Slippery slopes

From Wembley hopes to League Two reality in the space of a year, David Squires tries to make sense of supporting Swindon Town

To locate Swindon Town in the League One table, you need to scroll a long way down; a whole rotation of the mouse wheel in fact. It’s no surprise to see them down there though – with the obligatory “R” next to their name – for the 2010-11 season has been one of almost unrelenting misery.

And yet this time last year, Swindon were stepping out for the play-off final. With more composure in their final few games they would have been promoted automatically. On the day, Millwall deservedly won, but Charlie Austin – who’d famously been working on a building site only a few months before – ballooned a late chance to equalise when the ball bounced off Wembley’s craterous surface as he pulled the trigger.  

If the FA had invested in a decent pitch roller it could all have been so different. Despite the disappointing result, Swindon still boasted a talented squad, popular manager and supportive board. Some of us even entertained feelings of optimism for the season ahead. So where did it all go wrong?

Crucially, that talented squad didn’t hang around. By the time the players arrived at Wembley, striker Billy Paynter – who had scored 29 goals but received less media attention than Austin – had agreed to sign for Leeds. Elsewhere, loaned players who’d played a key part in the team’s success returned to their parent clubs and then, on the eve of the new season, club captain Gordon Greer was sold to Brighton.

Greer’s effectiveness at this level is evidenced by the respective league positions of the club he left and the one he joined. As the season unfolded, it became obvious that he had been pivotal in providing a semblance of organisation to Swindon’s notoriously inattentive defence.

The club, not unreasonably, explained that a six-figure transfer fee for a player nearing the end of his career was too good to reject. However, it soon became apparent that the long-term implications of this decision would be far more expensive.

Manager Danny Wilson frequently spoke of his thwarted efforts to sign replacements and Swindon began the season with a desperately thin squad whose frailties would eventually be exposed. By the turn of the year, they were still safely nestled in mid-table and looking upwards towards the play-off places, but as the ice of December thawed, so did Town’s promotion ambitions. Another transfer window exodus in January ultimately proved to be their downfall. Charlie Austin – now the primary source of goals – left for Burnley and young defender Sean Morrison, who was doing an able job of filling in for Greer, departed for Reading. Swindon didn’t win a match between early January and April.

Wilson’s ethos of positive, passing football won many admirers but as the defeats stacked up, the fans – and eventually the board – lost patience. In February, he made way for Paul Hart, who was cast in the troubleshooter role having steered other teams to safety. However, his survival plan appeared to be based on filling the bench with Crystal Palace reserves and grinding out 1-0 defeats. Swindon sank deeper into the mire.

If there is one consolation for Town fans, it is that we were at least spared the anxiety of a relegation battle, for this was an unequivocal surrender. By early springtime, studying the fixtures and results of the teams above us became irrelevant. The corpse twitched with a 1-0 win at Brentford in April but it was followed by three consecutive defeats that put us out of our misery.

Unlike previous relegation seasons, Swindon don’t have the excuse of boardroom unrest or fiscal meltdown as a background to their deficiencies on the pitch. They were simply victims of their own success. There are few clubs in League One in a position to turn down large transfer fees for their players, and despite their healthier financial position, Swindon certainly aren’t one of them.

In the immediate aftermath of relegation, Hart was fired and chairman Andrew Fitton resigned. Fitton was instrumental in saving the club from oblivion, something for which all reasonable Swindon fans will always be grateful. Upon taking control of the club in early 2008, he announced a five-year plan to get Swindon back into the Championship on an even financial keel. Selling all your players and not winning for 18 games can put a real dent in a five-year plan.

From WSC 292 June 2011