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NINE MONTHS OF MAYHEM: An absurd and brilliant season
ON THE banks of Lake Garda in July last year, perhaps the most bizarre season in Swindon’s recent history laid its roots.
With seven players acquired over the summer - in the shape of Gary Roberts, James Collins, Andy Williams, Tommy Miller, Troy Archibald-Henville, Jay McEveley and Alan Navarro - manager Paolo Di Canio had used the financial clout offered to him by the backing of Andrew Black to put down the foundations for a second successive promotion challenge.
“I know the new signings that we have brought in know about the size of the club and they are excited to play in front of the Swindon fans,” said Di Canio. “It is going to be an exciting season.” He was not wrong.
In the sweltering Italian heat, the squad bonded. That’s what 14 days of near isolation can do to you.
They came back a team, and a team ready to prove themselves in League One.
Before they could embark on their league campaign, however, a first-round Capital One Cup tie, on TV at home to Brighton, had to be negotiated.
The Championship side, who ended up finishing fourth in the second tier before losing out in the play-offs, were torn to pieces as, in fairytale fashion, former Seagulls man Navarro scored twice against his former club.
He could barely believe his own achievements, saying after the game: “I’ve never scored two goals in a game and it was a bit of a shock. I probably had no energy to celebrate it towards the end.”
The victory set the tone for a stunning start to the season and, though a goalless draw at Hartlepool had Di Canio refusing to speak to the media after the match, August was closed out with wins over Crawley and MK Dons - meaning the Robins had not conceded a goal in 360 minutes of league football.
And then, in the second round of the Capital One Cup, delirium.
Swindon were not expected to do anything special when they went to Premier League Stoke City. The Potters put out a strong starting XI, and could call on the old heads of Peter Crouch and Jon Walters from the bench.
It didn’t matter one jot. James Collins netted a last-minute winner, in extra time, to sneak a 4-3 win. It was a remarkable hat-trick in remarkable circumstances.
“Tonight on a personal level is a great highlight for me, scoring a hat-trick at a Premiership ground in front of all the Swindon fans, showing them what I can do,” said the striker.
Town were on a roll and, with John Bostock, Giles Coke and Darren Ward all added to the squad before the end of the transfer window, what could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, the answer to that question was ‘quite a lot’ and ‘all at once’.
Confidence was high when the Town travelling brigade marched up the M6 to Preston. But within 23 minutes at Deepdale Swindon’s world was turned on its head and Di Canio was once again making national news.
Like him or loath him, it’s impossible to deny that hauling off your goalkeeper after a quarter of a game is not normal managerial technique.
Foderingham was incensed as he stormed down the touchline, kicking an innocent water bottle into the crowd and eventually going to sit with the fans.
Town lost 4-1, and Di Canio said of his keeper in the immediate aftermath: “He was one of the worst players I have ever seen in a football match.” Hardly a ringing endorsement - and worries of a rift between the player and his manager began to grow.
To Foderingham’s credit, he quickly quelled the storms by issuing an apology. “I was frustrated with myself in the heat of the moment and the disappointment of being substituted so early in the game,” he said.
The incident was shelved, but normal service couldn’t resume. Ward had a shocker on his debut in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, as Oxford nicked a last-gasp winner at the Kassam Stadium, before Dean Cox scored Leyton Orient’s goal in their 1-0 win at the County Ground.
A 2-2 draw at Carlisle followed, a game for which many Swindon supporters were late due to monster jams on the motorway, and it seemed the Town steamtrain was going off the rails.
Normal order was restored, however, when the Robins visited Portsmouth and dominated from the off.
Matt Ritchie netted against his boyhood club and Williams finally got off ther mark for the club after a nine-game wait.
Ritchie said: “I’m like a big kid still and it’s the best feeling in the world when you score and I couldn’t hold my emotions.”
The winger was on fire once again the following Saturday, scoring twice against Bournemouth in a 4-0 victory ahead of the much-awaited return of Charlie Austin to Wiltshire.
Austin’s Burnley were sent packing in the third round of the Capital One Cup and, when Simon Ferry scored the winner in Shropshire against Shrewsbury, everything seemed rosey at Town.
Behind the scenes, however, that was far from the case. An error of judgement in the way tribunal fees for Archibald-Henville and Collins would have to be paid led to Swindon exceeding the 65 per cent of turnover wage cap and landed the club in a transfer embargo.
With majority shareholder Black, already funding a £4.5million shortfall between revenue and expenditure, unwilling to pump in the necessary funds to give Di Canio the flexibility in the transfer market he craved, the Italian went public with the news.
The local media were expecting a regular post-match chat after Collins’ first-minute goal defeated Bury at Gigg Lane, instead we were delivered an eye-opening description of life in the trenches.
