Monday evenings are usually nothing special. You might watch the One Show, have a sensible dinner and try to recover from a long first day after the weekend, you might try and catch up on some work or you might sit in anticipation for Sky’s latest coverage of Monday night football. This Monday, though, Monday evening at the County Ground was nothing if not spectacular. A ridiculous 5-5 draw between two of League One’s best teams, Swindon Town and Sheffield United, will live long in the memory of all at the ground and everyone tuning in and keeping abreast of developments at home.
Quite often, lower league apologists hold up the odd completely incredible game played by teams in England’s bottom three tiers of professional football as a show of where the Premier League’s going wrong; it’s quite easy to see how a ten goal stalemate in a play-off second leg might get the same sort of acclaim, given that it ran parallel to a match at the Emirates between Arsenal and Swansea which was, by all accounts, as flat as a pancake. But this sort of stance completely misses the point, especially in events such as Monday evening; Swindon Town just edging out Sheffield United to a place at Wembley next weekend wasn’t an advert for the lower leagues – although both clubs do indeed happen to be lower league outfits at present – it was an advert for football, and sport in general.
The drama is obvious. It was the highest scoring play-off game ever, with more twists and turns than a gripping thriller film and several potential future stars on show. Both Swindon and Sheffield United have excellent teams – evidenced, obviously, by their finishing positions in League One this season, but also in the way that managers Mark Cooper and Nigel Clough have asked their sides to approach their game throughout the season, and indeed by their performance against higher-league opposition. Sheffield United have shown a knack for knockout competition under Clough in recent years, having reached semi-finals in both the FA Cup and Capital One Cup in the past couple of years, as well as another Quarter Final appearance in the FA Cup this season.
Swindon’s cup form hasn’t been quite so prodigious, but Cooper’s young side has drawn plaudits from pretty much all that have seen them this season. Despite a miniscule budget in comparison to the league’s other strong finishers – Swindon are rumoured to have a budget of around £2m this year, compared to the likes of Bristol City’s outlay of £12m – Mark Cooper has created an attractive system at the Wiltshire club, based around an attacking, vibrant possession game which, at its devastating best, can finish games before they’ve even started. The inexperience of the side – until the arrival of Sam Ricketts on loan in late March, the Robins’ squad featured one player above the age of 24 – has sometimes led to the team shooting themselves in the foot defensively, and both sides of the proverbial Swindon Town coin were on show at the County Ground on Monday, as the Reds tore into a 3-0 lead after a little over a quarter of an hour, only to be pegged back by the final whistle as nerves crept in.
Still, what Swindon Town have done this season is arguably more impressive than the achievements of the already-promoted Bristol City or MK Dons, or their opponents at Wembley, Preston North End. Tipped by pundits and fans alike to endure a tough campaign this season, having lost a few key members of the squad which secured a mid-table finish last time out, the prospect of a brief flirtation with automatic promotion and a play-off campaign were seemingly distant in August, even though the club began the season with a stylish pasting of Scunthorpe United. As well as that, the club have made international stars out of Massimo Luongo and Yaser Kasim, who had both had very little experience of professional football before their arrivals in Wiltshire. The likes of stalwart goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, skipper Nathan Thompson, Michael Smith, Nathan Byrne and the Norwich-bound brother of Nathan, Louis Thompson, formed the nucleus of a promising young side, and the loan signings of defensive duo Jack Stephens and Jordan Turnbull from Southampton, talented playmaker John Swift from Chelsea and wing back Harry Toffolo from Norwich have taken Cooper’s fledglings to the next level this season.
Swindon are now a viable destination for starlets at Premier League clubs who need game time; the fact that clubs including Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Southampton have trusted Swindon with their young prospects in recent seasons is as much a sign of this as the trajectory of the careers of some of the recent loanees since their stints in Wiltshire; Ryan Mason is a full England international, Brad Smith has played for the Socceroos and Alex Pritchard was one of the stars of the Championship this season.
Everything points towards a healthy future for the club, its fans, and the young players still relatively close to the start of their careers. First, however, comes the task of beating a strong Preston side to promotion next Sunday.
