FRASER Digby is not one to look back and wonder what might have been.

Having served his apprenticeship at Manchester United, Digby was a promising 19-year-old goalkeeper when Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at the club in late 1986, ready to build an era of dominance at Old Trafford.

But by then Digby was out on loan at then-Division Three side Swindon Town, enjoying his maiden taste of first-team football under Lou Macari.

When the chance came to make that switch permanent and become the club’s full-time number one, Digby was in no doubt that his future lay at the County Ground.

By the time Digby retired in 2003, Ferguson had led United to eight Premier League titles, including the famous Treble-winning season of 1998-99.

But Digby is more than happy to have settled for a career that saw him become one of the most revered players in Town’s history.

“I was enjoying my time at Swindon and I was playing in the first team, which was totally different,” said Digby, who made more than 500 appearances in his 12 years at Swindon.

“We’d have crowds of 9,000-10,000 and we had some good players, like Chris Ramsey, Chris Kamara, Dave Bamber, Jimmy Quinn and Colin Calderwood.

“When Ron Atkinson got the sack at United and Sir Alex came in, Lou went and did a deal.

“I spoke to Sir Alex and he said ‘look, we’d love you back, we’ll give you the same opportunities as everybody else’.

“At the time I was a little fish in a massive pond at United. Hand on heart, I don’t know whether I had the mental strength at that age to step up into the first team at United.

“I’d enjoyed my time at Swindon and we’d started to play well and were moving up the league and I thought I could do well here, so in the end I agreed to sign.”

Swindon Advertiser:
A fresh-faced Digby, posing with Peter Coyne and Charlie Henry and the Swindon Advertiser player of the year trophy in 1987

Digby did get a brief return to Old Trafford during a two-month loan spell in the 1992-93 season, before returning to Swindon and helping them join United in the Premiership thanks to the famous play-off win over Leicester City at Wembley.

“I was fortunate that I did go back on loan and spend two months at United, which was probably the best two months of my career,” said Digby.

“It was under Sir Alex and I worked with Peter Schmeichel. It was fantastic to be around them for two months and, when I came back to Swindon, I was like a rejuvenated person.

“When I came back I played all the rest of the season and we ended up beating Leicester and got into the Premiership.

“We had a good team at Swindon, but I will always remember the first day I went up to Old Trafford and it was a wake-up call.

“The quality was just phenomenal, with the likes of Bryan Robson, Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe, Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis, Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce at the back.

“Part of the way through my loan they got Eric Cantona in. To work with him and see him at close hand, it really helped me when we stepped up to the Premiership as I knew what was coming. It was a great experience.”

Although born in Sheffield, as we sit in his restaurant, the Silks on the Downs on the outskirts of Marlborough, it is clear Digby is Swindon through and through.

He remains a loyal servant to this day, having served as goalkeeping coach until as recently as last summer, and is currently tasked by chairman Lee Power with finding them a new training base.

But such longevity of service means tough times are also inevitable - and Digby has seen his fair share of those at Town.

The hardest came in 1990. Argentina World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles had led Town to a place in the top-tier of English football for the first time thanks to a Division Two play-off final win over Sunderland only for them to be denied promotion by a much-publicised financial scandal.

Although Digby would help Swindon into the newly-formed Premiership three years later, that earlier disappointment still hits hard.

Digby said: “Of the two Wembley games, the Sunderland game actually meant more than the Leicester game. That was the first time we’d got to the play-off final at Wembley and for all intents and purposes we’d got into the top division for the first time.

“There is only one regret that I have got in football and that’s that the 1990 team didn’t go up to the top division.

“The gap then between the divisions wasn’t as large, it’s a phenomenal gap today, but back in 1990 the gap wasn’t that huge and I think that team could have stood a far better chance of staying in the division.

“I think ‘93 was totally different. It was fantastic occasion but it was more of relief and a feeling that we’d actually got up this time as we’d had to wait three years for it.

“That was the burning desire left in several of us from the 1990 squad and we needed to right the wrongs, as we didn’t do anything wrong as players. We’d played the game and deserved to be in the top division.

“We won the game and I think the Sunderland game was the most one-sided game I’ve ever been involved in.

“Against Leicester it could have all gone horribly wrong, but fortunately Steve White went down like a ton of bricks and Paul Bodin stuck the penalty away. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Swindon Advertiser:
Digby makes a flying save during the 1997-98 season

But following the joy of promotion came the reality of life with the game’s elite. Manager Glenn Hoddle moved on to join Chelsea and his assistant, John Gorman, had the unenviable – and what would eventually prove impossible – task of keeping Town up.

Digby said: “The thing with Glenn was that tactically he was very astute and with him being on the pitch he could dictate the way we played.

“That helped us quite considerably and I think that was one of the main factors when we went up to the Premiership, we missed that influence. We lost him and Colin Calderwood, which was massive.

“John Gorman is a fantastic bloke but him and Glenn were a great foil together.

“I just felt sorry for him (Gorman) having to step up to the manager’s role. His first manager’s role was in the top division and he had to get new players in, having lost the mainstay of his team.

“We were confident going into it and we played some fantastic football but there were too many frailties.

“They ultimately cost us but it was a great 12 months for the club and it’s difficult to see it ever happening again, especially with the way football is going. But at least we can say we’ve done it.”

The slide continued the following year and far from fighting for a return to the top-tier, Town were again left scrapping it out for survival.

Gorman was relieved of his duties just three months into the campaign and his replacement, Steve McMahon, was unable to turn the tide either as Town’s second straight relegation was confirmed at the end of the season.

Although Swindon leapt back into Division One at the first attempt the following year, Digby failed to foster a relationship with McMahon and that overshadowed his final years at the County Ground until he joined Terry Venables’ Crystal Palace ahead of the 1998-99 season.

“Steve just never picked it up. I think he was just resigned to the fact we were going to go down. He didn’t do anything to motivate the lads to get out of it,” said Digby.

“Then with the same players, plus a few he’d brought in, we bounced straight back. It shows we had the ability in the team but instead of turning it around in the six or eight months we had, he sort of let it go.

“In football you invariably don’t get on with managers and I just didn’t get on with him.

“I got on with my job as I always have done but I always knew in the back of my mind if he could get rid of me he would.

“He’d sold some of the prize assets, Jan Aage Fjortoft, Shaun Taylor, Paul Bodin, and I was sort of one the last of the remaining players.

“It was a sad time really but I had a great opportunity to go and work with one of the country’s leading coaches. I just had to say I’ve had a great 12 years here and that was it.”

Although there is perhaps a twinge of regret that he was unable to see out his playing career at Swindon, Digby says there is nothing but fondness with which he will look back on his time at the County Ground.

“At the time I didn’t really want to leave but, with the people who were involved with the club at the time, I wasn’t enjoying it. I felt it was time for a new challenge,” said Digby.

“To have had 12 years at a club and still have the relationship I have with the people of Swindon and the fans, and the fact I am trying to find them a facility which they can finally call their own, for me, you can’t ask for a better legacy than that.

“I’ve been retired 12 years and when I look back now and the people I worked with, Lou Macari, Ossie Ardiles, Glenn Hoddle, you can’t get many better than that.

“I’ve worked for Alex Ferguson, I’ve worked for Ron Atkinson and when I left Swindon I went to Crystal Palace and worked with Terry Venables.

“I’ve plied my trade in the Premiership and most of my career was spent in the Championship.

“It’s every kid’s dream to have that sort of career and I was lucky. I’ve been at a good club, seen the development at Swindon and been involved in some good times.”