Monday, 9 February 2015

It's All About The Money

Josh Denk on why for the Swans, a tight ship is an integral part of the continuing success of Swansea City

I’ve been a bit delayed in finishing off this post, but I think the timing right now is good to try and round out my thoughts.The transfer window hasn't been closed long and we're approaching our second clash with West Brom - one I think we owe it to ourselves to win. So let’s examine the following quote:

“If you worry too much about the money in’re never gonna enjoy it.”

That line froze me.

Not that I wasn’t already paying attention. I was listening to an epic rant from this site’s founder, a sensible curmudgeon after my own heart, on the Thursday 1/22 edition of the EPL Roundtable podcast, a good listen on its day but prone to ponderous fits of trash talk between fans of big clubs with no real history of struggle (and this one had very good and extremely ponderous moments).

If you’re not familiar with the program, it’s a gathering of a smallish group of Premier League superfans, usually ones with blogs or other web presences dedicated to their clubs. After introductions, it moves on to each individual’s assessment of his or her team’s most recent action. The first three panelists (Liverpool, Spurs, and West Brom fans) spoke at length, uninterrupted. When it was Scott’s turn to talk about the Swans, he barely got a word in edgewise for the first minute or so. It seemed as if there was a metaphor there.

I was going to write about that, but upon a second listen, I realized Scott did invite some of that banter. Also, to his credit, he also said he wasn’t that interested in speaking about the Swans’ previous week at that time [It was far from the finest week in our history - Ed], and I can’t blame him for that. After a time, Scott did get to speak more freely and used his time to express some real frustration about the state of play in the Premier League and the way that the game seems to be controlled by individuals who are...less than ethical, let’s say. That’s when he heard from Dan Watts, the administrator of the Baggies Facts website, who said that “if you worry about the money, you won’t enjoy it.”

I’m not sure what it was, and I want to be clear that I’m not here just to bag on Dan (heh heh), but the statement didn’t ring true and was frustrating and borderline insulting for me. Here’s why.

What any football fan could probably say is that “being a fan of (club x) is about considerably more than the football.” Where it breaks down for all of us, where we all part company, is when we determine what that “more” is. And nothing speaks more to the experience of a Jack Bastard than understanding the financial circumstances surrounding the club. Clubs like Swansea City don’t get to stop thinking about money. It’s who we are and what we do in a really fundamental way.

While West Brom have not always had a Premier League or First Division pedigree, the team appears to have been on relatively sound financial footing for its entire history. Having had only one brief stint in the third tier of English football, the Baggies have a solid, well-deserved reputation as one of the big Midlands clubs. They are a Birmingham-area staple who can easily attract the likes of a manager like Tony Pulis, who has “safety” tattooed on his neck. They may not spend like a top-level club, but West Brom’s history suggests an air of success that has kept them in the first two tiers almost constantly in the past century.

The Swans’ history is far different. While the John Toshack era brought the club to a high level of success in the early 1980s, that was a blip in a long and storied tradition of third- and fourth-tier drudgery over the better part of a century. After that high water mark passed, the club sank to the sort of financial lows only a Portsmouth or Crystal Palace might understand, to be surpassed only by Rangers’ ongoing woes. That was more the norm, frankly. No one ever called Vetch Field the Theatre of Dreams, and few thought the Jacks would find a way to grind out four consecutive years in the top tier, much less compete in Europe.

But we have. What’s remarkable about that, however, more than anything, even more than Swansea’s stature as a small city in Wales with a massive club, is our ability to compete at this level without sacrificing the hard-earned financial lessons of the early 2000s. A team that was saved only through the efforts of community members driving from ATM to ATM, collecting cash to ensure its future, is a team that is not likely to stop thinking about money.

Unlike so many of the teams in the Premier League, who carry great amounts of debt in service of maintaining a certain performance level, Swansea City can pride itself on competing in the top level of English football while turning a profit. The team doesn’t carry debt. It doesn’t spend massive amounts on players in hoping to create success. Huw Jenkins and the board make investments wisely in areas where they may see tangible benefits — training faciltiies, the stadium, the staff — that will keep this team in the top tier.

Moreover, when it comes time to ensure we receive maximum value for our existing investments, Huw and his fellow board members are on top of that as well. Wilfried Bony wasn’t 100% guaranteed to be of more value during the summer than he was at the beginning of January after an unbelievable run of games and goals. As unromantic as it sounds, there wasn’t a better and (at the same time) entirely foreseeable time to sell Bony on to the upper-echelon club where he would no doubt want to end up. Though I know some would want to have seen us get slightly greater value for him, we did very well to turn a 133% profit. That’s what we do. That’s who we are.

Comparisons to the concept of Moneyball would probably be ill-fitting without more data about Swansea’s moves. Billy Beane of Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s made no secret of his obsession with data and his desire to use it to find inefficiencies in the talent market that he could then exploit. Without more information about the fees they’re paying or the information they’re using to find players, I would not feel comfortable putting Jenkins, Monk, and Swansea City alongside Billy Beane in utilizing this approach.

What’s clear, though, and what the Swansea City management team have in common with Beane, is that Swansea’s executives are taking a well-deserved seat in the same arena as the great players on the team. There isn’t a transfer window that goes by where you don’t hear reverent discussions about Jenkins and the management team and their ability to maintain a tight lid on finances while getting the best quality players the team can afford. 

They’re just as much a star of our personal show in South Wales as the ever-changing cast of characters. It only takes a moment of inelegant Gomis pandering to remind us that the players don’t have that same level of consistency and personal investment in the team’s success - and that the learned-on-the-fly football acumen and the financial prowess of our directors are as valuable as a well-placed Montero cross in the 78th minute against the Gunners.

So when someone says that we need to stop thinking about the money, that the money takes all the fun out of the game, I have to wonder what game they’ve been watching and for whom they are working. Being good with money is no boring trifle of a skill. It’s a big freaking deal. When you’re a team with a third/fourth-tier pedigree and you’re counting to 40 every year, money counts. Every quid counts. There’s no such thing about worrying too much over money in South Wales.

It’s what we do best. And considering where we are in the table right now and the results we’ve secured over the last two weeks, even without Bony, I’m happy for us to keep worrying about money.

Thanks to Josh - follow him on Twitter @TheJoshDenk