A side containing the likes of talented striker Joe Garner, a by-now experienced Jermaine Beckford and Australian international Bailey Wright will be no pushovers and will probably go into the game as slight favourites, based on the unfortunate manner in which they missed out on promotion on the final day. Having steamrollered their way past Chesterfield over two legs, scoring four without reply against the Spireites, it’s safe to say that Preston will quite rightly be confident going into next weekend; but as play-off finals have shown us so much over recent years, and indeed since their inception, nothing can be left to luck for either side.
As for Monday night; it’s great that the exposure gained by games such as this in the play-offs seems to be pushing more and more people into taking an interest in lower league football. For many, it’s probably quite easy to forget that there’s whole swathes of competitive, exciting and interesting clubs below the top division, but it’d be great if the footballing world could stop short of the condescending nature that many comments about the lower leagues still seem to be imbued with. If Monday didn’t prove that Swindon, Sheffield United (and the rest of the clubs in the lower leagues) are big deals both locally and throughout the world, with viewers turning in from several different countries, nothing will.
Derby defeat to Cheltenham highlights wider issues for Swindon Town
The misery at the County Ground looks set to continue.
Swindon Town were humiliated on home turf on Saturday afternoon as local rivals Cheltenham Town succumbed the Robins to a 3-0 defeat. This match represented the start to life at the County Ground post-David Flitcroft, with player-manager Matty Taylor in interim control.
A stunning Jake Andrews’ free-kick and a brace from Mohamed Eisa earned Cheltenham victory and condemned Taylor to a losing start as Swindon temporary boss.
Many would have expected the 36-year-old to see out the game from the touchline, but his inclusion in the starting line-up suggests he is still a long way from hanging up his boots and reluctant to fulfill a management position on a full-time basis.
As Power’s comments to BBC Wiltshire in midweek alluded, this is likely to be the former Burnley man’s only match in caretaker control, but the weekend’s performance further emphasized the underlying issues that plague the Wiltshire outfit.
The first ten minutes looked promising, with Town full of intent, putting together some promising passing moves. The football being played in the very early stages looked a far cry from the receive-panic-hoof that the County Ground faithful were subject to under David Flitcroft.
However, what followed can only be described as a capitulation. The next 80 minutes comprised of a lack of passion, bravery and a sense of cluelessness in possession. Whenever the Robins were able to recycle play, the first instinct was to pump the ball forward for Luke Norris and Marc Richards to chase.
In the end, it was just another bump in the road of a miserable season. An abject home performance that displayed little fight or spirit. Interim boss Taylor is by no means to blame – he was one of the better performers on the day, after all – but it is a sign of things to come between now and May.
The supporters remain disillusioned.
Taylor’s appointment – albeit temporary – was seen as a breath of fresh air. The articulate Football League veteran has quickly become a crowd favourite at the County Ground and there was a sense of optimism that he could be the man to turn the club’s fortunes. But Saturday’s performance saw no change.
Former Southend boss, Phil Brown, remains the leading contender for the vacant managerial role. Like Flitcroft, he is the type who will come into the club and look to dictate from the top down, embedding his style both on and off the pitch. However, his win percentage of 35.5% will concern Town fans.
The club still remains in the mix for promotion, just two points off the play-off places, with 30 points to play for. Nonetheless, early season murmurings of a return to Sky Bet League One remain nothing but a fantasy.
Dave Flitcroft’s sudden departure has left the club in a troubling position, no doubt, but the state of play on the pitch has not been impacted by the former head coach’s exit to Mansfield.
The current squad is abject, with too many expecting to be carried by their teammates, and the state of competition at the top of the table is too great.
This lack of passion on the pitch is synonymous with a failure on behalf of the club hierarchy. Just 90 minutes away from promotion to the Sky Bet Championship three seasons ago, Swindon has suffered from a chronic lack of investment and a negligence of transparency, which has served to ostracise those who pay the gates.
Chairman Lee Power continues to fail in his duty of care, seemingly content in overseeing the club’s plight down the Football League.
Ollie Banks – A fresh start in the Football League at Swindon Town
Swindon Town manager David Flitcroft described on-loan midfielder Ollie Banks as a “top, top, top player” after his first appearance for the County Ground outfit.
Officially announced as a Town player the Friday morning before the Robins’ Saturday League Two fixture, Banks went on to play a starring role in his new side’s 1-0 victory over local rivals Forest Green, following which he collected the afternoon’s Man of the Match accolade.
