Writer: Shaun Calderwood
Date:Tuesday April 24 2012
It`s Saturday 25th April 2012 5pm, The inevitable has just been confirmed, Swindon Town have been relegated to the bottom division of the English game just one season after making the League One playoff final at Wembley Stadium following a 3-1 loss at Hillsborough. Morale is at an all time low following such a poor showing all season, despite the season starting with so much promise despite the departure of key players Gordon Greer, Danny Ward and Billy Paynter.
It was clear following such a disastrous campaign, wholesale changes were needed and boy did we get them. The whole landscape of Swindon Town Football Club changed in the matter of days. First we had the departure of manager Paul Hart who was brought in to stem the bleeding following success elsewhere avoiding relegation, then came the news that Andrew Fitton would resign as club chairman after failing to reach his objective of Championship football within 5 years. Jeremy Wray would take over as chairman on an interim basis and his first mission was a difficult one, make the wrongs from last season right and get the club back to League One at the first time of asking. Wray quickly moved to say if any player didn`t want to play League Two they are free to go. Instead of staying with the club to try and make up for relegation virtually the whole first team squad left for pastures new. Mission number two for the interim chairman was to find a manager who would rally the troops and take the club back to League One at the first time of asking, many clubs get stuck in the doldrums of League Two and find it hard to get out. Town achieved the aim of first time promotion last time they were in League Two during the 2006/07 season under the watchful eyes of Dennis Wise and Paul Sturrock, the new gaffers aim was to equal or better that result.
Despite being relegated Town were a very good proposition for any manager, finances are secure, the team had a big stadium, and decent facilities to boot, and well over 4,000 season ticket holders, and in fairness Swindon Town would be the biggest club in the division. Expectation levels were high as always amongst a fan base who crave success year in and year out. Names such as Didi Hamman, George Burley and Ady Boothroyd were banded about as a possible successor to Hart before the name of former West Ham superstar Paolo Di Canio surfaced as a potential candidate.
Ultimately Di Canio would be named as the man to take Swindon Town back to League One and the flamboyant Italian immediately declared he would win the league with a regime of hard work and dedication, not only dedication and hard work to him, but to the club and the fans. Opinion of Di Canio`s appointment had divided the fan base given Di Canio's past an inexperience, however time would soon show they had nothing to worry about and Wray and the board of directors knew exactly what they were getting themselves into by appointing Di Canio as Hart`s Successor.
Di Canio`s first aim was to reach out to captain Jonathan Douglas who was a free agent and said would be a key player in Town`s push for promotion. Paolo had watched videos already of last season and knew what went wrong, Douglas was settled in the area and was set to commit his future to Town until Brentford came along and offered him League One football. Un-phased by the snub, Di Canio moved on and recruited players to fill out the squad heading into pre-season.
As pre-season commenced, Town had a very continental feel to them, many players whom Town had been linked too had been overlooked by Di Canio in favour for players from abroad including Ibrahim Attiku, Alberto Comazzi, Mattia Lanzano, Mehdi Kerrouche, Alessandro Cibocchi, and Oliver Risser as well as a couple of old Football League players Etienne Esajas and Leon Knight who was looking to rebuild his career as well as his reputation for being petulant.
Fans soon saw Di Canio ruled with an iron fist, if you weren`t up to scratch you were gone. After only 2 days of pre-season training Leon Knight was released for showing up to camp unfit. Town would go to Italy to resume pre-season and get some decent results against local Italian sides none of which were really of a decent standard. Many Fans were worried heading into the season at the lack of firepower up front but Di Canio and the board would work hard to resolve that issue as Town returned home for the new campaign.
Following a 2-1 friendly loss to eventual nPower Championship title winners Reading, Town got down to business as the 2011/12 League Two season kicked off. Town got off to a great start with an impressive 3-0 win at home to Crewe Alexandra in front of over 8,200 fans who made the pilgrimage to the County Ground. What was more impressive that was that Town were able to score 3 goals and none of them were from up front. Callum Kennedy would slot home a penalty whilst Aden Flint and Olive Risser would do their part to ensure Town took all 3 points. One game, one win! Only way was up and we are all happy.