Di Canio said: "If they let me work like they did last year it’s okay. I have to know and I have to be honest with the fans. You will know the day that we get the answer. It’s not the end of the world but we have to be honest and clear."
Chairman Jeremy Wray moved to calm the waters, saying: “It sounds very dramatic but there are several clubs under embargo throughout the bottom two leagues.”
Di Canio’s various embargo rants would dominate the back pages of the Advertiser for the following month.
In the boardroom, the dynamic was changing. Black, having fallen out with Wray over Di Canio’s expenditure and his ability to manipulate a watertight new contract in his favour over the summer, decided to act.
After the 2-2 draw with Coventry on October 13, the Advertiser learnt that Wray was to be stood down with former diplomat Sir William Patey stepping in, at the behest of Black.
The news broke on the morning of Monday, October 15. It was explosive.
Fans were confused and bemused in equal measure. Wray, though soft in allowing Di Canio almost endless funds, was a communicator. He had the respect of the supporters.
On the day his departure was formally confirmed, Wray spoke at length to the Adver from his offices in Ramsbury.
He said: “(I felt) surprise and disappointment initially, but he (Black) made it clear what he wanted to do and ultimately he is the major shareholder of this club.
“I know he likes to stay in the background and I respect that but people should recognise that he has put a huge amount of money into this club and he has his own views of how it should move forward.
“In this particular instance I didn’t agree but he’s focused on that.”
Patey was brought in to steady the ship and shore up the books, but he lost touch with the supporters at a rapid rate.
On the pitch, a draw against Scunthorpe and a defeat at Crewe were hardly awe-inspiring and it seemed Swindon would rely on a victory over Aston Villa at the end of the month to secure the unbudgeted revenue necessary to propel them out of embargo...
...Di Canio appeared to be of the same opinion. He branded the trip to Stevenage unimportant three days before Villa came to Town, not that it mattered. The Robins decimated the then second-placed side 4-0, with Miles Storey scoring his first professional goal.
An extraordinary week for the young man from the West Midlands got even more ridiculous when he came off the bench to score twice against the Villains.
“I couldn’t really believe the second one to be honest,” he said. “You see people just flick it in with their heel all the time but it was just reactions.”
Town lost 3-2 but a sell-out crowd were entertained.
The next fixture at the County Ground could barely have felt more different.
A paltry 6,400 witnessed Swindon get dumped out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle at the hands of non-league Macclesfield, as an experiment which saw Archibald-Henville playing in central midfield totally backfired.
With Di Canio continuing to voice his disapproval at Black’s apparent inaction and the fans frustrated by the nature of their FA Cup exit, a boost was desperately needed.
In an email received by the Advertiser on November 4, Black intimated that he was trying to bring the situation to a satisfactory conclusion and - two days later - that came to pass as Patey confirmed the lifting of the embargo on a BBC Wiltshire fans’ phone-in.
Black had released £500,000 of funds originally earmarked for spending in January, in the form of equity, to take Town’s wage bill back below 65 per cent of turnover.
Di Canio finally allowed himself to be happy. He said: “I can now bring a challenge into the dressing room and the extra quality to help people improve. I can smile now.”
Swindon responded to the Italian’s new optimistic outlook with a 2-0 battering of Walsall, before the new recruits Di Canio promised arrived the following week in the shape of Danny Hollands and Chris Martin.
Both made their debuts off the bench against Yeovil the next weekend, as Town ran rampant in a 4-1 win to move third in the league table.
Two successive 1-0 defeats, to Brentford and Notts County, took the gloss off a fairly successful month for the Robins, and there was also the bad news that McEveley would require surgery on an ongoing knee problem.
After Danny Hollands’ own goal salvaged a draw for Doncaster at the County Ground, Swindon clicked into gear over the festive season.
Raffa De Vita nabbed both in a 2-0 victory at Oldham before league leaders Tranmere were slaughtered 5-0 on the Friday night before Christmas on home turf.
Hollands, De Vita, Williams and Ritchie shared the goals, to leave Di Canio beaming.
He said: “I was sure we would win this game but not in this manner, and we created another six clear chances. Even a person that knows nothing about football can understand tonight.”
With the Boxing Day trip to Leyton Orient and the subsequent visit to Colchester called off due to unplayable pitches, much to the annoyance of Di Canio, the Robins enjoyed a relatively quiet December.
The decible level became unbearable in the new year.
Five second-half goals against Portsmouth, and four from substitute Collins, started 2013 off with a bang from a Swindon perspective, but in the background a series of events had been triggered which would leave the club teetering on the edge of insolvency.
On January 4, Black formally told the Town board that he wanted to sell up his 98 per cent stake in the club. And he wanted out quick.
