Recently released Town full-back Jay McEveley talks to the Adver’s Sam Morshead about working with three owners, four chairmen, six managers and 59 players at what he calls a ‘unique club’
JAY McEveley may have only made 79 appearances for Swindon Town over the course of 26 months in Wiltshire but the Scouser will find it very hard to forget his time at what he brands “a unique club”.
The 29-year-old, released on Saturday after the home defeat to Rotherham United, made a steady rise from supporters’ scapegoat to fans’ favourite during his relatively brief stint at the County Ground and received a standing ovation when he was substituted in the 87th minute at the weekend.
Still a little taken aback by the warmth of that goodbye, McEveley is now back in his family home in Liverpool, contemplating an extraordinary experience at one of the most bizarre football clubs in the country.
Reflecting on life with the Robins, the former Derby defender can say he’s worked under three owners, four chairmen and six managers and caretaker managers, and played alongside a remarkable 59 different players in competitive matches.
Given the fact the club has also flirted with administration, been promoted from League Two as champions, reached the League One play-offs and found itself embroiled in a High Court dispute while he’s been on the payroll, it’s no wonder that McEveley feels as though he’s been at Swindon his entire life.
“With the things that have gone on I feel like I’ve been there a lot longer than two years, let me put it that way. It feels like I should be having a testimonial this year,” he says.
“It’s a unique club, isn’t it. It’s always like this at Swindon Town and you’ll always have a busy job yourself. The plans and the way the chairman has views for the club, I think you’ll see a lot more stability over the coming years and that’s what the fans need and deserve.
“Hopefully they can get a bit of stability and then start moving up and push towards those play-offs and push towards the Championship, because I think the fans deserve it.”
McEveley speaks to the Advertiser from back home on Merseyside. The Bank Holiday weekend has been and gone and the raw emotion of leaving Town has given way to a more practical thought process.
Now is the time to rest, or at least as close to rest as is possible with a baby girl to tend to during the summer months, before the search for a new club begins in earnest. But McEveley remains sentimental as he thinks about not going back to work in SN1.
“I’ve come back to Liverpool and feel a bit sad. Every time I came back to Liverpool I knew in a day or two days I was going to be driving back down the M6 and the M5 to Swindon. It’s not going to be happening again,” he says.
“I think with the way the season’s gone and the way we’ve been playing football, I’ve really, really enjoyed it. It’s been a season where I’ve really enjoyed my football and it was sad that I couldn’t really continue that into next season with the new project that they’ve started.”
McEveley and Town chairman Lee Power sat down towards the end of the season to discuss the possibility of the club retaining the Scottish international’s services.
Both parties were keen to find some way of sorting a deal but, with Swindon cutting their playing budget substantially again this summer in pursuit of sustainability and McEveley fending for a young family and still keen to keep playing at a decent level, no compromise was likely to be reached.
According to the defender, Power said: “‘I don’t think you’d want to stick around. I’d love you to stay but with the way it is I think you’d rather be back up north. We don’t want to even put an offer on the table for you because I know it’s not what you want’.”
A player-coach role was mooted but McEveley feels, after the season he’s had, that he has plenty of years left in him before he moves into the management structure at any club.
“Whatever I could have stayed at Swindon for I could have come back up north for to the family home and have a handful of clubs in the north west where I could pick up that type of contract,” he says.
“It was sort of a no-brainer, really. I was a bit gutted but it was the way it was.
“There was talk of coaching involved if I did stay. If you’re having this conversation with me in three years, when I’m 32, I’d probably snap your hand off. I’m going to be going down the coaching road but I’m not going to resign myself to being a player-coach at 29. After this season, with the way I feel and the way I played, I’ve got a lot more years in me then maybe what I thought at the start of the season, when everyone was telling me I wouldn’t play 25 games in the season, I wouldn’t do this, I wouldn’t do that.”