The Di Canio era got off to the best possible start. Sadly that was not to last, Town hit the road and Town`s lack of goal scoring ability soon became evident following a 1-0 away loss to both Cheltenham Town and Dagenham & Redbridge in rapid succession. The good news following the Dagenham loss was that Town were about to secure the signature of long term strike target Leon Clarke who had left QPR following their promotion to the Barclays Premier League.
Next up was the big one as far as many are concerned. Town were about to renew their rivalry with Oxford United at the County Ground. When Town dropped into the bottom tier previously, Oxford had slipped into the Conference meaning that both teams missed playing each other. Prior to the match Town supremo Di Canio had highlighted the fact that Oxford United`s talisman goal scorer James Constable was a Swindon Town supporter and that he would love to play for the Town. A move that would later bite him in the backside when it was revealed that Constable was indeed a Spurs fan. Town headed into the match full of optimism and what better way to kick start a spluttering season than with a win against your fierce rivals. Town fans were desperate for a win to make amends for last time, lets not forget last time we played Oxford, we lost 1-0 at the Kassam Stadium in the FA Cup. Images of Jefferson Louis bouncing around naked in the Oxford dressing room as the U`s drew Arsenal in the next round of the FA Cup were still clear in Town fans minds. Sadly Oxford would get the last laugh. Despite impressive performances from Leon Clarke and new signing Lander Gabilondo, Town would lose 2-1 and bragging rights would remain at the wrong end of the A420. Following the match Di Canio claimed he had an ace up his sleeve and had secured the signature of Czech International Lukas Magera. Now fans had reason to believe and be even more optimistic.
The end of August saw Town head to Ashton Gate to renew acquaintances with local rivals Bristol City. Whilst Town had dropped into League Two, City had managed to secure Championship status and came very close to gaining promotion to the Premier League, despite that Town fans were full of optimism heading into the encounter, which was rightly founded as Town would win the game 1-0 following a cracking strike from ex-Livingston striker Rafaelle De Vita. Town fans finally had reason to celebrate. Magera made his Swindon Town debut at Ashton Gate and put on a performance which was way above League Two standard. The future looked bright.
Despite the new additions, Town were unable to push on from City and lost 2-1 to Shrewsbury Town, of course at the end of the season this result would not look too bad given the Shrews inability to lose at home. The following week Town were in Carling Cup action and the events that followed this match would arguably shape Town`s season and kick start the promotion challenge. Town would lose 3-1 to a classy Southampton side but it`s the events after the match that gathered national headlines.
New signing Leon Clarke had just put in a 90 minute shift in the losing effort, as he came off the pitch he had a very public falling out with Paolo Di Canio and his technical staff. A shoving match between Clarke and Di Canio would ensue as Clarke came off the pitch following the match. The fracas would continue down the tunnel. Media outlets were quick to blame Paolo, reminding us for the 1,000th time about his referee pushing incident as a player and how Di Canio was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Much to the disappointment of the national press however, the video footage would actually show Di Canio putting a comforting arm around the player to discuss any issues in the dressing room, Clarke violently took Paolo`s arm off his shoulder. Following the incident Di Canio stated, Clarke would never play for Town again. Clarke would eventually play for three other clubs this season following the incident.