Swindon had until February to find a new buyer and exchange contracts on the ownership of the club else it would be placed into administration. Sources close to the Robins told the Advertiser that the Football League would consider demoting or even expelling the club for repeated financial infringements should they been entered into administration.
The Robins managed to beat Carlisle 4-0 and draw 1-1 at Bournemouth before this news eventually reared its head on January 17.
Patey: "Andrew has made it clear he’s looking for new investors. That’s why there’s been a great deal of activity in the last few weeks. We’ve had some positive talks and we’re encouraged by the discussions."
He also suggested he was unable to commit to avoiding the dreaded A-word.
Discussions began with as many as seven interested parties, many of whom fell away due to the ridiculously fast nature of the takeover required by the outgoing Black.
Two foreign parties, one of whom the Advertiser learnt had ties to a club in Italy, were spoken to but opted not to pursue the opporunity.
On the pitch, Di Canio tried to keep up morale by buying pizzas for around 60 volunteers who worked into the night shovelling snow off the County Ground pitch in order to allow the visit of Shrewsbury to take place. It worked, and the Robins won 2-0.
But the battle to secure new owners was not reaping dividends.
In the end it was left to Jed McCrory’s Seebeck 87 Ltd - a newco formed with the sole purpose of transferring the shares in the club - to take control.
But the transfer of shares was not as simple as said. With due diligence being neglected, McCrory and his backers were left with a snap decision on Tuesday, January 29 of whether or not to involve themselves in the club.
Financial restructruing specialists Begbie Traynor had already been brought in to oversee the process of administration and a memo had been sent around all the Football League clubs offering the entire Town squad at half their market value.
As Swindon were drawing 0-0 with Orient in London, a meeting was taking place elsewhere which would decide the future of the football club.
In the end an initial agreement was reached with McCrory and the following day it was announced that contracts had been exchanged.
But the drama had only just begun.
On the afternoon of January 30, Ritchie was told to travel to Bournemouth to sign for Swindon’s promotion rivals. He had trained with his teammates earlier in the day and the move took the entire squad by surprise.
Di Canio was fuming. The following day, in a press conference held ahead of the trip to Crawley, he cut a more relaxed figure. In reality his faux persona that day was him keeping up his end of a bargain which would see Bradley Wright-Phillips, Danny Green and Marlon Pack arrive in Wiltshire in return.
The same afternoon, chief executive Nick Watkins tried to explain the very real need to sell Ritchie to cover overheads and prevent insolvency.
He said: “(If Ritchie had not been sold) then I think the dogs of administration would be straining at the leash right now.
“There is now a short period of time between the transaction and the Football League agreeing to the owners and directors tests.
“During that time there is a requirement to fund the club and it was agreed between the current shareholders and the prospective new shareholders that the way to achieve that was to accept an offer from AFC Bournemouth for Matt Ritchie.”
The fans were livid. And when the three proposed new signings were blocked by a Football League embargo created by Black removing a sum of money held in an escrow account in order to satisfy the authorities that Town had the necessary funds to support their overspend, so did Di Canio.
On Friday, February 1, at 7pm, the Adver received a statement from the Italian in which he revealed he was considering his position at the County Ground.
It read: “It is with great regret that I issue this statement but unfortunately, the events of the last few days have left me with no alternative other than to consider my position.”
He claimed Ritchie was sold behind his back and that he had suffered a number of broken promises.
After the 1-1 draw at Crawley the next day he refused to be drawn on the topic any further, and the same was the case when Collins’ goal earnt a 1-0 victory at Colchester despite only 14 fit Swindon players travelling to Essex.
Perhaps Di Canio had already made up his mind to go.
The fans tried to convince him to stay and an Adver-backed campaign urged him to reconsider leaving during the 1-1 draw with Hartlepool on February 9.
Two days later, however, Di Canio submitted his resignation. He did not take training on the Wednesday, Thursday or Friday of that week and only returned to work following a meeting with the incoming board.
McCrory went to Ramsbury to meet the Italian and, with lawyers also involved, discussed how he would rescind any resignation threat. An agreement was struck which would see Di Canio return provided the takeover of the club was completed by 5pm on Monday, February 18.
At 6.56pm that evening, the Advertiser received a statement from Di Canio announcing he was to quit Swindon Town.
Part of it read: “"As I had previously stated, there have been a number of broken promises made by the club over the time that I have been manager of Swindon Town.
“Despite these problems, I have delivered everything and more that was asked of me, by achieving promotion last year as champions and competing this season for promotion to the Championship and being just three points from top place a year earlier than expected.”
Di Canio claimed his mind could have been swayed by a phone call from McCrory on the evening of February 18. McCrory claims to have made that call. Regardless, the outcome is typed in bold font in the history books.
