2 April ~ April 3, 2010. Swindon win 3-0 at Leeds and move into second place in League One behind Norwich. With seven relatively easy games left to play, automatic promotion to the Championship looks likely. The slump in form which culminated in a disappointing day out at Wembley in the play-off final was a classic case of promotion certainties losing their bottle. But what's happened since then though borders on the inexplicable. Swindon Town go into another "must win" game against Hartlepool today looking for their first win since January 3, a sequence during which they've averaged a goal every 200 minutes. Another insipid goalless draw or a gutless capitulation today will make it 18 games without a win.
Even the most optimistic Town fan (and that's quite possibly myself) must accept the fact that relegation will be confirmed within the next couple of weeks. So how did Swindon Town go from play-off finalists to relegation certainties? Back in August no one was worried about a post play-off hangover. While Danny Wilson's team of loan players, non-League discoveries and journeymen had probably over-performed last season, this time we thought had a stronger squad. Paul Caddis (Scotland Under-21 captain) and Simon Ferry arrived from Celtic's reserves, on long contracts for big fees, while David Prutton and Alan Sheehan came to rejoin former Leeds team-mates David Lucas and Jonathan Douglas. Signings like these were ambitious but, in retrospect, not the right ones. They didn't address the loss of Gordon Greer to Brighton and Billy Paynter to Leeds and the lack of a convincing physical presence in defence and up front was noticeable from the start of the season.
I've no doubt that Wilson was looking for a striker but, like an inexperienced eBayer he kept coming back with left-backs and central midfielders, shirts instead of trousers, socks instead of shoes. The inevitable loss of Charlie Austin (to Burnley) and Sean Morrison (to Reading) simply exacerbated the threadbare nature of the squad in those key positions. Wilson had strong backing from the board and was allowed too long to tinker with his squad, compensating for earlier mistakes in the transfer market. By the time Wilson left by mutual agreement last month and the Red Adair of relegation battles, Paul Hart, was parachuted in to get results it was far too late to matter. Despite a flurry of desperate loan signings, Hart's tenure has yielded just two goals and two draws from five games. A win against Hartlepool today is as irrelevant as it is unlikely.
It's always easy to find reliable sources to reveal dressing room discord during seasons like this and certainly there have been rumours of cliques in the dressing room - the Celtic/Leeds old boy axis must surely be significant here - and of a drinking culture, which might lead to a different sort of hangover to the one mentioned above. It's also common at times like this for fans to turn on players "not fit to wear the shirt", and indeed, the performances of many players this year has been frustrating. There really is no smoke without fire and there's clearly some merit in such assessments of this calamitous season. Still, after today there's just six more matches of watching Paul Hart trying to motivate a bunch of disinterested and disheartened players to embrace his beloved 4-5-1 and pass sideways in the hope of avoiding claiming the record for the club's longest spell without a league win in all competitions.
I'm sure I'm not alone among Swindon fans in wanting to see the back of this season as quickly and painlessly as possible. The firesale can then start and we can look forward to playing our old friends Oxford and Gillingham again. Craig Gurney