The 25-year-old midfielder, who joined the club on a temporary basis from League One side Oldham, had found first-team chances hard to come by with his parent club and spent a short spell on loan at Tranmere Rovers, where he impressed for the National League outfit.
Speaking to The Boot Room, in an exclusive interview, he explained the rationale behind his move to Swindon and the role manager David Flitcroft had to play.
“I finished my loan at Tranmere and they offered me a deal to stay. I really enjoyed my time there. It is a brilliant club. But I wanted to get back into the Football League. I told Micky Mellon that I needed to give myself the best chance I could and I didn’t want to jump into any decision.
I waited for a few days after speaking to Micky, then Dave Flitcroft at Swindon rang me. He said he wanted me to come down and express myself and get the club where it needs to be. From there it was quite an easy decision to move down South.”
After a mixed start to the campaign for Swindon, who occupy eighth position in League Two at the time of writing, the January transfer window was always set to be a period of reinforcement for the club. New signings were required to strengthen the starting XI and enforce a sense of consistency, particularly to rectify a miserable home record of four wins in 13 league matches (prior to the new year).
Flitcroft’s background in scouting and recruitment has been a regular feature since he took the County Ground hot seat. His quest to bring the required quality of player, while ensuring the right characters and mix of temperaments remain at the club, has seen him turn to trusted peers, both in his playing and back room staff.
For the former Bury manager, recruitment is the key to success. Every deal has to be deemed the correct move for the club and this was no different in the case of Banks. Long-term and thoughtfully considered interest in the 25-year-old resulted in an offer being made for his services, as he revealed:
“Flitcroft said he has always kept track of me and tried to sign me a few times before. It is always important to have a manager who believes in you and likes you as a player. To have the backing of the manager is a huge plus. It allows you to go out with confidence and put good performances in.”
Banks’ move to Swindon has represented new challenges to the 25-year-old, not least the prospect of living away from what he considers ‘home’.
Having always plied his trade in the north of England, most recently with FC United of Manchester, Chesterfield, Northampton Town, Oldham and Tranmere, this is the first time he has featured for a club in the southern counties.
“The move has been different, to be honest. I have never really had to live away from home, so it has been a bit strange, but I’ve enjoyed it. The lads and the gaffer have been really welcoming.
Banks made little of his role in debut victory over Forest Green Rovers. Nonetheless, his references to the competitive nature of the play-off race make both his and Swindon’s objectives for the end of the season glaringly obvious:
“It felt good to get Man of the Match, but there were a few good performers on our team and just to get three points in a local derby was a big thing. With it being so tight at the top of the league three points was the main aim, but to settle in so quickly is always a bonus.”
The central midfielder already has one League Two promotion on his CV, having won the title with Chesterfield in the 2013-14 season. Like all those associated with Swindon, he will be hoping to add another before the end of the current campaign.
Keen to be a figurehead throughout the club’s promotion charge, Banks followed up his debut heroics with Swindon’s only goal in Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to Coventry. Having fallen 2-0 behind after just 22 minutes, the 25-year-old slid onto the end of a low cross into the six-yard box to pull one back for the Robins.
This strike was to no avail, as Coventry proceeded to score a third late into the second half, but it was perhaps a sign of things to come from the Oldham loanee. Not typically know for his escapades in the final third, he is hoping to add goals to his game at the County Ground.
“I prefer playing slightly further forward, as it means you do have chances to get on the scoresheet. I’ve been playing a bit deeper throughout the last few years and I’ve found goals quite hard to come by, but hopefully playing a more advanced role under Flitcroft could lead to a few more goals.”
Bringing a creative spark and eye for a pass in the middle of the park, Banks’ has shown his ability to take up decent positions around the box too. Since his arrival, he has stood out in a Swindon midfield lacking a real presence, helping his side to two wins in three appearances – including a remarkable 4-3 comeback victory over Crewe Alexandra on Saturday afternoon.
The 25-year-old scored once in eight appearances during his time at Tranmere, impressing for the Merseyside outfit. The club, who currently occupying 5th place in the National League, had managed just three victories in eight matches leading up to his arrival, compared to the five matches won with the 25-year-old in the squad. Nonetheless, he underplayed his influence.
“A few weeks before I joined a few of the boys were saying that they weren’t taking their chances. I would be very naive to believe it was all my doing, the way lucked change, but I think the team just started taking chances were they previously hadn’t. That was the main factor.”
