Swindon Town have not been shy of making appointments that make a bit of a stir on the national press. The club was Martin Ling’s first after battling depression and it gave Paolo Di Canio his first manic strides into football management. Casting the net wider, in the late eighties and early nineties the club gave some big names the manager’s role; Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, Lou Macari.
On the 10th of November 2016, Swindon again dipped its hand into the bucket of strange appointments and dragged out a card that read “Tim Sherwood; Director of Football”. Sherwood is not a standard Director of Football, though, far from it. It was made clear at his unveiling that he would “head up all aspects – that will be transfers, that will be the way that we play, the formations and the picking of the team”. It was soon clear that this would translate to Sherwood taking an active part in the match day ‘experience’ as he descended from his seat in the stands to join Head Coach Luke Williams in the dugout when Swindon went 0-1 down in the FA Cup first round replay at the County Ground.
Sherwood’s appointment was a bit of a surprise to many who had chosen to believe the rumours at the time of a “Red Bull Swindon” takeover, but it was quickly apparent that this was not as surprising as it may have first appeared. For one thing, Sherwood and Town Chairman Lee Power were teammates at Norwich City, and Sherwood has been seen at a number of Swindon games since Power took over the club.
Another reason that it should not be such a surprise he joined Swindon is that he seems to have done his reputation as a manager some serious harm whilst at Aston Villa. How much of Villa’s demise was directly his fault is up for debate, but he was not up to the task of rebuilding their squad and keeping them in the Premier League. At the time of his appointment at Swindon, he was being touted by the bookies as the potential next manager at QPR. However, in a poll held by the Evening Standard on the eve of his unveiling at the County Ground, a massive 74 per cent of Queens Park Rangers fans didn’t want him at their club. Clearly, he was not held in high regard despite being the stereotypical “football man” that managers such as Harry Redknapp and Sam Allardyce so love. Perhaps, from Sherwood’s perspective, Swindon was his most realistic option.
That said, clearly there is a section of people involved in football that still back Sherwood’s managerial ability as, on the day of his appointment, bookmakers suddenly slashed odds of Swindon gaining promotion to the Championship and even the Premier League under Sherwood’s careful hand.
So, what impact has Sherwood had so far, and could he really be the man to get Swindon promoted?
Well, on a purely results-based level, things have slightly improved for Swindon. In the five games Swindon have played since his appointment, they have won two, drawn one and lost two (although the two losses included a humiliating 1-3 defeat at the hands of non-league Eastleigh and a 0-4 thumping from Rochdale, a team that Swindon had beaten 3-0 just a few weeks before). In comparison, the five games prior to him joining the club, the club won one, drew two and lost two.
It is hard to say whether the slight improvements that have been seen are down to Sherwood or not, as it is not entirely clear exactly how much work he does with the first team in training (it was mentioned in his opening press conference that he would be taking training, but what this means in practice and what changes he implements are unknown, to me at least). There are also other things to consider, including the impact of injuries and suspensions, that might have impacted on the team’s performance.
What we do know is that Sherwood clearly has the ability to connect with the players at his disposal. He did this at Tottenham most clearly with Emmanuel Adebayor, and perhaps his man management style will be just what is needed to bring confidence levels in the squad up. His style is in direct contrast with Head Coach Luke Williams, who comes across as quiet and often does not give off the impression of being a brilliant motivator. Given that Williams has a strong reputation as an excellent coach, adding Sherwood’s man management abilities might be the key to unlocking some consistency from the side.
It is also the case that Sherwood appears to be more assertive than Williams when it comes to discussing club policy and style of play. In his unveiling, he was quick to say things at the club needed tweaking and he even intimated that he wanted to add some more tactical strings to the club’s bow to allow the players on the pitch to adapt to different styles of opposition play. This is exactly what many fans have called for in the recent past as the style of football that Swindon play can often be exploited by other bigger and stronger sides (see the play-off final against Preston for more details). If Sherwood’s tactical tweaks can help make the side more solid and consistent, there will not be many Swindon fans left unhappy.
The thing is, despite the bookies’ over excitement at Sherwood’s appointment, the troubles at the club run much deeper than simply who is in charge of the first team. Underinvestment in crucial areas has left the club with a string of misfiring strikers and suspect centre backs. The team lacks a really solid spine to hold the squad together. This season, in particular, will now be nothing more than an effort in staving off relegation. Swindon should be able to survive this season, although that is by no means certain and Sherwood and Williams will have a tough job to deliver this.
Sherwood may be able to convince his friend, Lee Power, to dip into the transfer market in January and bring in one or two players to help them in beating the drop (and Sherwood’s ‘big name’ status will certainly be something of a draw for players to join the club). But the real test of Sherwood’s credentials will be – if he stays that long – how he reshapes the squad over the summer. Sherwood could use this opportunity to rehabilitate his reputation as a manager (or Director of Football, whatever), and nothing could be better for him than if he can lead Swindon to promotion next season. It is up to him to deliver on the pitch, but also to convince Lee Power that money needs to be spent. If he does that, then he will be a success, and he could even be the man to take Swindon back to the second tier for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.