Following the incident Town were at home to top of the league Rotherham United. The match was an early kick off as it was screened live on Sky Sports and with every sports camera around the nation thrust in Di Canio`s face awaiting for another incident the promotion run started. In what has become an inevitable event, Alex Revell, the former Swindon Town loanee put Andy Scott`s men up 1-0 on 21 minutes. The result would remain 1-0 until Tom Newey scored an own goal making it 1 all. In a show of unity following the Leon Clarke fiasco, Town`s players jumped into the arms of Paolo Di Canio following the equaliser. Revell would score again on 65 minutes for Rotherham making it 2-1 to the visitors. In a bid to shake things up, Di Canio took off Lukas Magera who was yet to achieve full match fitness and replaced him with the speedy Alan Connell who had arrived from Blue Square Premier side Grimsby Town in the Summer, It would become an inspired substitution as Connell would head home the equaliser within a minute of coming on sending the home fans into raptures. Town would finally secure their second league win of the campaign thanks to another Alan Connell goal. After an eventful day, the fans were finally chanting Paolo`s name showing there unity to the boss. The following week it got better, Medhi Kerrouche and Jonathan Smith would score their first goals for Town in a 2-0 win over Southend the following week. Leon Clarke who weeks earlier had fallen out with Di Canio was sent out on loan to League One strugglers Chesterfield, thus removing that distraction from the club.
The week after it was off to Crawley Town, who according to the bookies were favourites to win the league this season despite never playing in the Football League. Crawley Town had significant backing off the pitch which meant they were able to sign the best of the best and throw money around like it had gone out of style. With Swindon receiving much press attention thanks to Di Canio, Crawley boss Steve Evans initially stated that Swindon Town were more like a circus and sideshow act than a football team. When Di Canio was asked to give his thoughts on Evan`s assessment, Di Canio clearly just stated he didn`t know who Evans was and didn`t care for his opinion. With the circus comments ringing fresh in everyone`s ears, Town would win the game 3-0 thanks to goals from Medhi Kerrouche who was starting to find form as well as Alan Connell.
Following a couple of 2-0 losses either side of a 4-0 win over Barnet, Di Canio appeared to change his transfer policy. Instead of bringing in foreign players he would look to bring in players based in England due to the difficulties the foreign imports appeared to have adapting to the style of the English game as well as the English culture with a few of his foreign imports stating they were home sick. Alberto Comazzi and Mattia Lanzano who would make 5 appearances for Town struggled to adapt to League Two and would soon be told they had no future at the club along with Ibrahim Attiku who failed to make a first team appearance despite being on a two year contract. To bolster his striking options Di Canio would recruit Jake Jervis from Birmingham City and Liam Ridehalgh from Huddersfield Town at the end of September. Shortly thereafter Cristian Montano would arrive from Dicanio`s former club West Ham along with England Under 19 goalkeeper Wes Foderingham from Crystal Palace. No one knew how key Foderingham would be to Town`s campaign this season.
October would see Town go 3-2-0 with a winning record for the first time this season in any given month with wins over Accrington Stanley, Gillingham and Plymouth Argyle. Town would draw against a poor but spirited Hereford United side as well as Bradford City. The Argyle result would be overshadowed by the tragic news that Paolo Di Canio`s Dad had died prior to the fixture. In another show of unity, The players brought Di Canio to the travelling Town support as they passionately chanted the Italian`s name. At the beginning of the month new arrival Jake Jervis would score a brace against Exeter to see Swindon advance in the Johnstones Paint Trophy. Town were on a roll now.
