Town cryers

A proven manager was needed to steady the ship at the County Ground after the Robins' relegation from the Premier League. But as Chris Hall explains, that was not enough for some fans

Steve McMahon has gone. Vexed and exasperated by a cost-cutting administration on the one hand, an unforgiving and am-bitious group of supporters on the other. In the end it was no surprise. Things haven’t been looking good at Swindon; results have been poor for months and confidence is low.

The pitch invasion and protest following the embarrassing home defeat by Watford  was well publicised, as were McMahon’s comments. He resigned. Was he really such a failure? Or have the expectations of fans, press and players become raised to an unreasonable level by the glamour of the Premier League?

When McMahon arrived Swindon were in a tailspin following their exit from the Premier. After a period of success, failure is frustrating but one wonders whether they  are really capable of becoming, say, another Leicester or a Coventry. If they are it will be because McMahon turned the club around and left it in a better state than he found it. He won them a championship. He signed some good players and I’m sure if he had the money he would have signed some excellent ones. His dealing brought in £1 million to a club that is always short of cash. Perhaps most importantly, together with the chairman Rikki Hill, he overhauled the way Swindon Town is run. Yet still they struggle.

Perhaps it’s just a question of the “right” personality, or a new broom. But I wonder if there is a glass ceiling for clubs like Swindon, a critical mass beyond which they cannot go – at least without a very rich patron. Because expectations are much higher than they used to be, there is a trap that Swindon, among others, have been forced into: not big enough for the top level but too intoxicated to accept anything less. At least we should be in there fighting for promotion. But how do you sustain growth on paltry gates and shaky finances? How do you keep players hungry and ambitious at what Jan Aage Fjortoft once described as “a family club”?

Swindon are not alone in this. In January Bradford dispensed with Chris Kamara after a losing run. “The Premier League is a very attractive place to be nowadays,” their chairman Geoffrey Richmond was quoted as saying. Three to five years is his target for Premier status. By contrast, Steve McMahon once suggested that Swindon have been over-achieving in recent years, though he always professed his ambition for the club.

The way football is packaged now demands nothing less than a place in the Premier League. But places are strictly limited, so where does that leave the rest? The First Division is fast becoming little more than a halfway house between everything (the Premier League) and nothing (the lower divisions).

Even cup success becomes less and less satisfying as League position counts for more and more. Championships and play-offs become almost the sole measure of success. This trend is likely to increase as Europe becomes more dominant and the gap gets even wider. Survival is not enough.

As the game gets bigger fans get more ambitious and less stoical, yet since the Premier League was launched losses among Nationwide clubs have doubled. Tranmere are the latest club to be threatened with receivership and not so long ago they were aiming for the Premier League. Swindon are in little danger of bankruptcy but they are still poor and attendances are always disappointing for a club that represents one of the richest and fastest growing towns in the country.

It will be interesting to see how Jimmy Quinn makes out. We may need to be patient. In recent years Swindon have become a yo-yo club, about as consistent as an April shower. At least we’re still in the First Division. For now.

From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month