch stands accused of being controlled by Kaplan & Levien, doing just what his masters tell him whilst trying to secure their exit from the club by finding a buyer that will give them their original purchase price (I will NOT use the word “investment”) money back.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I take another sip of water as I contemplate my next question in an informal discussion with Birch in the light of my decision to resurrect the A Touch Far Vetched fanzine.
We’ve already established that Kaplan & Levien have given him free reign to the run the club as he sees fit, and that Birch has no interest in the ownership infighting between the Americans and the Supporters Trust that still blights the club.
I shift in my seat and decide to tackle the issue of how he’d react if our cowboy owners suddenly started poking their beaks in and overruling him.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I say, “but didn’t you walk out at Everton on a point of principle soon after arriving? A disagreement with Bill Kenwright [Everton’s owner and Chairman at the time] if I remember correctly?”
“Yes I did,” replies Birch sternly, “and I did the same at Hearts too.”
Then a smile breaks out on his face again as he jokes: “I’ve got form for it!”
Even though he’s lightened the mood a little there’s no escaping the fact that he’s deadly serious when it comes to running a club without interference. It’s not something he’s entertained anywhere else in his career and he certainly won’t countenance it at Swansea City either. And rightly so, too.
Best known for pulling Portsmouth out of financial oblivion and standing firm as administrator so that the Supporters’ Trust could complete a rescue package, Birch worked similar miracles at clubs like Leeds and Barnsley.
Perhaps his most influential contribution to English football is his part in bringing Roman Abramovich to Chelsea, not only saving the Stamford Bridge club from financial disaster but also changing the face of our whole game by introducing the first of the foreign billionaire owners.
Whilst I’m clearly a huge Trevor Birch fan I do hold this contribution against him…Abramovich arrived just as football was starting to reign in its irresponsible spending in the light of the ITV Digital collapse.
Any thoughts of clubs bringing some sanity to their spending plans went out of the window however when Abramovich swaggered in and started throwing his roubles around, and all the other top clubs threw caution to the wind trying to keep up with him. And that of course had the “domino effect” down the leagues as everyone spent money they didn’t have to keep up with those closest around them.
It’s unfair to blame Birch for this, after all he just found a suitable buyer to rescue Chelsea as Ken Bates struggled to keep them afloat – but I do find it heavily ironic given Birch’s heroic work with struggling clubs since then.
Anyway, back to the present and Birch’s presence at Swansea City.
In the few short months that Clever Trevor has been at the helm he has:-
- Stabilised the club’s finances, driving a hard bargain when selling players like Dan James and Oli McBurnie
- Backed his manager with clever, cost effective incoming transfers, keeping in mind the need to be competitive alongside the need to cut costs dramatically
- Overseen a full restructuring of the club, appointing Steve Cooper, Leon Britton and Andy Scott in key positions
- Rebuilt supporter confidence and pride in the club by not only issuing regular statements but also listening to supporters and acting upon their feedback
There’s no doubt that Birch’s appointment has been the best decision ever made by the Americans during their turbulent reign.
One wonders if we’d still be in the Premier League if Kaplan & Levien hadn’t been so stubborn when it came to keeping Huw Jenkins, a Chairman clearly well past his sell by date.
The one note of caution though, something that has tempered my enthusiasm at our start to the season, is the more successful we are under Birch (and Cooper), the more tempted Kaplan & Levien will be to resurface.
It would be tragic if we lost Birch and even more so if he was a victim of his own success, with the Americans reappearing and attempting to start pulling strings again at the club…
…strings that Birch will cut without hesitation because he will never be anyone’s puppet, nice guy or not.