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 first of six parts to be published over the next couple of weeks, we talk about Fraser’s early career in Sheffield, being a teenager at Manchester United, his move to Swindon in 1986 and what qualities make a top class goalkeeper.
As a youngster, who were your goalkeeping heroes you wanted to emulate?
You look at Shilton and Clemence, Shilton was manufactured, he worked his arse off to get to where he needed to be. For me I always liked Ray Clemence. It wasn’t the fact that he was left footed and right handed – like me – but he was natural, he didn’t make anything spectacular, what he did he did right and didn’t make mistakes, and he was one I wanted to emulate.
You are a Sheffield lad, however you started your career at Man Utd. The appeal of playing for the Red Devils is understandable, however did you ever have aspirations to play for a Sheffield club?
I was part of a really good Sunday league team and one of my teammates was a lad called John Beresford. John went onto Manchester City and Newcastle. John was the same age as me along with quite a few other lads.
Well, initially we were affiliated to Sheffield United. At the time their manager was a man called Harry Haslam and his assistant was a Uruguayan called Danny Begara. Danny lived near me and my parents in Bradway and I used to go to school with his son Simon. Danny was a larger than life bloke, small character, and he used to take me to training always down at Sheffield United. Before we all got to sign up at 14, Harry got the sack and Danny went with him and Ian Porterfield came in. And we were in a little bit of a limbo.
I got offered to go to Sheffield Wednesday with Jack Charlton as manager and played for them pre-season. Their first team keeper at the time was Bob Boulder who I’d bumped into a few Man United Liverpool matches [in the indoor legends tour] now and again. And then I was invited to Leeds, Ipswich, Southampton and then Man United, so I went there and I made a decision [to join] and I was offered schoolboy forms. Big Ron [Atkinson] was the manager there and I signed as a schoolboy at 14 for Man United. I [then] signed a 2-year apprenticeship at United, so at 16 I signed straight from school. I then signed a 2-year pro at 18.
How did the move to Swindon come about?
At the beginning of the second year as a pro, Lou [Macari] wanted me to come on loan. I’d actually came on loan the previous year when we, Swindon won the Fourth Division. I was covering for Kenny Allen and I only came for a month [in 1985/86] and that was [for Lou] to suss me out and to see what was going on.
And obviously in the September he called Ron again and said ‘I want Fraser on loan again’ and Ron said the only way that that I was coming on loan is if I was playing in the first team. I think Kenny had injured himself anyway so I went straight into the team – Rotherham at home which we won.
And obviously things went from there because Lou wanted to buy me but United wanted too much money. Lou and Swindon couldn’t afford that sort of money.
You departed United without making a first team appearance. How close were you to any action and who were you competing with for the no.1 shirt?
The ‘keeper when I was an apprentice was Gary Bailey and as I got to be a pro Gary retired through his knee and Chris Turner and Jeff Wealands were the two ‘keepers. They were there and that first season I played half a dozen reserve games, but Gary Walsh was coming through from the youth team and Ron used to play us off against each other.
And that is when I got the chance to go to Swindon and I thought well I’m going to get the chance to play in the first team and play in front of a crowd. Although to be fair we played some reserve games at old Trafford with 7 or 8 thousand – it was a different in those days.
It must have been difficult to leave Manchester United and make the big step down to the fourth tier, what made you decide it was time to leave Old Trafford…
The thing was I knew me own mind and I was switched on enough to realise that to be a United keeper you need that little bit extra.
I mean you look at the great United keepers over the years – Alex Stepney, Schmeichel, Van Saar and that is three [top ‘keepers] over the last 40 years. The other ones just haven’t cut the mustard. I mean you look at the likes of Ben Foster, he was going to be the next big thing and he went by the wayside. Even Barthez couldn’t cut the mustard. There have been several other dodgy keepers at Old Trafford.
United is a different club. I knew it then. I knew I wasn’t going to be mentally strong enough at that time – I was only 19. Maybe I should have stayed around a little longer, but I just made the decision that I wanted to play. I had a lot of respect for Lou so I decided to sign [at Swindon]. It was only because Fergie did a deal with Lou that I came [in December 1986 for £32,000]. It was a great deal for the club, although not a good deal in the long run, because Manchester United got 50% of any future transfer fee!
To be at United must have provided you with a solid grounding, experience and training that you wouldn’t have received elsewhere.
Even if I hadn’t made it, those two years I spent as an apprentice at Old Trafford were probably the best grounding you could’ve wished for.
I worked under the likes of Eric Harrison, and Eric was the one who brought the likes of David Beckham, the Nevilles, Scholes and Butt through the system in later years; so I had an excellent grounding with him and the reserve team manager. You also had the likes of Bryan Robson, Ray Wilkins, Gordon McQueen, Remmi Moses, Mark Hughes; these were great individuals and a great place to be surrounded by [them].
