Great Football League Teams 46: Swindon Town 1992-3
A sumptuous post this morning from Ben Hathaway, Singapore resident and deviser of out fiendishly difficult Football League Cryptic Crossword a few months back. Here, Ben looks back to one of the most romantic stories of recent years and the time that Swindon Town ascended to the top tier, only to be abandoned by their svengali.
Four ways to get a young football fan hooked on his local team: win 5-2 the first time he attends a match; hire one of the most naturally gifted midfielders in English footballing history as player-manager; employ a stylish, passing brand of play; gain promotion to the Premier League. Any one of these four tactics might have worked on me — a football-mad Swindonian trying to come to terms with the lack of a ‘big’ club to support — but in the early ’90s Town left nothing to chance.
27 April 1991. I can’t remember whether it was a case of nagging my Dad to take me down to the County Ground or a father hoping to instil a pure footballing allegiance in a son (probably the former, as Dad — not being from ‘round these parts’ — had no affinity to Swindon at this stage) but, either way, he took me to stand on the terraces for the crucial end-of-season clash against Leicester.
As a 7-year-old boy, I was unaware of the context of the situation, let alone the implications of relegation back down the leagues from whence Macari had brought us. To me, this was a glorious spring day, sun shining in my face as I strove to find a place near the front of the uncovered Stratton Bank — just to the right of goal — in order that I could have a clear view of the pitch.
The match itself was a blur, though a good blur. Three Swindon goals were scored right in front of me in the first half, with Steve Foley finishing off his hat trick at the Town End during the second 45. Five goals and our central midfielder scoring a hat-trick — the dream start to my Swindon ‘career’.
Later, of course, I learned that both we and Leicester City had gone on to survive demotion to the third tier by two points that season. Indeed, Town lost the last two games of the 1990-1 season, which meant those five goals and three points on 27 April against the Foxes — when I was there for the first time — had made all the difference for us. Fittingly, the game began — in my Primary School worldview, at least — a competitive rivalry with Leicester, which would reach a crescendo at the end of the 1992-3 season.
Having gained on-pitch promotion to the top flight in 1990, Osvaldo Ardiles’ managerial achievement and the players’ on-pitch successes were stripped from them due to the club having made illegal payments. Town were sent back to the Second Division and, with Ardiles being forced to sell play-off hero Alan McLoughlin, as well as Paul Bodin, we faced a relegation battle in 1990-91.
The Argentinian boss was eventually tempted away by Newcastle United in March. Not content with one former Spurs midfield genius, the Town board set their sets on another — Glenn Hoddle. His immediate task was to guide us to safety that season, which was perhaps fortunately achieved with just two wins and one draw from the final eight games.
Despite the difficulties of ‘the 5-2 season’, as it should forever be known, Hoddle had been left with some foundations on which he could build. In 1991-2 he added Shaun Taylor, David Mitchell and John Moncur, signed Martin Ling to a permanent deal, and welcomed back Bodin to the squad — an armoury which already included Fraser Digby, Colin Calderwood, Ross MacLaren, Micky Hazard, Nicky Summerbee, Duncan Shearer, Steve White… and Hoddle.
Hoddle was our sweeper. He conducted the orchestra. I wish I could remember as much about it as my Dad clearly can. He reminisces about Hoddle’s repeated raking diagonal balls out to our overlapping full-backs, Bodin and Summerbee. Somehow, this duo were invisible to everyone on the pitch but Hoddle, who ensured that their adventurous runs were not wasted journeys. I’m glad to remember elements of Hoddle’s genius, though. It was a privilege to be able to watch the former Spurs and England maestro pull the strings for Swindon in our tin pot ground against the likes of Southend, Grimsby and Oxford. He was in his mid-thirties but he didn’t need pace; he had vision and a first touch. He had a casual gait that belied his instinctive awareness and exquisite technique, not to mention a drop of the shoulder for the ages.
After a strong showing in 1991-2, Town fans were left with a sense of McLoughlin dà©jà vu when talisman Shearer was sold to the Jack Walker-backed Blackburn Rovers for £800k. Shearer had scored 32 goals in 48 games that season for Town, but his sale just prior to the end of the campaign saw the Robins trail off to 8th position, scoring only seven goals in the last nine league games without the prolific Scot.
Nevertheless, Hoddle replaced Shearer with Craig Maskell in the off-season, a signing that was to prove successful in the short-term. Moreover, Hoddle’s winning goal against Sunderland on the opening day of the 1992-3 season reinvigorated the fans and the hopes for promotion were renewed. This local news report from that day is well worth a look for the goal alone, with the partisan fan reviews providing a sense of the pervading mood. (Apologies for the lack of north-east geographical knowledge from our fan-base; I do not know that woman.)
Perhaps the reason I was so enamoured with Italy’s throwback 3-5-2 formation in the 2012 European Championships, or even England’s 3-5-2 in Euro ’96, is that I saw Hoddle’s Swindon do it first. Of course, I’m not claiming that Hoddle was the purveyor of the system, only that it was my team that introduced it to me and thus it has resonated ever since.
