Swindon Town 2017/18- The Story So Far…
23 years since they were relegated from the Premier League, Swindon Town started this season back in League 2 once more. This was a result of a disastrous 2016/17 season which saw them finish 22nd in League 1, with an unorthodox managerial structure including a hands-on Chairman and a high-profile Director of Football. For this season, the more experienced David Flitcroft has been appointed as manager, with full control of transfers, which signals a more traditional structure and a back-to-basics approach. Flitcroft is a coach who has always stressed togetherness and positivity. His tactical insights would not perhaps give Pep Guardiola too many sleepless nights, but his dedication and enthusiasm cannot be questioned.
With significant changes in playing personnel as well as a new coach, there was inevitable uncertainty amongst supporters at the start of the season. Nonetheless, the long journey to Carlisle brought a solid opening day win. This was followed by credible, if ultimately fruitless, cup performances against youthful Norwich and West Ham sides, and a home draw with Exeter City. Another solid performance away to a mediocre Morecambe produced a second away win, and things were looking promising. Most of the new players had been given a run-out, and everything was heading in the right direction.
In football, however, things rarely go smoothly for long. For the Robins, a roller-coaster spell was beginning. Heavy home defeats against modest opposition in Crawley and Barnet produced grumbling from the supporters and doubts over the manager. A 3-0 win at Luton, and a vastly improved performance, then put everything in a far more positive light. The next 5 games produced 3 wins and 2 losses, including the long-awaited first home win. By this point, the supporters had, in the main, begun to come to terms with Flitcroft’s methods. Luke Norris was scoring fairly regularly, the defence seemed a little less vulnerable, and the light at the end of the tunnel was definitely coming into view. Unfortunately, as September ended with a scrappy win over Cambridge, Norris dislocated his shoulder for the second time in the season, an injury which would put his regular participation in doubt for several weeks.
Robins fans will have been pleasantly surprised by the way the team progressed during October, especially as the month began with yet another defeat against unlikely bogey team Cheltenham! Two key factors were the arrival of Matt Preston from Walsall, to further bolster the defence, and the integration of the experienced Matt Taylor into the side. Goalscoring duties were shared rather more than when Norris was providing the sole focal point, although he was still able to make an occasional contribution. The next 5 games were all against teams who had been considered serious promotion contenders (notwithstanding Port Vale’s abysmal start!), so this was an opportunity for Swindon to show that they could also be put in that category. A 3-1 away win over Steve Evans’ Mansfield provided an excellent start, and reinforced the Robins’ growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with ‘on the road’. An average performance in the following match at home to Lincoln halted the momentum a little as they slipped to a 1-0 defeat, but the ensuing games produced two home wins over Wycombe (one in the Checkatrade Trophy, but a win’s a win!), and a comprehensive 3-0 victory at Port Vale. Most significantly, this 5 game spell saw only two goals conceded.
November began with convincing cup wins over Dartford and Bristol Rovers. League 2 duties were resumed with a home match against struggling Chesterfield, but the Robins were unable to make it 6 wins in a row. Early injuries to Amine Linganzi and Harry Smith disrupted them, and in the end they had to fight to earn a 2-2 draw. The biggest positive from this game was the return of a fit-again Luke Norris.
As things stand on the morning of 18th November, Swindon sit in 5th place in League 2, solidly in the play-offs and just 4 points away from an automatic promotion slot. There is a general feeling of optimism around the County Ground. Average attendances are a little under 10% down on last season, but away followings tend to be smaller in League 2. David Flitcroft will continue to use words like ‘attitude’, ‘application’ and ‘courage’ rather more often than ‘flair’, but the supporters are getting used to him and his preferred playing style now. It may not be ‘just like watching Brazil’, but it may be precisely what Swindon need to get the club out of League 2 and closer to the level at which they feel they belong. If they can begin to win more of their home games, and keep Norris healthy, automatic promotion is a very realistic target.