Inconsistent. If ever there was a word to sum up Swindon’s 2015-16 season, it would be that one.
Having come agonisingly close to promotion to the Championship the previous year, falling at the final hurdle in the play-off final where they were slapped down by a determined Preston North End side, Swindon’s fans were quietly confident that another year of exciting overachievement could be accomplished.
This was despite the fact that Swindon offloaded much of the core of their successful squad over the summer. The excellent goalkeeper Wes Foderingham was allowed to leave on a free transfer to Glasgow Rangers, star midfielders Massimo Luongo and Ben Gladwin both left to Queens Park Rangers for a (rumoured) combined £3.5 million. Swindon also lost a number of players whose loans expired: Jack Stephens, Harry Toffolo, Nathan Thompson and Sam Ricketts to name a few. Finally, Swindon’s squad was also shorn of top scorer Andy Williams and influential striker Michael Smith.
In their place came players such as Nicky Ajose, Fabian Robert, Lawrence Vigouroux and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill. It was clear that again Swindon would be relying heavily on securing young players on loan from Premier League and Championship teams to bolster a very thin-looking playing squad. Nevertheless, this system had worked wonders for Swindon previously, and whilst there was scepticism amongst fans that it would be successful again, Swindon fans were relatively optimistic for the season ahead.
This was backed up by a resounding 4-1 home win over Bradford City on the opening day of the season, a result that saw hat-trick hero Nathan Byrne catch the eye of Wolverhampton Wanderers who promptly bought the winger for around £1 million. The win against Bradford started Swindon off on a four-match unbeaten run in the league, including two wins and two draws. They finally lost in the league when they entertained Sheffield United at home, and far from the entertaining 5-5 playoff semi-final game of the previous season, Swindon surrendered limply to a 0-2 reverse.
This sparked a dismal run of one win in 15 games, results that saw Swindon drop from the promotion places into the relegation zone. Manager Mark Cooper was relieved of his duties in October. Quite apart from results dropping off, Cooper’s team began to play less and less to their strengths and were attempting to play a more direct style that they were not suited for.
Whilst Swindon looked for a replacement for Cooper, Swindon’s chairman Lee Power took the unusual step of appointing himself as caretaker manager. His time in the dugout was not a success, however, picking up only a single point from his games in charge.
Swindon then appointed its second permanent manager of the season. Martin Ling had enjoyed two spells as a player at Swindon and was fondly remembered by fans of the club. Having lost his previous job due to his struggle with depression, Ling was grateful for the chance to have another crack in football management and quickly began turning the fortunes of the club around. He won five of his first six games, enough to drag Swindon out of the relegation zone. However, Ling promptly resigned after only 56 days in charge of the Robins, citing health reasons.
First team coach Luke Williams was put in charge of the squad on a temporary basis, and he continued the good form that Swindon had been enjoying under Ling. During his time as caretaker, Williams won six of his ten games, and whispers began of Swindon mounting an unlikely late-season bid for the playoffs. This led to Williams being handed a huge five-year contract at the club, and he then became the third permanent manager of the season.
Following this news, Swindon contrived to throw all hopes of the playoffs out of the window, going on a ten-match winless which included a 6-0 defeat to Scunthorpe, a 1-4 loss at home to Wigan, and a tepid 1-1 home draw with relegation-threatened Fleetwood Town. The winless run stretched until the 23rd of April when the Robins scraped to a 1-0 home win over Chesterfield which secured their League One status.
Injuries and a lack of form were taking their toll on the team, and a number of young players from the club’s academy were drafted in for first-team duty well ahead of schedule. This was no more obvious than when 17-year-old Will Henry was named as Swindon’s goalkeeper for the final two games of the season (although he did manage to save a penalty on his professional debut!).
The club finished the season in 16th place, a far cry from the success of the year previous and with little to suggest that the team will be challenging for promotion in 2016-17. In fact, more key players are likely to leave the squad. All the club’s loanees have returned to parent clubs, a number more have been released, and it seems unlikely that the Robins will be able to hold on to key midfielder Yaser Kasim. It is also likely that clubs will be sniffing around 25-goal striker Nicky Ajose, who is one of the hottest properties in League One and who has performed miracles in an at times hopeless Swindon side.
Much now depends on the club’s finances, and how the little money that is there is spent. Clubs like Walsall and Burton Albion have this season proven that a club does not need to break the bank to be successful in the third tier. Hopefully, Chairman Lee Power and Manager Luke Williams can work together to build a squad that is capable of at least challenging for the top half of the table. The behind the scenes upheaval that has plagued the club in recent years, from boardroom changes to changes in the dug-out, has started to cause a discontent within the fanbase. The lack of transparency from the top has disillusioned many and has caused questions to be asked about the ambition and ability of the current management to take the club in the right direction. This has been highlighted recently by the Chairman’s decision to prevent the local paper from awarding the fans’ player of the year award to Nicky Ajose on the pitch after the final home game.
This summer is crucial for Swindon’s short term future. They need to buy smartly and put an end to the inconsistency that dogged their season. Get it right, and the Robins could again find themselves flying high in the division. Get it wrong, and they could be swooping towards the relegation trapdoor this time next year…