A big-name ex-player of Italian descent in his first managerial role, leading Swindon to the fourth tier championship despite a bad start to the season, with a regime based on teamwork and discipline, breaking club records and knocking top flight opposition out of the cup on the way…. hmmm…. does this sound a bit familiar? Writes Richard Banyard.
Though there are many similarities between the classes of 1986 and 2012, the styles of the two sides were very different indeed – Lou Macari’s game based on the long ball, determination and pressing high up the pitch, as opposed to di Canio’s easier on the eye approach.
Macari had joined the Town in the summer of 1984, when new club sponsors Lowndes Lambert had demanded a big-name player-boss – Swindon were at their lowest ebb, finishing the 1983/84 season in their lowest league position since the introduction of the Fourth Division – but at first, Macari tried to shape the squad he had at his disposal – an FA Cup defeat by Dagenham the catalyst for the Town boss to realise that he needed to make changes.
After the saga over the Easter of 1985, which saw Macari lose his job before being reinstated after a fan protest, he went to work over the summer – on a tight budget, bringing in Bryan Wade, David Moss, Jake Findlay, Derek Hall, Tony Evans and most significantly Colin Calderwood and Chris Kamara. These signings added to Peter Coyne, Chris Ramsey, Colin Gordon and David Cole who he had already brought in during his first year.
The start that Swindon made to the 1985/86 season though was awful. After defeat in both of the opening two games – the second a 4-1 reverse at Hereford – Macari brought himself back into the starting eleven for the visit of Torquay, who were the only side in the League with a worse record than the Town. Despite going behind early on, goals from Coyne and Charlie Henry meant that the Town registered their first victory of the season – their second came in the next home game, when a Coyne hat-trick, including two penalties, gave Swindon a 3-2 win over Northampton.
The headlines for that game were made before the match kicked-off though. Both The Sun and The Mirror reporting on Macari’s unhappiness with his players: LOU BLASTS BOOZERS was the story after Macari was asked about his team selection, he replied that he couldn’t name it “until I’ve smelt their breath and looked into their eyes.”
Pre-season signing Jake Findlay was released soon after, with rumours abound that he was one of the players involved. Swindon lost their next three matches in the League, leaving them a lowly 21st in the table at the end of September, with just seven points – fourteen behind leaders Colchester. Adver writer Clive King described the team as being “as tough as a bag of marshmallows”. Rottweilers they weren’t.
Though things were not going too well in the League, the Town were at least getting some joy in the Milk Cup. After negotiating their way past Torquay in the First Round, Swindon were drawn against Second Division Sunderland in the Second, but despite a spirited performance in the first leg at Roker Park, they returned to the County Ground defeated 3-2; referee Neil Midgeley allowing the final Sunderland goal despite the linesman flagging for a foul.
By the time the Mackems came to Swindon for the return fixture, the Town had notched up two more league wins, including a 4-0 thrashing of Rochdale – Macari whisked the players away after the game to a secret training base to prepare. After a goalless first half, Andy Rowland gave Swindon the lead on the night, only for Clive Walker to equalise, but the drama came in the last three minutes. After Colin Gordon appeared to have levelled the tie on aggregate, Town’s favourite (!) ref Lester Shapter inexplicably disallowed the goal for a high boot, prompting Macari to race onto the pitch to remonstrate. With both Town assistant John Trollope and his Sunderland counterpart dragging Macari away, Shapter booked him – incredibly though, Bryan Wade rescued the tie with a 93rd minute leveller, and he scored again in extra time to seal the Town’s place in the Third Round.
With their tails now up, Swindon won their next three league games, including their first away successes at Burnley and Chester – making it six wins on the bounce. The visit to Port Vale at the end of October saw the Town face a side in a similar vein of form, and when the Valiants won the encounter 3-0, it appeared that the Manager of the Month award would go to Vale boss John Rudge…. that was until three days later.
