Is the Swindon Town Model Sustainable?
On 24th May 2015, despite being widely tipped for relegation nine months previously, Swindon Town stepped out onto the hallowed turf at Wembley Stadium to face Preston North End in one of the largest games in the Wiltshire clubs history. The prize at stake was far greater than the promotion and financial boost offered by the Football League. This game would decide the destination of several of Swindon’s household names – Luongo, Williams, Foderingham and Gladwin, to name but a few. Imagine a scenario whereby Chelsea losing a Cup Final would result in the departure of Hazard, Costa, Courtois and Oscar and you have a rough idea of just how significant the next 90 minutes were for the Wiltshire-based club.
The history books will record a crushing 4-0 defeat for the Robins that day, and the score-line on paper accurately reflects the performance of both sides. 48,236 spectators inside the national stadium bore witness as Jermaine Beckford cut through the Swindon defence like a knife through butter on three occasions to complete an emphatic hat-trick, whilst centre-back Huntington completed the rout.
Since then, Swindon have been in free-fall and currently sit second from bottom in the Sky Bet League 1 table. Some promising early performances have since been followed by a win-less streak stretching back to the 5th September, when they were able to take the three points against Crewe. In recent weeks, the manager responsible for building Swindon back up from the ashes from a footballing perspective; Mark Cooper, has been relieved of his duties and now club Chairman and Owner; Lee Power, sits in the hot seat as the team at SN1 search for a new full-time boss.
It’s not all doom and gloom however; there have been some positives. Loan singing Laurence Vigoroux from Premier League side Liverpool has proved to be an ample replacement for the ever-popular Foderingham between the sticks, whilst Southampton have sent local boy Jordan Turnbull back on loan for a second consecutive season. The cash-flow from the sale of Luongo, Byrne, Gladwin among others has put the club back into financial stability and the stadium disputes of last season have now been put to bed. There are some positives to take from a quick glance at the league table too, with Swindon out-scoring 2nd placed Burton Albion as it stands. Unfortunately though, the Robins have shipped twice as many goals as Burton, and therein lies their main problem on the pitch at the moment.
When Mark Cooper stepped up from assistant to manager following the departure of Kevin MacDonald, both he and Power imposed a culture shift on Swindon, both on and off the pitch. The style of play was adapted to suit some of the best teams in the world, with a focus on quick passing and playing the ball out from the back. The playing staff leaving were supplemented with several loan signings using Power’s connections from his playing days, some of which remained on a permanent basis. Potential stars such as Hylton and Gladwin were plucked from non-league outfits at cheap rates, and the focus switched from a full-frontal promotion assault to achieving a level of sustainability with the least impact on performance. The question is; is such a model sustainable?
Let’s focus on the football. Swindon have conceded a total of 27 goals so far this campaign – the joint second worst record in the league. A large number of these goals have been the result of mistakes at the back, either from individual players or just coming under pressure whilst playing the ball around the back four and goalkeeper. Whilst modelling yourselves on a top flight or European team is all very well and good in theory, you have to be realistic. The lower echelons of the Football League are not a happy hunting ground for teams that rely on pace and quick passing to make an impact. For Swindon, some aggression is needed and in my opinion, that will only come with the addition of two or three proven players at this level. The club will point to missing several players through injury at the moment as a key factor behind their dip in form, but the fact remains – the team performance was patchy and unconvincing when these players were previously fit, so why does their impending return herald anything other than the same old story? To my knowledge, three weeks on the treatment table isn’t a cure for a lack of skill.
In terms of the transfer policy, it would be completely fair to stop and admire the job Lee Power has done with regards to pulling Swindon back from the verge of financially spiralling out of control into a self-sustainable football club. Equally, at the same time he has provided Cooper with the players to maintain Swindon’s current level of competition – and even challenge for higher. The chairman has also spent money where necessary, such as with the acquisition of prize loan assets such as Luongo and Byrne. Michael Smith was brought in for £100,000 and did a good service for the Reds. But every season the majority of Swindon’s players come from loan deals and lower levels of the football pyramid.
For any club, this poses a problem. Firstly, for a club targeting promotion, consistency is everything. Swindon have lost the majority of their playing squad every season since Cooper and Power took the reigns, either through loans expiring or the movement of players to clubs in a higher tier. Also, whilst taking future Premier League players on loan again; in theory, seems a win-win situation, the inexperience of such players costs the team points, especially when you consider the majority of Swindon’s key players in the last three years have been on a temporary loan contract at some stage or another. The end result is inconsistency, both on the pitch as young charges learn their trade, and from season to season as the annual Swindon transfer merry-go-round kicks in. And the end result of all that is; on paper, no progression in three seasons. The history books will simply read – 2012/13: League One. 2015/16 – League One. In the cold light of day – no difference.
Off the pitch as well, the club seems to be hell-bent on being controversial. Several visiting away supporters have bemoaned the clubs optimistic ticket pricing, with some fixtures costing the visitors as much as £25. Incidentally, this is the same price or more expensive than it costs for some parents to sit in the family area of Wembley for an England international. When you consider the gulf in the facilities at Wembley and the County Ground, and indeed the standard of football on offer – is it any wonder they are upset? Admittedly the club charges a very reasonable £2 for Juniors, but that’s still £27 for an afternoon out at a League 1 match – a ridiculous figure in my view. It is factors such as these that will drive attendances at the County Ground down, as indeed they have marginally since the successful; albeit lively, tenure of the enigmatic Paolo Di Canio a few seasons ago. It is almost certain that Swindon will need all the numbers through the turnstiles they can get to keep prices down and make Power’s financial model work.
Even the local media are feeling the force of Lee Power’s regime at present. Locally-acclaimed journalist Sam Morshead was refused entry to the Robins’ home game on the 20th October against Oldham Athletic, allegedly due to a mix up with his accreditation as he had recently switched employers. Sam has been and remains one; if not the, most outspoken and direct reporters on the club, which has caused some severe friction between him and the owner in the last couple of years. Whilst by the letter of the law, Swindon were entitled to refuse Mr. Morshead entry, the instructions to staff were to refuse the long-standing Swindon Town reporter entry. This was just the tip of the iceberg, with the club also battening down the hatches on the majority of its local media at the start of the season. In another slightly controversial move, the club has also aligned its content with new app Fanzai, which led to contempt from sections of the Town support. The overall feeling from the offices of the County Ground would suggest the local media are a nuisance if they haven’t got a camera, a radio station or a BBC logo on their vans. Which is something that will probably come back to haunt them if the situation continues to get worse at the County Ground.
So, the situation in short at Swindon reads like this: no win in ten games, a rapidly impatient and frustrated fan-base, a chairman/manager/owner at the helm and prospect of being dumped out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle for the fourth time in as many seasons at the weekend as they travel away to Rochdale.
Can Swindon continue to progress in this way? If the club still harbours ambitions of moving up to the Championship in the future, then stability, consistency, experience and an appreciation of both the media and the financial implications on supporters coming to watch games is needed. It is clear that if any one element is found lacking once again, Swindon are in a very realistic danger of stagnating and becoming a League One ‘also ran’ each season.
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