Have Swindon Town made it through the storm?

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Swindons-Paolo-Di-Canio-007-300x180‘You’re going down with the Swindon Town’, sung to the cheery tune of the Village People’s ‘Go West’, was the ditty gleefully directed at supporters of Oldham Athletic, Sheffield United, Ipswich Town, Everton, or any other club haunted by the prospect of relegation during the 1993/1994 Premier League campaign.

It was commonly accepted that the Robins inaugural season at football’s top table was to last for the briefest period possible.  It was a particularly painful term for fans at the County Ground, coming as it did immediately post the most exciting spell in the club’s history since 1969 – when as a third division outfit they famously defeated the mighty Arsenal in a Wembley League Cup final.

Lou Macari had taken Swindon from the football league’s bottom tier into Division Two when in 1989 he left for West Ham United to be replaced by Tottenham Hotspur’s legendary midfielder, Ossie Ardiles.  The Argentine – in his first managerial role – quickly produced a captivating, dynamic, and winning unit which won the season concluding play-off final against Sunderland.

Supporters would be cruelly denied top-flight football, however, when the club were demoted 10 days after their promotion, having admitted 36 charges of breaching league rules – 35 of which related to illegal payments made to players.  The only succour came when a later appeal to retain second tier status – the initial punishment decreed that Swindon would drop a level below that – proved successful.

The appointment of 53-cap former England midfielder, Glenn Hoddle – a man blessed with similar sublime gifts on the field and the same desire for his team to play attractive football as Ardiles – to succeed the Argentine when he opted to move to Newcastle United ensured a seamless transition.  A little over two years later Hoddle’s free-scoring side had beaten Leicester City 4-3 in a thrilling Wembley play-off decider.

The Wiltshire club could finally celebrate entry into the coveted elite.  That newly won grand status didn’t prevent yet another boss departing for what they perceived as greener grass elsewhere, and Hoddle choose to pursue his own career in the more glamorous surrounds of London’s West End with Chelsea.

Swindon, now under the guidance of Hoddle’s former assistant, John Gorman, never adjusted to life at the top and in the course of a miserable relegation campaign won just five games, and accrued a total of 30 points – 10 adrift of Oldham who were placed immediately above them, and a further 4 from safety.

After floundering early on in the following season, Gorman left the County Ground and ten men (including Andy King twice) battled to restore headier days to the Robins over the subsequent 14 years – a period which saw Swindon Town spend more time in the prosaic surroundings of the league’s bottom two divisions, rather than in the game’s upper echelons.  Somewhat ingloriously, the Wiltshire outfit became the first club which had been a member at any time of the 1992 formed Premier League to have dropped into the football league’s basement division.

Paul Sturrock had sustained the club’s yo-yo existence by restoring the Robins as a League One side during his year in charge before the call from his English football love, Plymouth Argyle, necessitated his replacement by Maurice Malpas in January 2008.

The Scot, a former team-mate of Sturrock at Dundee United where he enjoyed a remarkable 19 year playing career, lasted only 11 months in his job.  Swindon’s indifferent league form under Malpas ensured the ex-Motherwell manager wouldn’t survive the ignominy of an F.A. Cup defeat to non-league Histon Town.

Danny Wilson came close to being the man who brought championship football back to Wiltshire, only for the team to lose a tight Wembley play-off final against Millwall in 2009.  As the vanquished Robins’ players trudged from a sun-soaked late May national stadium, even the most pessimistic of Town devotees couldn’t have foreseen how the following campaign would unfold.

A team which had finished 5th in the division and overcome Charlton Athletic in a fiercely contested and high-quality play-off semi-final couldn’t shake off the disappointment of falling at the final hurdle in the chase for their coveted promotion.

Wilson resigned in March 2011 with his side struggling in the relegation zone, and having been shorn in the January transfer window of the prolific striker Charlie Austin and rising young defender Sean Morrison.  Paul Hart was tasked with evoking memories of his notable feat when saving Crystal Palace from demotion out of the Championship 12 months earlier – an undertaking which eventually proved impossible to accomplish.

After an utterly dispiriting term in which Swindon won 9 of 46 league matches and finished rock bottom of the 24 team third tier the club was in desperate need of a lift.   That came 25 days after relegation had been confirmed, with the high-risk, but glamorous and intriguing appointment of the controversial Italian Paolo Di Canio as the club’s new manager.

The club which offered Ardiles and Hoddle their break in management were providing the same opportunity to the man renowned on these shores for a complex blend of characteristics and his chequered past.   A phenomenal playing talent, sense of fair play, combustible temperament, and infamously the fascist salutes made while playing for Lazio to a notoriously right-wing section of the Rome club’s support all formed part of the Di Canio profile.

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