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THE TIMES' IRON FEATURE

27 September 2016

With the kind permission of The Times' George Caulkin, here is the article about the Iron which featured in the newspaper on Monday, September 26.

Scunthorpe lie top of League One but those around the club believe their impending move is necessary if they are to scale greater heights...

He glanced over concrete and girders, to the rows of terracing, the clear plastic of the dugouts. Graham Alexander is back where it all began and one day, quite soon, it will be rubble. “I’ve cleaned every corner of this place,” the Scunthorpe United manager said. “I’ve painted a bit of it and I’ve messed around in most of it.” He looked at the grass; that call, that itch, that fear.

Kevin van Veen knows fear. As a kid coming through at PSV Eindhoven, the striker had good feet and “a big mouth. Playing there was my biggest dream, but if the coach said go left, I’d go right.” He was released for being too small, but the bolshiness did not help. Before joining Scunthorpe United in January 2015, he was a part-time plasterer.

Peter Swann is building. There will be a new stadium for Scunthorpe. The chairman has big ideas about how “little clubs have to find a way” but expressing them can be a problem. “Our name has a very naughty word in the middle of it,” he said. “You can’t put it in the subject line of an email because it goes straight into junk.”

Scunthorpe are top of Sky Bet League One. They have not lost a league match at Glanford Park since December, but theirs is a tatty fortress, edging a retail park. The first club in the modern era to move homes (in 1988) are to move again, to a 12,000-capacity ground that, as part of the Lincolnshire Lakes development, promises to energise the region.

Glanford Park was “brand new” when Alexander came for a trial at 16. “I lived in Coventry and had never been picked up by a club,” he said. “Football was all I wanted.

“When I was asked to come to Scunthorpe, I didn’t even know where it was. It was a harsh environment, the pros were a hardened bunch, the fourth tier, no quarter given, no softly-softly, but I loved it. I learnt my trade.”

After his release from PSV, Van Veen learnt a new one. “I more or less stopped with football. I played with friends and family in an amateur team but then went up a step, then another and another. I got to the second league with FC Oss. I was working as a plasterer as well. My dad had always told me I couldn’t just stay in bed. I know what you need to do for a bit of money.”

At Scunthorpe’s level, finance shapes everything. “Small clubs like ours can’t survive solely on a benefactor coming in and throwing millions at it without an end game,” Swann said. “More often than not, the benefactor can’t do it any more and the club slowly works its way out of the league. We have to find a way of progressing this club and, actually, of making it safe.”

Security is relative. After seven years at Scunthorpe, Alexander moved to Luton Town, Preston North End, Burnley and back to Preston. By the end of his playing career, in 2012, he had made more than 1,000 appearances and won 40 Scotland caps. “I’ve got my family, I’ve got my football and basically that’s it,” he said. “I don’t have any hobbies. I’m a football geek.

“As a kid, it was all I was interested in. My work ethic was good, but I knew if I didn’t give everything I’d regret it if it was taken away. I played until I was 40. I had a brilliant time, but the fear of that ending, not knowing … it wasn’t about not knowing where to go next, it was about not wanting to go anywhere else. I was always fearful of losing that.”

Having lost it once, Van Veen, 25, could not stomach a repeat, even when he initially found the physicality of English football so hard. In February, he returned to the Netherlands on loan, with SC Cambuur.

“I needed to play again, to get some confidence,” he said. “I felt like a failure. I know what I’ve got in me and it didn’t come out, but I’ve come back stronger and 10kg heavier.

“In the past, I thought things would come easy. I had a hunger for goals, to be man of the match, but England showed me you need to graft. Now I have a hunger to keep a clean sheet as well. At the same time, the support and love and messages I’ve had from fans is incredible. It’s a bit weird. I’m a completely different player from when I joined. I see this season as a mission.”

It is a seam through Scunthorpe. “We’re seen as a little club,” Swann said. “We’ve been in the Championship and come back down and a lot of clubs probably think we don’t deserve it, but football is going in a different way and those myths are being dismissed.” He pointed to the success of Bournemouth and Leicester City, and the traditional clubs that have stumbled.

“What hasn’t happened here is investment,” he said. “Football has moved on. We need another site, our own training facilities, restaurants, hotel potential, community use, crèches, gyms, where people can watch concerts. A home for life, which works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, not just a couple of matches and then a bit of carvery.”

Scunthorpe is a town of steel. Heavy industry has been decimated but 4,000 jobs were protected in June when the local plant was bought. The Iron now bear the name British Steel on their shirts; their metal will prop up the new stadium. “The majority of people either work in steel or know somebody who does,” Alexander said.

He understands uncertainty, the peril of inactivity. The fear he faced down as a player came when he was sacked by Fleetwood Town — his first managerial position — whom he had taken to League One. “It was the first time since I was ten that I didn’t have a team to be part of,” Alexander said. “It was a massive blow.

“When I first lost my job, I slept for about a week. I didn’t realise how tired I was. But it wasn’t a nice time. Football is my life and I was out of work for about six months.

“There’s a social aspect to a club, because you’re a unit, you’re looking after everybody else. Suddenly, I was on my own. You re-evaluate everything.”

Scunthorpe and Swann offered Alexander, 44, a second chance. They did the same for Van Veen. “I could be working in the rain, or getting up at 5.15am every morning to work the whole day,” the Dutchman said. “I’ve plastered houses when the windows haven’t been fitted and there’s all that dust. I’ve had the insecurity of thinking I wouldn’t make it as a player.”

Swann, a businessman and enthusiast, who previously owned, chaired and managed Gainsborough Trinity, endured a wobble of his own four years ago, suffering a brain haemorrhage. “Anything could have happened,” he said. “But I’m feeling pretty good and the football keeps me going. You fight back, don’t you?”

Like everywhere else, Scunthorpe is an amalgam of people and history, but when they meld together — the right fit, the right moment, finding a home or coming home — small can be formidable. “My dad was a lorry driver, up at four in the morning, back at eight at night and that instils a mentality,” Alexander said. “You have to work hard at it. None of us have got a silver spoon.” Here, old or new, it would be forged from steel.

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