Swindon Town - from Wembley to where?
The Wembley crowd watched in silence as Charlie Austin bore down on David Forde’s goal, writes Jordan Blackwell. The then 20-year-old had been plucked from Poole Town in the lower reaches of the English leagues just eight months earlier. He had racked up 20 goals in 38 games in his first season in professional football; surely he wouldn’t pass up a one-on-one opportunity like this?
Austin steadied to shoot, the far corner of the Millwall goal in his sights. But just as he was about to place it beyond Forde, the ball bobbled up off the much-maligned Wembley turf of last season, and Austin shinned it wide. Jubilation for the Millwall faithful. Despair for the Swindon supporters.
That was Swindon’s best chance to equalise at last year’s League One Play-Off Final, and possibly the very beginning of their severe downward spiral. Just 11 months on, they now sit at the bottom of the League One table, without a chairman, without a permanent manager, preparing for life in the fourth tier.
So, just where did it all go wrong?
One problem with coming so close to gaining Championship football is that your star players get a taste for bigger and better things. This was certainly the case for top scorer Billy Paynter, who turned down a new contract with the Robins to join newly promoted Leeds United. Also on the departures list were Danny Ward, who finished his extremely successful loan spell and returned north to Bolton, and captain Gordon Greer, who clearly saw something in Gus Poyet and the Seagulls and moved to the south coast to skipper Brighton to the League One title.
The exit of these three players prompted the manager, Danny Wilson, to enter the transfer market. He brought in numerous squad-strengthening players including former Forest and Leeds midfielder David Prutton and Celtic academy graduates Simon Ferry and Paul Caddis. But, there was no replacement for Paynter, and more importantly, no replacement for Greer.
This meant that inexperienced duo Scott Cuthbert and Sean Morrison would be partnered at centre-back for the first half of the season, a decision that didn’t help the Robins. By New Year, they were placed in 18th, just outside the relegation zone, with the third worst defensive record in the league.
Keeping them afloat was that man again, Charlie Austin. He scored 17 goals in 27 games for Swindon before the January transfer window, the type of form that gets big clubs calling. Offers from Championship clubs came in, all of which were rejected by Swindon, until Austin himself realised the Robins wouldn’t be fighting for promotion and handed in a transfer request. He left for Burnley and Sean Morrison followed him to the Championship with Reading.
Again, the replacements weren’t good enough. Czech defender Milan Misun arrived from Celtic, but sustained an injury in his first week that put him out for the season. Andy Frampton, on loan from Millwall, failed to successfully plug the hole in the defence, and Elliot Benyon failed to reproduce his goal scoring form from Torquay.
But the blame can’t completely rest with the players. Danny Wilson, usually a top manager at League One level, was unable to get his players to produce like he had done in the past. He may have felt that his chance (and this particular squad’s chance) of promotion with Swindon had come and gone.
There was a lack of urgency and motivation within the team, and this didn’t bode well. The Robins went through an 11-game winless streak between January and March, which saw them slip into the relegation zone and saw Danny Wilson resign.
Paul Hart took the reins, but was unable to stop the rot. He couldn’t find a win until his eighth game in charge, and even that didn’t help Swindon turn their fortunes around. Hart’s negative tactics meant Swindon only scored six goals in their 11 games under his guidance, which was never to going to be enough for the Robins to escape the jaws of relegation, which was finally confirmed on Easter Monday.
Since then, Andrew Fitton has resigned as Chairman and Paul Hart has been sacked as manager. This means that next season will be as fresh of a start as you can get. The new permanent manager will be appointed over the summer, and should bring in some youngsters who will have the eagerness to get Swindon back in the third tier at the first time of asking.
For now, reserve and youth team coach Paul Bodin will take over as interim manager to see out the final few games of the season. Town fans will be glad to see a familiar face in the dugout. Bodin had two stints as a Swindon player and scored the winner in their last Wembley success when his penalty took the Robins to the Premier League. How they would love to be in that position now.