Alex Cooke remembers a soggy, nasty night in ‘Nam when everyone saw red and our 24th entry into the Swindon Town Hall of Shame.
Sometimes even the inevitable doesn’t happen – it should but it doesn’t. The sacking of former Luton club shop manager Andy King after the defeat at Cheltenham in September 2002 seemed to be one of those all but inevitable moments.
It was a dark time for the club even before this particular shed of a game kicked off, which was also the first League meeting between the sides. As was usual then, Swindon Town were lurching from one financial crisis to another, but once the whistle blew, things actually got worse.
Town’s star striker, Sam Parkin was sent off, threats were thrown from terrace to pitch, and back again, and the team were at the low point of what would turn out to be a seven game losing run – the joint-fourth worst run in the club’s entire history.
Andy King’s position looked especially weak not just because of that string of depressing, gutless defeats, but because Steve Coppell was known to lurking over his shoulder – like some sort of spooky rucksack. The board had brought in the itinerant former Crystal Palace boss to informally ‘advise’ King but to any football fan it felt like a familiar narrative – the adviser who usurps.
It must have felt that way to King as well but leaving with dignity never seemed an option. Instead he clung on, day after day, week after week, defeat after defeat. Every post-match ‘joke’ an affront to fans’ intelligence, every drawled comment an affront to evolution itself. At least Mansfield’s ninth worst ever manager was a character though – that character seems to have been a Unshaven Lowlife #2 in every episode of The Sweeney. Besides leaving Swindon with a pay off was never likely for a board who were running Town on fumes and ‘financial engineering’.
But King didn’t go. He didn’t go during the post-match interview either. He hadn’t gone by the next morning. Nor in a lunchtime press conference. Come delivery of the Adver that evening, the selfish smoking chimp had still failed to bow to the inevitable.
How could he survive? The defeat had been truly awful for so many reasons. The first, and most obvious, was the stupefyingly poor nature of the performance. Up front alongside Parkin was the base comedy of Eric Sabin, the mediocrity of Gareth Edds and the obscurity of Darren Dykes. So when Parkin was sent off for sliding into the ‘keeper , our hope trudged off as every bit as damp and disconsolate as the striker.
Of course it was unlucky, Parkin had unintentionally aquaplaned into prone goalie Steve Book because of the sodden nature of the surface, and even though the ref did the same as he rushed to brandish his card, logic couldn’t force its way though his cold, reptilian brain.
Without Parkin the team, already suffering from financial neglect of administration, looked lost. King, whose loathing of drills and planning made him the polar opposite of Paolo Di Canio, seemed as resigned to the defeat as he should have been to the sack. In the entire 90 minutes he made not one change – for formation or fitness.
And yet, the side still found some fire in their bellies. For as the dream of a draw turned to denial and finally anger, Andy Gurney and Matt Heywood became involved with the Swindon crowd. From my position it was impossible to hear exactly what was said between fans and footballers but the pair clearly responded angrily to a few comments thrown at them: the hand gestures were pretty clear if the detail was inaudible.
The splits continued. The boos tossed at King were being countered by a section of the support who believed that he was a manager struggling against difficult circumstances (he was), while it was clear that the others believed he was just a struggler, managing to a make difficult circumstances worse (he was that too).
It would be easy to be sniffy and say part of the shame in defeat came because it happened at Cheltenham -a smaller and previously lowly but local-ish, club – but that was irrelevant, they were irrelevant and they remain largely irrelevant to most Swindon fans. It could have been any opposition that night – the only significance was in the proximity in that 1,700 Swindon fans had made the trip to minimalist ‘stadia’ that is Whaddon Road.
It is testament to the rage, anger and sheer unrelenting awfulness of the night which meant that I’ve had to look up the details and even the score on the excellent Swindon-town-fc-co.uk. Because the fact that Cheltenham won 2-0 with goals in each half feels unimportant. How they went in isn’t even logged in my head, all that remains are the howls of rage from the Swindon end and the stunned indifference of the Cheltenham fans to the sight of a club tearing itself apart.
Despite two wins at the start of the season, Town dropped to 21st in the table that night, and still went on to lose 10 of the first 14 League games that season. That run was redeemed only by beating a Northampton side so lifeless they didn’t need drug testing, more checking for a pulse. It would be December before Town would string two wins together.
The performance in Cheltenham, from all sides – fans, board, players and management, made it clear that relegation and greater financial strife were coming to Swindon Town at some point, even if to me on that night they both felt inevitable.