Hoddle was joined in the three (or the five, depending on your perspective) by captain Calderwood and ‘Ooh’ Shaun Taylor — a classical complementary centre back pairing, who were both ever-present in the league in 1992-3. For those requiring a contemporary comparison, consider Calderwood as the Rio Ferdinand — calm, composed and astutely positioned — with Taylor as the tough tackling, granite-headed Nemanja VidiÄ‡ Allow me this hyperbole.
In addition, Taylor contributed an impressive 12 league goals in 1992-3, as he began to build his status as a Swindon legend, enhancing his reputation in my mind when he claimed the equaliser against Leicester at the County Ground towards the end of the season. Earlier, Leicester had tried to drag us down to their level (the 9-year-old me talking) when Julian Joachim scrapped with Calderwood in the centre circle. This did not go down well with the (by this time in Hoddle’s reign) discerning Swindon fans, so we felt vindicated when Taylor popped up in the opposition box to chest the ball down calmly and flick it past the keeper using the outside of his boot, with the Leicester centre back reducing him after the ball had gone.
Schoolboy prejudices aside, Swindon were enjoying a productive season. Our all-round game was in evidence when we had five different goalscorers in a 5-1 win against Notts County in October. Going into November we were second and, despite dropping off either side of the New Year, a run of four wins and two draws in February and March — including victories against promotion rivals Tranmere, Portsmouth and Newcastle — ensured that we were most of the way to making the play-offs.
Our central midfield was fleet of foot. We mostly used three from Hazard, Ling, MacLaren and Moncur. They were ball players in the main, although, perhaps with the exception of the flyweight Ling, there was some steel there too. (Moncur’s smart tackling, for example, infamously incurred the wrath of a Cantona boot in the chest when United visited the Country Ground the next year.)
Indeed, at home to Newcastle we proved there was depth to the squad and an ability to battle. Before the game we envisaged problems: Town were missing Hoddle, Moncur and Hazard; Newcastle were top of the league and had just signed Andy (latterly Andrew) Cole for £1.75 million. However, Cole did not start and — much to the delight of the Swindon support — neither could he rescue a point for his team when he did enter the game in the second half. Meanwhile, the Robins came back from a 1-0 half-time deficit with White winning a penalty for Bodin to convert (not the last time this combination would produce a Town goal this season), before Calderwood stabbed home a scrappy winner. The skipper used his post-match interview to insist that his team were not soft as had been suggested in some quarters.
When reflecting on this Town team, our strikers do not immediately come to mind; the balance of the midfield and the sturdy centre backs are more easily recollected. Perhaps the forwards’ shortcomings in the long term have clouded my view of what they achieved on the way up. Maskell, Mitchell and White scored 40 league goals between them during the campaign, with each of them notching a league hat-trick.
Maskell was the top scorer with 21 and scored in both legs of the play-off semis as well as in the final. In this sense, he provided exactly what was needed in the wake of Shearer’s departure. The blue ribbon day for our strike force came against Birmingham City at St Andrew’s on April 12 — Easter Monday. In the fifty first minute, Andy Saville smashed home Birmingham’s fourth to make it 4-1. But with Hazard and Ling beginning to probe around the Blue perimeter, Maskell and Mitchell sniffed an opportunity.
On the hour, the former Huddersfield and Reading man started the comeback, slotting home after Hazard had set him free in the box. An onslaught followed and a looping header gave Maskell a third brace of the season. Between these strikes, Mitchell was succeeding in getting the ball out from under his feet consistently enough to bag his hat-trick.
The last 30 minutes of the game had produced a miraculous 6-4 win for Town, with Mitchell’s shaggy hair and beard leaving some pundits pondering just what exactly they had witnessed on this Holy day. Town finished the Bank Holiday weekend seven points ahead of seventh-placed Millwall, who could not bridge the gap to the play-offs, despite Swindon only picking up two more points from our remaining games.
Enthusiasm for Hoddle’s project had built and the last 10 games of the regular season all attracted over 10,000 fans — with three attendances of over 15,000 — as the town sensed Premier League football. The two-legged semi-final against Tranmere was an enthralling tie. Swindon, at home first, piled on the pressure from kick-off and were 3-0 up within half an hour thanks to three defensive lapses from Tranmere.
The visitors, featuring John Aldridge and Pat Nevin, pulled one back in the second half but Town took a 3-1 lead to the northwest. A signature Ling move consolidated our advantage in the second leg, skipping through the midfield lithely before laying off to his running mate, Moncur, to finish. The Merseysiders came back strongly and ran Town close, but Maskell eventually negotiated a Prenton Park penalty area that appeared to have been ploughed by industrial machinery to finish off Mitchell’s good work and effectively seal Swindon’s place in the Wembley final.
Town lost the second leg 3-2 but took the tie 5-4 on aggregate and set up a showdown with Leicester, who had beaten Pompey 3-2 overall in the other semi. Town lost 4-2 to Leicester at Filbert Street in December and salvaged the aforementioned 1-1 draw at home in April and it’s noteworthy that during the season, we had beaten Newcastle, West Ham, Portsmouth and Tranmere — the top four teams in the division — but we had not managed to overcome the Foxes. As my friend Luke’s dad drove us — my dad, Luke and Luke’s granddad included — to London, I prayed for another 5-2.
