How do you galvanise a callow, dejected team that appears to be sleepwalking into League Two? It was a question Luke Williams had to ponder before his Swindon Town team faced Millwall on Saturday. They had lost four games in a row, three of them to goals in the dying minutes, and were seven points from safety. When Williams assessed the mood at training early in the week, he sensed that hope was ebbing away. Two days before the game he told them exactly that: it seemed, the head coach informed his squad, as if some of them had given up.
“They told me to shut up with this performance,” said the softly spoken Williams after Conor Thomas steered in a deserved goal for a 1-0 win with virtually the game’s final action. “I’m very impressed. It’s what every manager would love – to be in dire straits and challenge the squad and instead of being outraged they go: ‘We’ll show him on Saturday.’”
Thomas had been brought into the starting line-up only 10 minutes before kick-off as a replacement for the injured Ben Gladwin. He and his team-mates proved Williams right in throwing down the gauntlet. It had been a moment of clarity during a season that, in general, has been a damaging muddle.
The mess is too deep-rooted to be levelled squarely at Tim Sherwood but Swindon supporters certainly expected more when, in November, the former Tottenham and Aston Villa manager was appointed director of football. Sherwood had been a regular visitor to the County Ground due to his friendship with the club’s chairman and owner, his former Norwich team-mate Lee Power. It was nonetheless billed as a new beginning but instead Swindon, 21st when Sherwood arrived, are a place worse off in the League One table and his role appears an ambiguous one.
There was no sign of Sherwood in the directors’ box on Saturday and the suggestion from the club afterwards was that he had not been present at all. Perhaps he had taken a leaf out of his own book. Swindon had won the two matches he missed when, in February, he served a two-game stadium ban after verbally abusing a referee, Mark Brown, during a defeat at Bury. Sherwood’s involvement, initially hands-on in assisting Williams, appears to have been scaled back and the timing – with the inexperienced Williams, just 35 himself, overseeing the Football League’s youngest squad – is a puzzle.
In a best-case scenario Sherwood is devoting his energies to the broader picture. It would not be unwise. Swindon’s decline in the past two years from play-off contenders to relegation likelihoods has owed more to stagnation and a sense of gradual disengagement with the local community than any single poor decision.
Visiting the County Ground, around whose south-east corner is a mural on which the “aeroplane” celebration perfected by Jan Aage Fjortoft during their 1993‑94 season in the Premier League is depicted, one can smell the football. But one can also smell the kind of danger sensed by numerous clubs in the bottom three divisions, especially those without the benefit of parachute payments or major investment, that remember better days. Swindon’s average attendance, now just over 7,000, has dropped by nearly 2,000 in the past four years; stand still for too long and the game just overtakes you.
“The biggest fear is apathy, that people stop caring,” Steve Mytton, chairman of Swindon Town Supporters’ Trust, told the Guardian. “I know many people that have drifted away from this club over the years and they’ll never come back, not for any particular reason except for losing interest. We have to halt that.”
Mytton is in charge of a dynamic organisation that aims to take a measure of control by purchasing the County Ground, which is currently leased by the local council to the club on a monthly basis. Ultimately, should Power decide to sell up, the trust’s ambition is to own 51% of Swindon Town. It will be a long road but the impression is of a proactive approach that fans of similarly placed clubs might watch closely. “I feel really positive, bizarrely,” Mytton says. “It’s solvable. And if we can own the ground it would be a massive catalyst for the supporters.”
In the shorter term Thomas’s goal gave rise to a red smoke bomb from the Town end and jubilant celebrations from most of the 7,038 rattling around in the stands. Swindon had, for 95 minutes, attempted to play the right way against lumpen opponents who did nothing to further their play-off cause. It was the kind of performance from the home side that might tempt a few absentees – perhaps even the director of football – into announcing themselves at the stadium next time out.
• If Swindon now have a glimmer of hope, the light from Coventry City’s 1-0 win over Bristol Rovers more closely resembles the faintest of emissions from Alpha Centauri. But George Thomas’s 80th minute goal, well taken after an incisive passing move, was enough to defeat Bristol Rovers at the Ricoh Arena and give Mark Robins’ team a second consecutive victory. “We are starting to grow a bit in terms of confidence, which is good to see,” Robins said of a side whose next challenge is the escapism of the Football League Trophy final against Oxford United next Sunday. They are currently 11 points adrift of safety with six games to play. They can’t – can they?
• How Scunthorpe needed their 3-2 win over Bradford City. The Iron had won only one of their previous 11 games and their promotion challenge had tailed off sufficiently to make even a play-off place look doubtful. They had to come back from 2-1 down against their visitors, who had started the day two points above them in fourth, with Matt Crooks heading their 83rd minute winner. The highlight of the afternoon, though, was the piece of acrobatic improvisation by Ivan Toney through which they squared the match two minutes into the second half. Another three wins may be needed to guarantee a top-six place for either of these teams but Graham Alexander may feel Scunthorpe have rediscovered some crucial momentum.
• There was only one place to be in League Two at the weekend. The division’s biggest game was saved until last and Plymouth, second at the start of the day but six points behind Doncaster, reined their rivals in at the Keepmoat Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Sonny Bradley’s second-half header gave Argyle a 1-0 win; realistically both of these teams are going up, with Doncaster still sitting 16 points above fourth place and Plymouth now 13 clear, but the battle for the title could go to the wire. As a measure of Plymouth’s achievement, this was Doncaster’s first home defeat in almost a year – and Derek Adams’ side look set for the ultimate reward after the disappointment of last season’s play-off final defeat by AFC Wimbledon.