November started with a tricky away trip to Port Vale. Town have had mixed results in their last few outings to Vale but managed to secure a 2-0 win thanks to a Medhi Kerrouche penalty and Lukas Magera`s first English goal. The following week, Town were home to AFC Wimbledon in the Johnstones Paint Trophy. Oliver Risser would score a thunderbolt for Town whilst Rashid Yussuff would erase the arrears 8 minutes from time resulting in a penalty shootout. Phil Smith was in goal for Town during the penalty shootout and his performance was reminiscent of that fateful night at Charlton where Town earned a place in the League One playoff final just a year previously. Town would head into the area semi finals after a 3-1 penalty shootout victory. Phil was the penalty hero once again. The following week more cup heroics were to come. Town had a tricky first round FA Cup tie against high flying League One side Huddersfield Town who were hot favourites for promotion. Around this time it was clear to see Di Canio`s influence on the team. Despite Swindon going down 1-0 on 22 minutes thanks to a Lee Novak strike, Town didn`t let their heads drop and slip out of the game like the previous season, in fact it was quite the opposite. The 1-0 arrears motivated Town. 9 minutes before time young defender Aden Flint who had captained Alfreton Town to Promotion in the Conference North last season snuck up with a goal to put Town on level terms heading into the break. The second half saw Swindon dominate with Rafa De Vita, Medhi Kerrouche and Simon Ferry scoring in the second half to give Swindon a hard earned and well deserved 4-1 victory over Huddersfield. Swindon returned to League action against AFC Wimbledon at the Cherry Records stadium, unfortunately if you were a Town fan you wouldn`t have seen much of the game. Despite being over 750 Town fans in attendance, the sightlines were terrible but Town did manage to sneak away with a point after their first visit to Kingsmeadow. The end of the month would see Di Canio sign highly rated teenager Ronan Murray on loan from Ipswich Town. Murray had been Ipswich Town`s reserves top goal scorer and was came highly recommended. November rounded out with the visit of Aldershot Town to the County Ground. It was the first time the phoenix club had visited Swindon since Aldershot FC were liquidated in 1992. Swindon would win the game 2-0 thanks to a goal from Jake Jervis whose parent club Birmingham City were closely monitoring his progress with a run in the Birmingham City first team seemingly in his future and an own goal from Darren Jones to leave all 3 points in Wiltshire.
December kicked off with a FA Cup second round visit to the Weston Homes Community Stadium. Town have had no luck at the new stadium and it seemed unlikely Town would manage another League One scalp but we were pleasantly surprised when a Matt Ritchie goal ensured that Town would be in the hat for the third round draw. Swindon fans, players and staff waited with a baited breath, would we get one of the "Big 4" in the FA Cup? No we wouldn`t but we did get a home draw to Wigan Athletic which seemed to galvanise the fans with the draw being deemed "winnable". After the heroics of Colchester, Town travelled to the Memorial Stadium to play Bristol Rovers in a match that is always a heated affair. It would also be Medhi Kerrouche`s last appearance for Town despite being the clubs top goal scorer at the time. Despite Town taking the lead into the 88th minute thanks to captain Paul Caddis, the performance was poor and it always appeared if Town could scrape by to the end it would be a miracle if they didn`t concede. They didn`t. Danny Woodards the hero for The Gas scoring 2 minutes from time sending Rovers fans into a frenzy. Di Canio was seething. After the match a passionate Di Canio threatened to quit the club in the heat of the moment saying he needed at least 3 players and could not win the league with the current bunch. With Di Canio`s words ringing in peoples ears, Town welcomed Morecambe to the County Ground for their first ever league encounter. Morecambe had travelled down to Swindon a couple of seasons ago in the FA Cup but the teams had never played in a league match until now. Looking to make amends Town would secure a well deserved 3-0 win over Morecambe heading into the Christmas break. Heading into Christmas, Town were unbeaten in 9 games and were flying high. Town would quickly however come back to earth with a bump by losing 1-0 at Torquay United on Boxing Day. Over 1,000 Town fans made the trip to Plainmoor but Town just couldn`t get out of the starting blocks. The last game of December would become one of the big talking points of the season, Swindon were away at Sixfields to take on Northampton Town in a New Years eve clash and a result looked very possible due to Northampton`s poor league form. The home side would show they are no push overs though by drawing first blood with Michael Jacobs scoring a penalty to give The Cobblers a 1-0 advantage going into the break. Paul Caddis would equalise for Swindon in the second half however the fun begins after the 90th minute, Alan McCormack buries a winner just out of the reach of Shane Higgs on the 93rd minute. McCormack and the other Swindon players celebrate with the fans. On the touchline, Paolo Di Canio is then seen charging on the pitch much like Jose Mourinho during his time at Chelsea, to join his players celebrating the goal, The Italian would later say it was a spur of the moment thing and his passion for the game which caused the reaction. He later said he was too slow and wish he could have ran faster despite passing Rafa De Vita on the way to join the Celebrations.
It was a very happy New Year indeed for Paolo`s Red and White Army with better things to come.
Date:Tuesday April 24 2012
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Stats: Swindon Town v Port Vale (Wednesday August 19 2015)
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