After 72 years in the Football League, the Iron have become a club where dreams are dead

There was a dream here, once. Scunthorpe United spent three seasons in the Championship around the turn of the last decade, a time of Nigel Adkins, Billy Sharp and Gary Hooper. In 2009, they played in Wembley finals twice in the space of two months having scored a last-minute equalizer in their League One playoff semi-final.

That dream lasted for at least a decade, albeit with slightly diminished returns. On the first day of 2018, Scunthorpe were fourth in League One having won nine – and lost only one – of their previous 12 league matches. Former player Graham Alexander was the popular manager. His team contained Connor Townsend, Duane Holmes, Ryan Yates and Murray Wallace, all now Championship footballers. Ivan Toney was about to join on loan for the second time. Two months later, Alexander was sacked with Scunthorpe in fifth. What price now that relative comfort?

The hard truth is that all those years, all those memories, represented significant overachievement. Scunthorpe is a town of just 82,000 people, ranking outside the top 100 by population. Glanford Park is 82nd on a list of club football grounds in England by capacity. But then supporters knew as much. They never expected, never demanded, anything other than a Football League club at the end of their road.

At least in that second mini-era of comparative success, Scunthorpe were also overspending. The club spent around 140 per cent of their income in multiple years, running at a loss to chase Championship football. When the owner Peter Swann made it clear that budgets needed to be cut, there was mild acceptance. But no supporter realized quite how quickly it would happen and quite how much a difference it would make.

And when dreams fade and bleak reality bites, what is left but worry? Scunthorpe’s form has deteriorated badly, first in League One relegation (after three consecutive top-seven finishes) and now at the bottom of the Football League. In the space of 28 days last January, they won four straight league matches to pull clear of the emergency. But of their 51 league games since, Scunthorpe have won six. They probably now need five victories from 10 games to survive relegation. The maths doesn’t look good.

All the hallmarks of a struggling club are here: An EFL transfer embargo following Covid-19 loans which Swann says was necessary to avoid them entering administration after a lack of supporters at matches made cashflow critical, a high turnover of managers, a young team, dwindling attendances and local journalists banned from attending matches. And, platformed by and overshadowing all of that, the grim sense of inevitability and what comes next. Scunthorpe have struggled for mediocrity of late. A miracle seems a little too much to ask.

Swann is not popular with some supporters, but he certainly tried. He has invested more than £ 20m since taking over the club in 2013. He insisted that the club needed to break even after relegation to League Two and is happy to welcome potential buyers. “If there is a multi-billionaire waiting to take over Scunthorpe United, then they know where I am,” he said in one interview and you see his point di lui. Swann tells the that the choice was to gamble, borrow and try to stay up or to remain financially viable and he was not prepared to risk the club’s future. And if they had they pursued that route and still been relegated, he says the risk was not having a club at all.

But the relationship has broken down, accelerated when it was announced in April last year that Swann was transferring ownership of Glanford Park to Cool Silk, a separate company he owns. The positive spin is that it allowed the club to write off its £ 11m debt, but supporters fear that their only security blanket, the literal roof over their heads, has now been lost. Swann says that the plans are still to develop the stadium, create a new training center and work on other income streams to run the club without being entirely reliant on a small fan base.

Scunthorpe’s average attendance this season is below 3,000 (Photo: Getty)

“Swann argues, quite rightly, that the stadium is technically under the same ownership as the day he took ultimate control of the club and clarified in October that once the stadium development has been completed, the site will be returned to the club,” says Matt Blanchard of Iron Bru, a Scunthorpe fan website and podcast.

“This news was welcomed by the fans and Iron Trust [the club’s supporters’ trust]but until there is a spade in the ground skepticism will remain following years of missed deadlines relating to the now shelved new stadium project and subsequent plans to redevelop Glanford Park.

“He has also repeatedly blamed Covid for the club’s struggles despite the fact that every club had to deal with the pandemic and seeing traditionally smaller clubs like Accrington or Morecambe in the league above us whilst we struggle so badly makes Swann’s claims about ‘living within our means’ harder to take for some. ” Swann disagrees with that assessment, saying that the club was not living within its means and that, whatever happens, surviving on money they didn’t have would have risked the club’s existence.

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There have been fan protests, most notably when they locked the gates to the club before a home game against Forest Green Rovers, and Blanchard believes that some are certainly staying away while Swann remains at the helm. But the bigger disease is far harder to cure: disinterest. Going to the football is more expensive than ever relative to disposable income and people go for escape. Resigned acceptance of what is likely to follow is an unsuccessful motivator. The average attendance at Glanford Park this season is under 3,000.

Scunthorpe’s Hail Mary pass was the appointment of Keith Hill in November, a coup for a club scratching around at the base of the Football League. But then if Hill can’t provoke a change, who can? After losing one of his first seven matches, Scunthorpe have taken five points from 14 matches. After 72 straight years in league football since re-election, the consensus is that they have weeks left.

Scunthorpe United fought so hard to get into the Football League and it helped put this town in north Lincolnshire on the map. Relegation would mean the loss of solidarity payments from the Premier League and EFL broadcasting revenues, but the greater loss is measured in the struggle for relevance as a non-league club and the grim truth that no supporter is able to escape: it is far easier to drop down than it is to come back.

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