Out with the old, in with the new. At Swindon in 1986/87 you displaced the 38 year old Kenny Allen after his poor start to the season without a clean sheet and 9 goals conceded in his final two games. You came in against Rotherham, Town won and didn’t concede. It was upwards from there that season…
It was a great was to start. I remember the Rotherham game, although I must be honest I can’t remember too many games after that!
It was a great season getting through to the play-offs, playing Wigan and then beating Gillingham in the final. I couldn’t have asked for a better year for my first at Swindon to get promoted to the old Second Division and I also gained my first England u21 cap.
It was quite nice as Lou said to me he had Fergusson on the phone asking how come I had done so well!
You mention England recognition, did you think that shot of further England action had left you once leaving United?
I had represented England schoolboys while at Lilleshall. As I was part of the first England team to play in a European under 16s Championship – as they had never put in a u16s team before. Tim Flowers was in front of me and then broke his thumb, so I ended up playing the rest of that u16s tournament and we came third by beating Czechoslovakia.
Then I played u17s and youths, playing quite a few games, so obviously coming to Swindon and then getting the honours for the full under 21s was great. I didn’t really think about it and receiving a call-up. I was playing regularly and that was all I wanted.
A lot of Swindon fans see parallels with you arriving that season and our surge to promotion – similar in many ways to 2011/12 and Wes Foderingham signing. How important is a solid goalkeeper to a successful side?
You cannot underestimate the goalkeeper. You look at Arsenal, a force to be reckoned with a great back four but they had David Seaman. He never, or very rarely made a mistake. You look at every great team and you can name the ‘keeper, Peter Schmeichel at United, Ray Clemence at Liverpool. This all points to the fact that they’ve got a good goalkeeper who doesn’t make a mistake.
This just proves how few good goalkeepers there are around to make an impact on a team. England used to be able to count upon the services of a good few world class ‘keepers, but not today. What’s changed?
My honest feelings with that situation is that there have been an awful lot of foreign goalkeepers coming to England that hasn’t necessarily benefited the game. There have been some brilliant ones, Pavel Srnicek at Newcastle and Schmeichel, but lower down the quality hasn’t been there.
While imports have come to play in all positions, with a goalkeeper it’s different as there’s only one in the team. This has affected the amount of good England goalkeepers who’ve been able to develop – fighting for the one position. Previously we always had good young ‘keepers coming through in the rest of the leagues and these were predominately English.
One key moment for you in your early days at STFC was your sending off against Aldershot in the Freight Rover Trophy Area Semi-final in 1987. Town were two nil up, you rushed out, dived in and stuck out your leg and took Martin Foyle down. A rash challenge, but there was a man covering, surely not a red..?
I hit him a treat, a bit hard. He was doing summersaults. The person who got me sent off was Andy King – later Swindon manager – who was playing for Aldershot and just gave it to Allan Gunn’s ear and I was off. Jimmy [Quinn] went in goal and let three in so I said to Jimmy “it’s easy this goalkeeping lark”. I was gutted at the time as I was a young lad.
Did that early sending off in 1987 change you and your approach on the pitch? I recall you superbly rushed out to take a loose ball at the feet of a Sunderland player at Wembley.
I was always taught at a young age it’s not the mistake that you make it’s how you react to it. So if I made a mistake when I kicked him in the arse and got rid of him, then the next time I’ll make sure that I’ll read the ball that little bit quicker so I get there first. So it’s all about learning from your mistakes and I think it’s the same when you take a cross or drop a cross, it’s how you react to that mistake, so the next ball that comes in you don’t just sit on your line, you go out and take the cross. And that’s the way people judge you as a goalkeeper.
So you’ve touched upon an important quality of a good goalkeeper. ‘Keepers are frequently out of the game but you’ve still got to keep focus to react. How difficult is it to stay focused?
That’s one part of the game that you can’t teach kids, concentration. It’s funny because, you just have it and you learn from your experience, and learn as you go on. I always found that when I finished games sometimes I couldn’t tell people what had happened in the game, I couldn’t tell you the score. Because you’re just concentrating on exactly what’s going on, where your defence are, where are the attackers, where you are in relation to your goal; your mind is just focused on what you’re doing.
It’s like people say, giving you grief, I got to be honest you don’t hear anything half the time because you’re so transfixed on what you are doing. Although I did hear so idiot at Barnsley, which I won’t repeat. In the end you don’t let it get to you.
Part 2 follows next week with Fraser talking about life at Swindon Town under Lou Macari and Ossie Ardiles.
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/