Neil Evans enjoys the opportunity to write about his own team in this week’s Throwback Thursday, as this year marks the 20th anniversary of Swindon Town’s promotion back to what is now the Championship.
For me, and Robins fans everywhere, this was a season to remember for all the right reasons. It was the real start of my commitment to following them (namely, I could afford it!). It was a good year for so many reasons and seeing the Reds carry all before them was the icing on the cake.
A little context is needed here. The 1990s were a turbulent time for STFC. Play-off triumph, demotion via the FA, reaching the Premier League (conceding 100 goals) and then successive relegations – brings me to season 1995/96.
Steve McMahon had taken the reigns as player-manager half way during the disastrous slump towards Division Two. The County Ground wasn’t a happy place and McMahon’s sale of cult hero, Jan Aage Fjortoft, meant more pressure to deliver. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. Pessimism is the (natural) default mode of the football supporter.
This made what followed all the more remarkable, and enjoyable! I made the opening day journey to Hull’s old Boothferry Park full of trepidation. Wayne Allison, aka ‘The Chief’, had been signed from Bristol City along with an unknown strike partner called Steve Finney. A promising loanee, Shay Given, was between the sticks with McMahon himself in centre midfield.
It wasn’t a great performance (back in the day when only three substitutes were allowed) but by full time we were ‘walking in a Finney wonderland’ – his goal settling the contest. Somehow, I just knew were on our way. For once I was right.
Defeat wasn’t tasted until the end of September, by which time Swindon were setting the pace. McMahon had even begun to win over the locals, with derby victories against both Bristol clubs. Allison, Finney and Peter Thorne were scoring for fun, the defence was rock solid, led by legend Shaun Taylor; it was clear that something special was in the Wiltshire air.
It’s a rare feeling for any football fan to wake up on match day expecting to win, home or away but that was the wonderful reality I experienced. By a happy coincidence, I missed our only home defeat to Shrewsbury and losing, on my birthday to Oxford, was the only game where football reality punctured my fantasy football heaven!
Four defeats from 46 league games, speaks for itself.
McMahon (largely) controlled his notorious temper and the squad was bolstered by mid-season acquisitions including Paul Allen. We even enjoyed a rare FA Cup run, coming within seconds of the last eight against Southampton and granted the honour of lead game on ‘Match of the Day’.
Promotion was secured by the sea against Blackpool with the title wrapped up at Gay Meadow (revenge over the Shrews). Every game felt like a parade, a celebration and I took every opportunity to wear my shirt around Bristol with pride! With visiting sides ‘parking the bus’ just to claim a point, it was on the road where the fun was to be had. Club records were set with 13 away wins, most points accrued and fewest away goals conceded.
For a short time, we were proud to sing his (McMahon’s) name – Swindon Town were going up again! True to form the footballing yo-yo that is STFC were on the upswing. The team had won with a swagger, fought with the manager’s trademark ferocity and strolled to the title by 9 points.
I will never forget the scenes at the final game, home to Stockport and the outpouring of joy on the hallowed, County Ground turf. Only during the League Two title season, under Paolo Di Canio, have I experienced anything like this as a fan. And yet, looking back, I have no affection for McMahon: not in the way I do for Di Canio.
Even in our moment of triumph, there was fermenting discontent. Club legends like John Trollope, Fraser Digby, Paul Bodin and Taylor would be alienated and, typically, boardroom instability would return like a lingering bad smell. The former Liverpool and Everton hard man would survive for one further, full season before Swindon returned to League One. After a stint as Blackpool boss, McMahon appeared to disappear. The 55-year-old now works as a pundit in the Far East and has not returned to club management.
In spite of several play-off disappointments (including two Wembley defeats) my team has yet to return to the English football’s second tier. And, as this season limps painfully to a close, returning there is as far away as ever. But hope springs eternal. It has to.
Football is like that, you endure. Keep coming back for more, even when your head demands enough! It’s the hope of having a season like 1995/96 and that chance of glory that keeps me coming back for more.
Read more by Neil Evans here!