Barring a miracle, Scunthorpe United are watching non-league football – Game of the people
THERE ARE STILL 11 games to go but the outlook looks rather bleak for Scunthorpe United who have 10 safeties and have won just twice in 21 League Two games. There seems to be an air of resignation about the immediate future of the ‘Irons’ and people are now starting to wonder if the club can hold on to certain players and if manager Keith Hill can knock them out of the National League at the first attempt. .
Scunthorpe is not alone in the fight to avoid the fall, but he looks somewhat isolated at this stage of the campaign. If they are relegated, it will end a 72-year stint in the Football League. A bad series of results may have made the reality of the situation clear. Unless there is a drastic change in form, it seems National League football is inevitable. However, as recently as the end of January, chairman Peter Swann said Scunthorpe was not even considering relegation. He could now be making plans for a very different fixture list in 2022-23.
Swann has been absent from some games this season as he has become quite unpopular. Still, he has invested (is that the right word?) more than £20m in the club since taking over in 2013. He owns a 90% stake and, apparently, is open to anyone buying him the club.
Keith Hill, who was hired in November 2021, is a respected man, but he doesn’t appear to have bolstered the cause and his 9% win rate only underscores the predicament Scunthorpe currently finds himself in. The January transfer window saw an influx of new faces at the club, with no less than eight players arriving either on free transfers or on loan. These included striker Joe Nuttall from Blackpool, a former Manchester City academy member, fellow striker Rekeil Pyke, on loan from Shrewsbury, and defenders Ryan Delaney from Morecambe and Luke Matheson from Wolves.
The influx of new talent has changed the face of the team, but hasn’t brought about a change in fortune – Scunthorpe simply can’t score goals (only 24 in 35 games) and can’t stop scoring. concede (almost two per game so far).
The writing has been on the wall for a few years as Scunthorpe finished lower than the previous season for five years – 3rd then 5and in Ligue 1, 23rd and relegated, 20and and 22n/a in Ligue 2. No wonder attendance has dropped 36% since the last pre-covid season. Crowds are currently at their lowest level since 1997.
Swann recently transferred the club’s stadium and training site to his company, Coolsilk Property and Investment, a move that has upset some fans. But this was designed to attract investors for land adjacent to the ground and create new revenue streams. Swann intends to eventually return the assets to the club.
Financial statements for 2020-21 have not yet been made public, but the trend is not very positive. Over the past five years, Scunthorpe have suffered losses of £17.6million and their wage bill has been dangerously higher than their income. For example, in 2018-2019, the salary-to-income ratio was 156%.
A second relegation in four seasons would mean significant financial adjustments. Although any club entering the National League has a good chance of regaining their place in the Football League, it is not an easy task, so it is important to remain intact and avoid any systemic collapse. In the past 10 years, only Cheltenham Town and Bristol Rovers have won promotion on the first try. The most recent relegated clubs Southend United and Grimsby Town don’t seem to make it in 2021-22.
The economics of relegation manifests itself in the form of lower revenue due to lower attendance and less lucrative sponsorship. Chesterfield, when relegated in 2018, saw their revenue fall from £5.9m to £3.9m, but their wage bill still consumed 85% of revenue compared to 69% as an EFL club.
Scunthorpe needs some stability to stop the slide and if that means a spell outside the league, their fans can get used to winning games again. In five seasons they have won just 58 out of 210 games, a 28 per cent win rate and the total for 2020-21 and 2021-22 is 17 league wins in 81.
Stability also means less slipping around in the canoe, especially around the job of manager. Scunthorpe has had eight managers in three years, which is hardly a recipe for continuity. If Scunthorpe is to stay up, they have to start winning and hope the other downfall contenders – Barrow, Oldham, Stevenage, Leyton Orient and Colchester – get into a bad run. As things stand, they have a lot of ground to make up for and it may be too late.