“If we can keep the players together, if we can bring one or two extras players in – which we will do in the summer – that’s a start. It’ll be a long season to get back here again, but something I’m sure they can do.”
Danny Wilson; Saturday 29th May 2010; after Swindon Town had just lost to Millwall 1-0 in the League One Playoff Final
On May 24th 2009, Millwall lost 3-2 to Scunthorpe United in the League One Playoff Final. Rather than sell their captain and top two strikers, they maintained their squad and on May 29th 2010 they returned to Wembley and richly deserved their victory over Swindon Town. Swindon found themselves in the very same shoes that Millwall had worn twelve months earlier. Now was the chance to exploit the optimism that had grown at the club. As Millwall departed to pastures new along with Norwich City and Leeds United, Swindon had the chance to rule the third tier of English football. Yet, Swindon sold skipper Gordon Greer (who was suspended for the Playoff Final) to Brighton and Hove Albion, and Billy Paynter left on a free to Leeds United.
And like that, we were gone.
Swindon didn’t win a league game until their sixth match of the season, were knocked out of the FA Cup to non-league Crawley Town (of course, ironically, the two teams will now play each other in a league fixture next year), sold their best striker during the January transfer window and did nothing worthwhile to replace him, have not won at home in the league since December 4th, and went 18 games without a win between January 8th and April 2nd. At least this didn’t go down to a Jimmy Glass-style moment with ten seconds to go on the last day of the season. No, we didn’t fancy drama like that.
At the start of the season, the odds of Swindon to get relegated were pushing 20/1 or even higher in some markets and around the 4/1 mark to gain automatic promotion. In fact the ‘experts’ were so giddy with anticipation for Swindon’s season that David Ball was 25/1 to be the league’s top goalscorer. He lasted on loan at the County Ground for 18 games, was played mostly out of position, scored twice and then moved to Peterborough.
The instant blame from fans lies solely at the door of Paul Hart – the current manager who no one really wanted to come to the club, and by the sounds of the interviews he’s conducted in recent weeks, he didn’t want to be there either. After Danny Wilson left the County Ground on the 2nd of March, it left Swindon stitched up in more ways than one. They were in a dire run of form, but their next three matches were against Walsall, Plymouth Argyle and Dagenham & Redbridge – all teams who were fighting with Swindon to avoid the drop. Swindon only managed 2 points from those 3 games. Had Wilson left a few weeks earlier, or indeed remained at the club which he knew inside out, could have resulted in more points which would have completely changed the make-up of the League One table. Could have, should have, would have. Ultimately it didn’t though.
Other sections of fans blame the Chairman Andrew Fitton – many even suggest both him and Hart are equally guilty. The relationship between Fitton and those who pay to watch the club is becoming increasingly untenable. Everyone associated with Swindon knows Fitton was the man who saved the Robins from becoming another name to join the likes of Chester City, Luton, Wrexham or Scarborough. Had the points deductions for going into administration existed ten or fifteen years ago, Swindon could have easily sunk without trace. And no one fancies supporting Swindon Supermarine.
But despite this pre-existing respect for what he did for the club, many see Fitton as a non-buying man. Swindon are now deemed a profit-making club – one of very few which exist in the lower echelons of the Football League – yet many supporters continually grow frustrated that the only players brought in are loanees, the majority of which flop and sheepishly disappear back to their parent club when they don’t fancy it. Of course, having loan players from ‘bigger’ clubs can always be deemed a good thing for professional relationships, but some of the tripe that can be sent your way can be detrimental to the side. Sure, a club like Swindon will remain a ‘selling’ club; all football league clubs are to an extent, that’s the nature of the beast that is modern-day professional football. Unless your chairman’s name begins with “Sheikh”, owns an American football team or is a Russian oligarch, then you’ll always be chasing the Yankee Dollar. But when you lose the copious number of players which Swindon have let go in recent years, you get the feeling they’ll never be a buying one.
The fans are yearning for a manager with the passion that has not realistically been seen in a generation since Lou Macari was in charge in the late 80s. Instead with Paul Hart they find themselves in a position not too dissimilar to when Jimmy Quinn took charge in the late 90s – perhaps not financially in disarray, but certainly in terms of performances. Fans of the club could argue for hours about what was really to blame for sending the club down – just a quick scan of message boards on supporter forums indicates that. To say a sole individual is to blame for sending a club to its fate of relegation is both harsh and predominantly untrue. And besides, were that the case, what would be the point of fan forums? Between now and early August, Swindon Town fans will debate at length who should stay and who should go. Who should shoulder the blame and who should rise above the parapet. And I for one can’t wait to join in. At least during the years I’ve supported the club we’ve never been boring. At least we’ve not failed to finish in the top six of any division in forty years like Coventry City, or sat maturing in the fourth tier of English football for 36 years like Rochdale did. No, we like yo-yoing. We like having something to cheer and something to moan about. It’s football; it’s meant to be interesting.
Many will have optimism to bounce right back, just like we did during the 2006-07 season. The difference between then and now however was Dennis Wise and Gustavo Poyet brought in Premier League experience and professionalism. They may have only stayed until October that year but the influence they had ensured an automatic promotion straight back to League One.
But who should take over from Paul Hart? Lord knows even the defenders of him don’t want him to stay on. Who can be the man to guide Swindon back within twelve months? Many Town fans would say Paul Trollope, although I have it on good authority that he was offered the position when Wilson left and rejected it due to his family’s emotional ties to the club. (For those wanting me to clarify that statement – my mum works with his wife and she said that was the reason – he was also considering looking abroad for work) That’s not to say he won’t reconsider it again during the summer if he’s offered a long-term contract rather than a short-term “Save-Our-Season” agreement. Others which could be considered include Martin Ling – a former Town player, but who’s stock has fallen away after a promising start to his managerial career at Leyton Orient which faded and then stalled at Cambridge United. And without putting dread into all Robin’s fans, Iffy Onoura – who was in charge when we last fell into League Two – has recently been relieved of his position as manager of the Ethiopian national team. Whatever happens, the club’s board of directors should act now and ensure a manager is in place for the summer. Hesitation could be lethal.
But regardless of the outcome, please don’t bring back Maurice Malpas.