The next day, already disrupted by Di Canio’s walk-out, Town were several hours late in their departure for Tranmere for a crucial League One game and then missed their pre-match meal.
Not ones to be too bothered by anything, the Robins went and won the game 3-1, with Roberts scoring from within his own half. Swindon went top of the league.
After the match assistant manager Fabrizio Piccareta and the rest of the coaching staff resigned in a show of solidarity to Di Canio. The search for a new manager was on.
The new board were formally approved by the Football League on February 22, with Jed McCrory becoming chairman, Steve Murrall taking the title of general manager and Gary Hooper and Callum Rice also joining the board.
At a press conference on Monday, February 25, McCrory said: “I agreed to purchase the club with my personal money and also had fantastic discussions with private investors, football fans who had seen the model. They know the drive I have to take things forward and they supported me.
“I didn’t want to be the figurehead, I never want to be a figurehead, I didn’t want to be in the papers, I didn’t want to be in the pictures, I just wanted to help put a football club together.”
Miller and Ward were put in charge of first-team affairs at the request of the players, and started with a meek 1-1 draw against Preston.
A midweek home defeat to relegation fodder Bury left Miller accepting something had to be done to rectify the situation.
He said: “Maybe it needs a different voice, someone from the outside coming in to get a hold of the lads.”
After considering Ian Wright and Kevin Blackwell, McCrory plumped for former Aston Villa assistant manager Kevin MacDonald, who took charge of his first game in the 2-1 win at Coventry on March 2.
Meanwhile, former manager Di Canio was considering his options with regards to a potential law suit on the grounds of breach of contract and it emerged that the Italian had returned in the dead of the night to retrieve memorabilia of his time in charge from his old office.
It was a bizarre passage in the club’s history, and the fans were keen to retain a focus on the push for automatic promotion.
That dream stumbled with a draw against Walsall and a defeat at Brentford, before the stabilisers were applied courtesy of two late goals in a 2-0 win at Yeovil.
Town were still third, but with new recruits needed for the run-in, the embargo which remained in place following Black’s exit was still to be lifted.
Some fans misinterpreted its existence as a new set of restrictions brought in by the Football League because of a lack of funds from the new owners.
In reality, McCrory and his investors had to set about filling the £1.2million shortfall to ensure the League’s satisfaction. It is understood Lee Power’s money played a major role, as did his contacts with Spurs in bringing in Massimo Luongo, Nathan Byrne and Dean Parrett - who could come to the club after the embargo was removed with 53 seconds to spare on emergency deadline day.
Adam Rooney’s spectacular overhead kick earnt a point against Notts County and, despite a difficult run-in, Town still had the foundations from which to launch a serious promotion challenge.
It never materialised.
Many fans had made their minds up about McCrory, with internet gossip spreading like wildfire and dividing supporters’ opinion.
Equally, MacDonald’s use of Simon Ferry wide on the right and a 4-5-1 formation otherwise did not go down well with the men and women who have followed the club all their lives.
The Scot found life tough, with the shadow of Di Canio stretching across him and casting a frost-bitten shadow.
He wasn’t helped by limp performances at Doncaster, MK Dons and Sheffield United, all of which ended in defeats and, combined, meant that Town would have to settle for the play-offs.
On the evening of April 16 a report on local radio erroneously named Power as another new owner of the football club.
Power, who has come to play a major part in player recruitment, is believed to have invested money during the January window but McCrory vehemently denied he was a new owner.
He told the Advertiser: “He is an investor who is putting physical cash in, hard cash to take the club forward, it really is as simple as that. He’s definitely not a new owner, he’s contributing towards the club and he’s going to be a huge part of this club going forward.”
Stevenage and Crewe were beaten to secure a play-off spot, before the Advertiser announced another new face set to join the board.
Stephen Crouch, a chartered accountant, had sent his SRC Taxation accountants in to forensically analyse Town’s books for several weeks prior to the revelations. His involvement, however, has yet to be confirmed by the club.
A bizarre defeat to Scunthorpe on the final day of the campaign was another tasteless blow for the Robins, who threw away the chance to play Yeovil over two legs and instead ended up facing Brentford.
And so it came to the denouement of a ridiculous campaign. An unadulterated maelstrom of the bizarre, the sublime and the simply unbelievable.
Brentford nicked a draw with a last-minute penalty at the County Ground in the first leg and then bonkers stuff at Griffin Park where Swindon rallied from 3-1 down to equalise in the final minute thanks to Aden Flint’s header.
Despite Byrne’s red card, Town hung on for penalties but Storey missed. Another season in League One beckoned.
A season that promised so much delivered plenty without ever satisfying to its full potential.
The ‘what could have beens’ will linger forever, but it’s over now. It’s over now. Even that short sentence is hard to really understand.
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