Preparations for the visit of high-flying First Division side Sheffield Wednesday were hardly ideal. In addition the Vale result, first choice keeper Kenny Allen was cup-tied for the game – having played against Swindon for Torquay in the First Round. His deputy Scott Endersby, unhappy at the signing of Allen after Jake Findlay had departed, refused to play in the game unless he was granted a free transfer. Macari ignored his request, instead signing Richard Key on a non-contract basis to play in the game. With Wednesday third in the League, behind just Manchester United and Liverpool, few gave Swindon a chance – but after Peter Coyne struck in the 10th minute, the Town held on for a famous victory, and Macari snatched the Manager of the Month award from Rudge. THE BOOZERS ARE BUBBLING proclaimed The Mirror.
And from that point on, Swindon were virtually unstoppable. Though the Milk Cup run was halted at Ipswich with a 6-1 drubbing and they fell at the first hurdle in the FA Cup at Bristol City, the Town lost just twice more in the League. The last of which came on January 4th with a 2-1 reverse at Tranmere on a snowy pitch, a game that Macari believed should not have gone ahead. By that time though, the Town were already perched at the top of the league, after Macari had secured the final piece of his jigsaw, bringing Dave Bamber in on loan from Portsmouth.
Bamber made his debut in a promotion clash against Mansfield at the end of November, and the Town support was treated to a sign of things to come. The lanky frontman winning two penalties as Swindon won the game 2-1, thus entering the promotion places for the first time. Bamber won three more penalties in the Town’s next two home games – and the four straight victories in December meant that Swindon turned the year in first place. Defender Chris Ramsey was obviously finding life easy – after winning the ball during a 4-1 win over Preston, he stopped and pulled his socks up before continuing with the game!
Records soon began to tumble. Awful weather led to numerous postponements, and the Town didn’t play a single match at home for two months between mid-January and mid-March – incredibly, Swindon won all of their six away league games during this spell to set one club record, the 516 minutes without conceding a goal away from home another. When Burnley visited Wiltshire on March 15, the Town ended the long wait to wrap up another club record – the 3-1 victory their 14th consecutive home win.
It was certainly a case of when and not if the Town would secure promotion. When the Town went into April nineteen points clear of fifth-placed Stockport with two games in hand, they had their first chance to secure it when they visited Cambridge, but the 1-1 draw was not enough. The next match was the rearranged fixture with second-placed Chester – so Swindon would not only be able to finalise promotion, but victory would mean a huge step towards the title.
The game had everything. Chester set out their intent from the start. Steve Johnson, already known to Town fans as the man who had ended Jimmy Allan’s career some years previously was booked in the first ten seconds after a thunderous challenge on Chris Kamara, then minutes later, Johnson gave the Blues the ead. Bamber equalised with 42 minutes on the clock, but Johnson restored the Chester lead again before half-time from the penalty spot, after Peter Coyne had fouled Milton Graham.
Within seven minutes of the restart though, the Town had turned it around. On 51 minutes, Bamber scored a carbon copy of his first goal, heading in a Dave Hockaday cross – then just a minute later, Bryan Wade headed home to put Swindon in the lead for the first time. Leigh Barnard wrapped it up fifteen minutes later – and though the game got physical in the closing stages, with Graham sent off for Chester, Chris Kamara knocked out by an elbow and Peter Coyne missing a penalty, Swindon held firm for the win.
Eleven points clear with two games in hand over their opponents, the victory seemed decisive – one of my earliest Town memories running on the pitch and standing on the centre spot as the fans invaded. A year on from Macari’s sacking and subsequent reinstatement, the Town fans had been rewarded for sticking by him.
The following Tuesday, victory over Peterborough set a new club record for victories in a season, and it left them needing just a point for the title, which was duly secured the following weekend – an equalising strike from Leigh Barnard at Mansfield enough for the huge away following to celebrate.
There remained just one more record to chase. Two years previously, York City had become the first side to break the 100 point barrier – Swindon were now sat on 90 points, with four games remaining. Victories followed at Aldershot and against Orient, then a Charlie Henry hat-trick secured a 3-1 win at Halifax to take the Town to 99.
At home to Crewe on the final day, Swindon pounded the away goal, but found 18 year old keeper Rob Powner in superb form – the Alex holding out until the 70th minute, when Peter Coyne struck with a left-foot volley. The final moments of the game were held up by Swindon fans lining the pitch, waiting to storm it when the referee blew his whistle. The Adver headline said it all: TOWN MAKE SOCCER HISTORY.