Rovers had been crying out for a player willing to take an unselfish role in the centre of the park and Banks provided this. Despite the short term nature of his move, he was able to strike a positive partnership with fellow midfielder Ollie Norburn, for whom he was full of praise.
“I would actually say that he [Norburn] is one of the best midfielders that I have played with for a while. He likes to get about and leave the middle of the pitch more that many midfielders do, so it became my job to hold a deeper role in midfield and work from there. “
Banks knows too well the trials and tribulations of the Football League and the volatility that comes with playing in the lower divisions. From being a regular starter at Oldham, under manager John Sheridan, to being a fringe player following Richie Wellens’ arrival, he found himself low in self-belief and in need of a fresh start.
Having made 33 League One appearances for the Latics in 2016/17, the 25-year-old had been limited to just seven first team appearances in the same competition this year. Ultimately, the November move to Tranmere made sense for all parties:
“Confidence was a major thing, especially personally. The spirit that we had from the backend of the season before didn’t seem to be there. You can go into all sorts of details as to why things didn’t work, but ultimately we just weren’t getting the results that we had before.”
“Richie Wellens came in and he didn’t fancy me as a player, so you just move on and hope that it works out elsewhere.”
With a year remaining on his contract at Oldham it seems unlikely that Banks will extend his current deal at Boundary Park. When questioned on the chances of signing a new contract with the Latics, he was answered, “I highly doubt that I will be extending, to be honest.”
Instead, he will use the remainder of his time at the County Ground to prove his worth of a move elsewhere and, having made a positive impression just a few weeks into his spell at the club, interest from the Football League is likely to be high.
David Flitcroft is a man with an edge when it comes to scouting and recruitment. To be praised so highly by the Swindon head coach, after just two days at the club, is good indication of what is to come for the humble, but highly talented midfielder.
Exclusive: Tom Smith talks Flitcroft, Bath City and becoming a Swindon Town regular
‘Wise beyond his years’ would undoubtedly fall under the category of overused football clichés, but it is perhaps the best way to describe Swindon Town’s Tom Smith, the 19-year-old currently on loan at National League South outfit Bath City.
“I’ve been there since I was eight/nine years old, coming all the way up through the academy, seeing everything that has been going on with the first team squad,” said the highly-rated midfielder, as he reminisced on his childhood spent admiring the club he has come to call home.
“I always used to watch the games thinking, “I could be out there one day”,” he professed. “There is no better feeling than stepping out to the County Ground. Is always where I wanted to be growing up.”
After seven years spent progressing through the Swindon Town youth system, Smith was handed his first professional contract with the Wiltshire outfit in the summer of 2014, before making his debut under manager Mark Cooper as a first-year scholar in 2015.
An appearance as a second half-substitute against Preston North End at the end of the 2014/15 campaign would mark his first outing for the club before he went on to score his first goal for the Robins in a 3-1 victory over Crewe Alexandra the season after.
A difficult 2015/16 season at the County Ground would lead to the sacking of Cooper. However, his successor, Luke Williams, would go on to reward Smith’s hard work with a run of first-team appearances throughout 2016/17.
This would be the year that Smith began to establish himself as a squad player at Swindon, but one that would ultimately lead to the club’s relegation. The midfielder featured 12 times in total for the Robins, earning himself seven starts.
Naturally, the loss of the club’s League One status led to the dismissal of Williams in May and a month-long wait for a new manager ensued before the Robins finally settled on the appointment of David Flitcroft.
Flitcroft’s arrival has seen a change in the wind at the County Ground and the new Robins boss has influenced a significant turn around in the club’s fortunes in the five months he has held the position.
The summer window saw an almost-complete overhaul, with 16 senior players arriving and just six surviving from the 2016/17 squad that suffered relegation to the fourth tier. This makeover has reaped its rewards thus far, with Town sitting comfortably in the League Two play-off places while boasting the best form in the division, and Smith was quick to praise the early work of his new manager:
“He has brought in a number of new players, but we needed it. A number of those players have really stepped up over the last month or so, and no we’re on a bit of a run. We have recently had back to back wins and a really good away record.”
While the club’s current standing is a delight for all fans to see, improved team performances led to fewer playing opportunities for Smith. It was, therefore, no surprise to see him depart on loan a month into the season.