Hoddle stroked in the opener just before half time. In the sort of move to which fans had become accustomed, Ling picked up the ball on halfway and exchanged passes with the player-manager on the left before passing inside to Moncur. He then spread the play to the right flank where Summerbee was stationed alone, as usual. Summerbee swung in a shallow cross to the edge of the box for Maskell, who held off the defender and dragged back the ball into Hoddle’s path.
From the edge of the box, the gaffer placed the ball calmly past Kevin Poole and celebrated with his tongue hanging out. The move was symptomatic of our strengths that season; the central midfielders passed and moved, the full backs provided width and support, whilst the strikers gave us a focal point and ensured that we could be penetrative.
The ten minutes following the break sent the Town fans into raptures. Ling and Moncur were in control once more from the restart and two minutes of pressure told for the Leicester defence, as Moncur slipped Maskell into the penalty area past the lunging Gary Mills. The sound of Maskell’s left-footed shot smacking the inside of the post as it found its way home was as sweet as the sound of Graham Thorpe — my favourite left-handed batsman — middling another pull shot to the boundary. Taylor then typically chucked his body into the 6-yard box to nod home a third past Poole in the Leicester goal. Fifty-five minutes gone and we were 3-0 up. I was thinking about watching United, Liverpool and Arsenal at the County Ground next season.
What followed still makes me wince to this day. Thinking about the way in which Leicester came back with three goals from minutes 59 to 70, how we almost threw away our opportunity to play in the Premier League, is like finger nails on a blackboard. Julian Joachim compounded his pantomime villain status in my mind with the first of the goals, before Digby got caught and beaten by Steve Walsh under a high ball, while a swift attack and calm finish from Steve Thompson provided the equaliser. Suffice it to say that our old nemesis wouldn’t let us get away with a walkover. The rivalry that I had imagined reached its nadir.
The penalty was dubious. ‘Chalky’ White replaced Maskell and ran on to Hoddle’s inviting through ball. Poole was unwise to commit himself the way he did, though White made the most of it as he had against Newcastle. We could not have asked for a calmer head or a sweeter left foot at this level than those of Paul Bodin. He middled his penalty to the bottom right of the goal at the red and white end of Wembley.
Positioned on about the edge of the area, half-way up, and standing on my seat at this point, I had a perfect view of our winning goal and ascension to the top flight. Later that year Bodin was unfortunately to be made the scapegoat for a Wales defeat to Romania in World Cup Qualifying, as his spot kick cannoned against the bar with the game poised at 1-1 and Wales needing to win. I was always regretful that this became the populist perception of him in the short term, as he was never less than a model professional for Swindon, and more often than not a top performer with a wicked left foot. I’ll remember him for 31 May 1993, Wembley. Leicester City 3-4 Swindon Town.
Sitting in the back of his dad’s dark blue Volvo estate ( de rigueur in the early nineties), Luke and I revelled in the most enjoyable traffic jam of our young lives. We had won our second play-off final in a matter of years, but this one was surely going to count; we were in the Premier League. Moreover, I could forgive Joachim and Leicester City — I am sure they were relieved when this messaged was relayed to them — though now it may have been their turn to curse us for the penalty.
Red and white scarves were draped from car windows, horns and klaxons stuttered through that most recognisable call and response football chant, and we rolled down the M4 back to Swindon. The subsequent open-top bus tour would pass the top of my street, where I stood on a wall to watch Hoddle and his men parade the play-off winner’s trophy. The mood was already a mix of elation and concern, however, as chants of ‘don’t go, Glenn’ were heard from multiple onlookers, all of whom were desperate to safeguard the dream that Hoddle had inspired. Hoddle smiled and waved, before joining Chelsea days later.
Despite our attractive play and technical proficiency, the Premier League was always going to be a huge challenge for a club like Swindon with our limited resources. To put this ‘great’ Swindon team into perspective, consider the fortunes of the 1992-3 Division One winners, Newcastle. Indeed, there is a blog on this very website that discusses the season’s football league champions.
Despite Town having taken four points off Newcastle, the Geordies finished the season fully 20 points ahead of us, scoring 18 more goals and conceding 21 fewer. It is telling that Kevin Keegan’s side went on to finish 3rd immediately after promotion, became The Entertainers and beat Barcelona, whilst Swindon were relegated twice on the trot under John Gorman — those foreboding 59 goals we conceded in our promotion season turned into 100 in 42 games in the Premier League.
We probably would not have survived with him, but Hoddle leaving had made our top flight debut that much harder; we had lost a man who had vision on the pitch and one who was showing signs of strategic astuteness in his early managerial career. Amongst the joy of promotion and a season of the most entertaining football I have ever seen Swindon play, Hoddle’s departure and the inevitable on-pitch aftermath were indicative of how life would really be supporting a lower league club. No matter, Town had given me four reasons to be cheerful and — as fans say of the prospect of a 0-0 draw away to the league leaders in chilly November — you’d take that.