We live in an era where the inviolable independence of football clubs is starting to become a thing of the past. After our recent examination of Charlton Athletic’s Belgian connection, guest writer Alex Cooke turns his attention to the somewhat looser but still significant link between Swindon Town and Tottenham Hotspur. Alex is a freelance writer and blogger and contributes to TheWashbag.com and WeAreGoingUp, largely on the subject of the Robins. He tweets on football as @stfconly.
‘Everyone in the game is watching it with great interest’, according to Jed Roddy, the Premier League’s head of youth development and it’s certainly true that Swindon Town’s informal link with Tottenham Hotspur has garnered attention far beyond the two clubs involved. However, while much of the focus on what Roddy called this ‘fascinating innovation’ has been on the three players sent to the County Ground for the 2013-4 season, this is only part of the picture.
As the campaign draws to a close, it does seem that for the first time those inside Swindon are looking to search beyond the plundering of Tim Sherwood’s development squad as a solution to on field success, with a number of supporters increasingly infuriated by the contradictory demands of developing others’ players, while attempting to promote one’s own and winning games. This has even culminated in the booing of Town players and the style of play created in order to accommodate and attract potential loanees.
The arrangement isn’t that of a feeder club nourishing a rapacious Premier League behemoth. Spurs haven’t shown any interested in Swindon’s own youthful team, preferring instead to use the Robins as a nursery. The idea is relatively simple and the benefits clear: Swindon take a trio of temporary signings and nurture them, under Spurs’ supervision, through 46 competitive games of League One football. The trio are there to be seen, sold or just parked as they mature, with the aim of getting them ready for Spurs’ first team. Swindon, for their troubles, receive three naïve but technically exemplary players for a slither of their usual wage or – as club chairman Lee Power called it, ‘baby-sitting’.
The arrangement is informal (FA and Football League rules forbid anything more) as it relies on Power’s friendship with Tim Sherwood. So far six players have been borrowed; three briefly last season, and three for the duration of this. Two have subsequently become permanent additions, albeit with very large sell-on clauses, and a further youngster was added on his release from the Lane.
However, the concern for Swindon fans doesn’t seem to be the number of players arriving from one club. After all, Brighton’s development squad has also provided four other permanent additions and compared to the volatility of the playing staff during Paolo Di Canio’s tenure, such season-long loans represent the height of stability. It isn’t even truly any loss of the club’s identity – more the loss of control.
The resignation of manager Kevin MacDonald citing ‘personal reasons’ days before the season opened raised early concerns about undue influence, as did the use of Grant Hall, a loaned central defender, at full-back. Some fans questioned if the Spurs players were being selected on merit leaving current manager Mark Cooper to publicly deny any contractual demands but also hinting that playing was expected if the relationship was to be maintained.
Where concerns over clauses in contracts and supposed interference were originally aired via grumbling on forums and social media, it is the short-passing style that has actually led to anger in the stands. The possession-based play, created to tempt the Premier League technical directors, has at times resulted in the booing of players and even calls for the manager’s resignation.
It would be easy to characterise such a reaction as luddite but early in the season when Swindon had the best home record in the league, the playing style was a source of delight. Then, the delicate interplay of midfielders Ryan Mason and Alex Pritchard’s brought the latter nominations for Football League Young Player of the Year and League One Player of the Year while Mason netted five goals in just 13 starts.
Power has also cited this technical, almost tiki-taka type of play as being a key to Tottenham’s interest, claiming Sherwood had become frustrated that other clubs weren’t developing his loanees in the correct way, ‘They haven’t played the style of football that obviously he would like them to learn’, Power told local radio. ‘And obviously we got talking and explained what we would be doing at Swindon, trying a blueprint, a philosophy that we want to try to move the ball.’ Another borrowed player, Jack Stephens of Southampton, even spoke specifically of the progressive playing style being a ‘key aspect’ in his decision to join.
But as the pitches deteriorated over the winter so did Swindon’s performances and the perception of the relationship. A combination of 2 wins in 13 games and injuries to the loanees gave greater voice to those seeking a more direct style. The 4-3-3 formation which once allowed Pritchard and Mason to function as playmakers was frequently questioned. Many saw the system as being chosen to ape Spurs, despite Cooper’s frequent use of 3-5-2, 4-4-2 and even 4-6-0.
While this link between the style of play and the needs of the loaned players hasn’t always been stated, it has regularly been implied. The dissenting voices have been amplified when an improved run was achieved without any of the Spurs players. A trio of consecutive wins resulted with youth products Miles Storey and Louis Thompson twice proving the match winners. Now for some fans the question has become whether the loanees return to the team when they recover their fitness?
Of course, even for the nursery club, the argument is far more nuanced than can be sketched here. Swindon’s situation isn’t as simple as bolting technical talents onto a stable squad – the club has been transformed in objectives and method since the opulent Di Canio days. The aim is now to become sustainable from gate receipts and sponsorship. The average age of the first team has on occasion plunged below 23 and 26 members of the current squad, not including the loanees, are yet to make 50 career appearances in any league. This all adds to the profile of the Spurs’ players, turning the loanees into lightning rods.
Swindon might be leading the way this season but they are unlikely to remain alone under the microscope for long – English football needs to improve its youth development. Greg Dyke chose to make particular mention of ‘the transition of young players – and particularly young English players – out of academies and into first team football’ in his first major speech on appointment as FA chairman.
Similarly, while formal feeder clubs remain (hopefully) nothing more than a talking point, the Elite Player Performance Plan has given the strongest the ability to beam trawler every scrap of talent out of the Football League and into their academies. But the Premier League’s under 21 structure simply can’t occupy, develop or advertise them all, certainly not until Richard Scudamore’s promised under 23 league materialises.
If that is the longer-term future, it seems that Swindon’s own ‘fascinating innovation’ looks set to continue even if the link with Spurs falls when Tim Sherwood does. Power has already said, ‘I’ve had two other Premier League teams approach me who have been really impressed with how we’ve looked after and developed these players and want to lend us some.’ Which clubs these are we don’t know, but at least some of us will continue watching with great interest.