In our first in-depth interview with a Swindon Town legend, Ron Smith interviews Fraser Digby on his career and life after football. Fraser and his washbag were the inspiration for this site, so it was a great pleasure to meet and interview him.
In this fourth of six parts to be published over the next couple of weeks, Fraser talks candidly about his most difficult years at Swindon under Steve McMahon and the reasons why he left the County Ground after 12 long years.
After John departed following the defeat at Bristol City, Steve McMahon arrived. A young player manager, who I see it was eager to stamp his authority on the job, by any means. What were your impressions of Macca?
Steve McMahon started his managerial job like he played his football. One of the first things he said which got right up the players’ noses when they found out about it was that basically there were only four players at the club that he wanted to keep, the rest of them could go.
Now when you are battling relegation you need all the players sticking together and when you hear that you think fuck you – you know what I mean? So I don’t think he managed to endear himself to the players early on.
Were you one of the four?
I don’t know to be fair because he brought in Frank Talia to try to dislodge me. He tried that one.
We were bemused by Macca’s decision to sell Jan to Middlesbrough. This turned out to be the first of many tough and unpopular decisions by the manager, is it true to say he ripped the heart out of the club by selling / sacking club legends?
You look at the players, for me, personally, that he got rid of and you look how popular they were with the fans. So Jan had endeared himself with the fans, he was the first to go. And then Shaun Taylor goes. And then Paul Bodin goes. And I think I was the final one that finally left. And that was it.
Macca’s replacements were always moulded in his own image…
They weren’t up to the standard that we had been used to.
The fans had become accustom to decent football, entertaining football and even under Lou it was entertaining, it wasn’t the prettiest but it was entertaining. And then McMahon comes in and he narrows the pitch by about five yards. And he wanted the team to play the way that he wanted to play. He played himself to start off with – dunno how many times he got himself sent off…
Our Division Two title season saw some of the best football at the County Ground, yet looking back all the ingredients were there for it to happen – with money to spend and yourself, Taylor, Bodin etc. As a writer on The Washbag once wrote about Macca ‘a blind chimp could have got Swindon promoted in 95/96′… Is that fair?
I’m glad you said that not me!
Like under Hoddle your place as the no.1 again came under threat with Frank Talia. In many supporters’ views he was another keeper who realistically wasn’t up to displacing you.
Competition had been brought in before.
Yeah Frank [Talia] come in but Frank was a good laugh. He was comical, we had a few good trips away. I got on alright with Frank.
Frank wasn’t a typical, orthodox ‘keeper. He would make saves look spectacular when an easier one would suffice. But he was a good lad, I got on with him, he made me laugh. The thing was he was after my position, you know?
Was he brought in as your replacement?
I think McMahon tried to get me out of the place, that was my feeling. I think that’s how it looked with a number of the players with Shaun going and Paul and Jan going. He wanted to have his people in and that was it.
Frank’s arrival was your second main competitor – after Hammond – for the no.1 jersey. How do you cope with competition?
By that stage I was mentally strong enough to deal with it. And I think that is the thing, I’d leant a lot in my career and by that sort of age I was mentally strong enough to deal with it. So I knew the characters, I’d worked with some good managers so when I bad one came in I knew where he was coming from.
There were quite a few things that went on off the field too that I didn’t necessarily agree with and so I’d got the markings of him and I knew who he was.
The thing was I didn’t want anything to do with that side of it, because I’d been in Swindon for quite long I’d got a lot of friends outside the of the game so I’d isolated myself from the rest – and I don’t think that went down particularly well
So that only made the situation worse for you in terms of building any trust with Macca and visa versa…
It’s not the matter of whether I liked him or respected him or not, I just continued going about it professionally, so my felling for him had nothing really to do with it.
Did he make any effort to fix that relationship with you? And how did he treat others in the squad?
We never really communicated and when he did communicate with other players – Chris Hay being one – I didn’t agree with his management style.
I always listen to a lot of people and I see what goes on – being the manager of a football club is no different to being the manager of any other business: you know the people that need a kick up the backside, you know the people that you put your arm round – it’s how you are as a manager, its’ how you are as a person. How you deal with other people – how you react to them, or interact with them – and that is the big thing.
So I learnt a lot form the managers I worked with going into my business life. I saw the way that there were managers and I saw the way that they managed people. And football is just like any other walk of life.
Ultimately you proved Macca wrong by getting player of season, twice…
I had the final laugh!
One of your moments you’d like to forget was Swindon versus Stevenage in the FA Cup . One kick was held up by the wind, Boro were quickest to react and Grazioli scored…
[animated} oh that was a great one, I loved that one! You know what disappointed me more than anything else, it was like a force ten gale and I was trying to clear the ball out and I’ve hit one ball once I’ve drilled it low and its has basically stopped on the halfway line, lifted up and blown all the way back to row z. And I've just stood there with my arms folded just going ‘what am I supposed to do’. And then another time I’ve drilled it and the ball has got knocked down and Grazoli’s gone through four of our defenders and scored and I’ve got the blame for it.
Were you under instructions by Macca to kick directly upfield?
We couldn’t have just played it short because they’d have lost the ball and I’d have got grief.
It was just one of those games, the weather was against us. You know what I mean? You’ve always got to have one of them in your life.
1998 was your testimonial year to celebrate your 10 plus years of service to the club...
I’ve got to be honest with you. I had McMahon as a manager and I wish it was with any other manager other than him. Because the events and the people supporting the events were fantastic – we had a racing day at Cheltenham and Johnny Francome came along and did a speech, we had the jockeys, we had the cricket team, we had the penalty shoot-out in the parade ring. It was a fantastic day out but very few of the players were allowed to go.
That was the thing and even with the game [against Manchester United] he’d turned round and said ‘there aren’t many big names here’. But at the time, Fergie wanted to bring some of the bigger names, but he had to get the players back for a game for Karel Poborsky as part of a deal for him to come to United. So they had the Charity Shield, the Poborsky game, so I had some of the younger lads. Even then you look at some of those younger lads at that time and there were some good names there. [For me] it was a great one. Whatever happened, it was a great day. To think we had the second highest crowd of the season that day – the highest being Sunderland on the final day when they were gunning for promotion.
I recall Macca stating you were one of the top two or three ‘keepers outside of the Premier League and he couldn’t imagine the team without you, and couldn’t go out there and purchase a ‘keeper as good as you…
I don’t know, I might’ve read it wrong, but that was the way I saw it. And I just felt, they’re not appreciating me enough.
Was the decision to leave also a culmination of the Macca years wearing you down?
Yes, I just I ought to go. Rikki [Hunt] hadn’t offered me [a suitable deal] and I wasn’t enjoying it, I knew he’d brought Frank in to try to get rid of me, and I just thought time to go. I had my testimonial – enjoyed that – but I wasn’t enjoying it [anymore], so time to go. And if they’d offered me more money then I might have gone ‘okay..’, but they didn’t. I really believed at the time, I was quite shocked with what some of the players were on, I thought I’m slipping down so off I go.
Did you feel hard done by the club, perhaps even taken advantage of, over the years because of your loyalty?
As I say, that was how I felt at the time, whether that was right or wrong I don’t know. I don’t want to slag them off too much, but it was a difference of opinion and that was how I felt at the time…
Part 5 follows next weekend with Fraser discussing life after Swindon at Crystal Palace, QPR and retirement
Fraser Digby is the Wiltshire distributor for Errea Sportswear and Reusch goalkeeping products. Find out more about Fraser and what he’s up to at http://fraserdigby.com/