“I was getting in the squad, but dipping in and out on the fringes,” Smith explained. “This is a big season for me, following on from the last couple, and I need to build on that. It was a no-brainer going out on loan somewhere.”
National League South side, Bath City, would be the eventual destination for the midfielder, after “ongoing discussions” that lasted “a couple of weeks”, to ensure the move was correct for all parties.
Smith, clearly recognising the need to be playing regular football in order to ensure continued development, stated: “On a personal level, I just needed to get out on loan and play games. There is nothing better, being young, just playing games.
“They have a good set-up down there. I went there to get games, experience and get my confidence back. Jerry and Bath City have helped me to kick start my football again.”
Smith certainly appears to have regained his self-belief and has made quite the impression at Twerton Park, where he has linked up with new Romans boss Jerry Gill. He has won two man of the match awards since his arrival in October while contributing two goals in his eight appearances.
The youngster stated his desire to add goals and assists to his game and will hope his improved efforts in the final third have caught the eye of Flitcroft. The Swindon boss made it clear that the midfielder remains in his long-term plans, giving him even greater motivation to impress while away from the club.
“We had a conversation before I went on loan,” Smith explained. “The idea is for me to get out and get experience playing, rather than just being stagnant around the squad. I am a Swindon player, born and bred, and long-term there will always be an option for me to be used.”
This involvement is critical for a player of Smith’s age, who is still adapting since his graduation from the Swindon Town Academy. Despite being around the first team set-up for three years now, fans would be forgiven for forgetting that the 19-year-old has made just 10 league appearances for the club. He looked to be on the verge of establishing a regular spot for the Robins last term before injury hampered his progress.
“I was getting a run of games and that really helped me push on and cement my place. I played against Rochdale at home, when we won 3-0, and I did well, but I actually got injured after that game.
“As a young player you have to take your opportunities, but sometimes when you do get injured you lose that place in the squad, whereas a more experienced player might come straight back,” Smith admitted. “It is a difficult one, as I was doing well at the time, but things come up and things change.”
However, having accepted that injuries are part and parcel of the game, Smith was determined to bounce back and reclaim his spot in the squad, even if it required a temporary loan move along the way. He thoughtfully stated, “You can’t really control what happens. You just have to get on with it and keep working hard.”
After initially arriving at Bath City on a one-month deal, the club were delighted to extend Smith’s stay until after the New Year. This comes as little surprise considering his early performances for the Romans. It is clear that he thrives on playing matches and his displays have proven key to the club cementing a comfortable mid-table position in the National League South.
Of course, this is not the first loan move of Smith’s career. Last season the 19-year-old spent a brief spell out on loan with League of Ireland First Division outfit Waterford, where he proved vital in the club’s successful push for promotion, alongside Town teammate Jake Evans.
“It was a similar situation to the beginning of this season. Come January the club brought in new players and it meant I probably wasn’t going to get in the squad. I needed to continue playing games and continue doing well, in order to make it a good season. Despite looking at other clubs in England, everything just fell into place behind the scenes.”
Moving to a new league, in a new country, represented a fresh challenge for Smith. However, it is one that saw him thrive. He made 11 appearances for the club, scoring a single goal in a 2–0 away victory over UCD.
It ended up being a really good move for me. It was my first loan and a really great experience. We had to fly out there and live away from home. I got to meet loads of new people and experience a different style of football.
Seemingly, the canvas for Smith has always been painted red. The long-term ambition for the teenage midfielder is to establish himself as a first-team regular at the County Ground. Everything he does in the meantime is in pursuit of realising that goal.
“With playing games and getting experience, I think my time will come. It would be nice this year, or maybe the year after, to play in a Swindon shirt regularly.”
Smith still looks back with fond memories of his time as a ball boy for the Robins. In particular, he recollects the excitement of the Paulo di Canio era, but he never envisaged himself gracing the same turf as those he considered his childhood heroes.
“Looking out onto the pitch I just couldn’t ever imagine myself being there. It seemed so far away.”
Being a Swindon Town first team regular may have been little more than a fantasy for a 13-year-old Tom Smith. Now, into his third year as a pro, he is closer than he ever would have expected. Despite all this, he remains grounded. Determined as ever to prove his worth at the club that has been a substantial influence in his life, to date.
“It is a weird thing, thinking I’m so close to being a regular. For me, being at a young age, I need to take a step back from everything, remember I am a young player, and keep working hard.”
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