So, what does McEveley make of his totally unpredictable time at the County Ground? How does he sum up working with the enigmatic Italian Paolo Di Canio, his understated successor, Kevin MacDonald, and Town’s current coach Mark Cooper?
“I enjoyed both,” he says. I think he’s lying.
“I know people will say I’m lying, but I did,” he insists. “When I came down with Paolo, he had his way of playing and every position had to play a certain way. It was up and down, straight lines, no veering off it. That’s how you play, otherwise you’re not in the team. We’ve seen it many a time - people coming in and going out - but I took to it.
“I bought into it and I felt like I did myself justice under him. If you went in on a Sunday you’d know if you’d had a bad game under Paolo because he’d tell you. I can’t recall many times where he’s had a go at me and a lot of times he was pretty happy with what I was doing.
“Then it moved around, Kev came in and this season Coops and Luke have come in. Maybe last year under Paolo it was more like ‘you’ve got to do this and that’ whereas this year it’s been like ‘you have got to do this and that but why not try a little run or try coming inside, be imaginative’.
“That’s suited me a lot. I don’t want to sound like a silky winger but he’s let me off the leash a little bit and just said ‘go on, just go and play. When you get in the final third do what you want. Things might not come off but if they do it’s great’.”
Cooper’s man-management skills and willingness to let his players off the leash appear to have worked wonders for McEveley. You get the impression that life at the club’s Liddington training base is very, very different to the three-line whip, no-nonsense, step-out-of-line-and-it’s-all-over approach employed by Di Canio.
“You know how Paolo gets the best out of his players - there’s maybe a fear factor there,” says the Scouser. “Coops came in and he’s got Luke there who’s the go-between the players and himself. There’s laughs and jokes and the players feel at ease in training.
“Training is very well structured through the week. If something hasn’t worked on a Saturday he’ll look at that over the weekend and work on it over the week. There was always an enjoyment factor in training. We went to Liddington with a smile on our faces for most of the season, even when it’s lashing down with rain and we’re walking through mud to get from the car to the changing room.
“He made it enjoyable and a relaxing place to be and I think you’ve seen that in the performances of the lads because there’s no pressure on them. That’s the big thing.
“If you make a mistake okay, you’ll learn from it and won’t do it again. I won’t shout at you for it. It’s that type of management and I really enjoyed working under him.”
McEveley puts his difficulty in winning over the fans down, in part, to the tick-box, straight-line coaching methods employed by Di Canio. He feels that under Cooper, where he’s given license to invent at will, he’s been able to express more overtly what he’s all about.
“When I first came I don’t know what it was. There’s one in every team that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. When I first came I was restricted in my play. I had to do this or that otherwise it was my neck on the line. As long as the manager was happy with me doing what I do on the pitch, that was all that mattered really,” he says.
“It’s what I was getting told to do. This year I’ve been let off the leash, get forward, try things that I wouldn’t usually try and that’s given me an extra bit of energy to let myself go in a game.
“I feel after a game, when I’m sitting in an ice bath, I need that ice bath because I’ve put some work in during the game. That’s what fans want to see. They want to see players working hard and sweating blood and tears for the shirt. I have pride in myself in doing that my whole career.
“I’ve never shirked a tackle, never gone out there thinking ‘I can’t be arsed today’ so that’s something I’ve always thought. You’ve got to give 100 per cent, no matter what I’m playing like.
“My form’s been good right across the season, apart from Preston away.”
Ah, Preston away. The one time McEveley did manage to find the back of the net in a Swindon shirt, with a dainty lob from 12 yards over his own goalkeeper.
At least he can laugh it off, now, and when I ask him whether he thinks he’d be able to do it again, he says: “No I don’t think so. It was the perfect timing of me and Wes umming and aahing about who should have it, him moving forward and me kicking the ball.
“I don’t think you’ll ever see something like that again. I like watching it back just to see Wes scrambling back, trying to stop it from going in.“