Going Up! 1989/90… Every silver lining has a cloud

In our second look back to a previous STFC promotion campaign, Brendan Hobbs recalls the story of the turbulent 1989/90 season – Every silver lining has a cloud.

1990, lets recap it shall we – it was fantastic year, we had the hottest summer on record, then got involved in small scuffle in the Gulf, Mandela was released, Thatcher quit, and we all had a good ol’ knees up destroying shop fronts and overturning burning cars during the Poll Tax riots.

British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) was launched to rival Sky and with such shows like ‘Heil Honey I’m Home’ you wonder how on earth they failed.

Meanwhile in the sporting calendar, England lost on penalties in the World Cup, Buster Douglas flattened Mike Tyson, Paul Gascoigne pipped green baize miserabilist Stephen Hendry to the BBC ‘Sports Personality  of the Year’ award, underachievers Manchester United won the FA Cup, and all conquering Liverpool the League.

Oh, and Swindon Town won promotion to the First Division (Premier League to you young ‘uns) for the first time, except they didn’t, they were demoted two divisions instead, except they weren’t, they were actually demoted one. Confused? Read on.

Let’s step back to the start of that season – it’s the summer of 1989 and shrill scouser Sonia was riding high in the UK charts with the bubbly, yet faintly aggressive sounding “You’ll Never Stop Me From Loving You!” On the field it was a summer of flux as Lou Macari buggered off to West Ham United and Swindon promptly replaced him with another famous, untried manager in one Osvaldo César Ardiles.

The season didn’t start well – a gloomy cloud was hovering over the club, The People newspaper had started nosing around the clubs financial affairs and managed to stumble across something that smelt very bad indeed. The new season was just weeks away when the future Town sponsors published the first of its articles concerning alleged financial misdemeanours, Chairman Brian Hillier was accused of putting money on Swindon winning the 1987 title to act as insurance against players bonuses.

Ossie was largely inactive in the transfer market so nine of the same team which tasted defeat in previous years play-offs started the new season’s opener against Sunderland. The only notable additions were rotund summer signing Tony Galvin and Ossie taking a place on the bench (one of only two substitutes allowed in those days.)

The season kicked off in front of over 10,000 fans packed into the County Ground, everyone awash with optimism and excitement – Town duly lost 2 nil. Not the best of starts and in fact we went on to only win once in the first seven games.

September arrived and Town were hovering above the relegation zone after a 4 nil thumping by champions elect Leeds United, worryingly Swindon had failed to score in 4 of those seven games.

Earlier in the month Ossie had dipped into the transfer market in an effort to cure our striking woes, it didn’t quite pay off but he unearthed a real Town legend (for all the wrong reasons) in Shaun Close.

A few fans blamed the poor form on the financial investigations into the club, personally I think the change in style, tactics and training had a big effect. Moving from the rather robust, direct game favoured by Macari to the quick, one touch stuff of Ossie was proving a difficult change for the players.

Town finally found some form in their next game and recorded a 3 nil win over Plymouth, this proved a catalyst for a big improvement in front of goal. Tasting one defeat in the next nine games Town scored a mammoth 24 goals, including a six nil hammering of Mick Mills’ Stoke City. A game which ended with both sets of fans calling for the Stoke managers head, one set quite angrily, the other very sarcastically.

Although the wind of change was gusting through Eastern Europe collapsing the Berlin Wall in the process, The People newspaper decided to largely ignore these historic events and instead publish further lurid revelations concerning Hillier – and his penchant to bet against his own club.

Despite this, Town continued to pick up valuable points and by the time the final whistle sounded in mid December after a crazy 2-1 win at the Hawthorns, Town sat just below the playoffs.

West Brom were awarded three penalties on the night, but only beat Fraser Digby once – he managed a brilliant save for one and suffered neck ache from the other – watching the wayward kick sail over the bar.

The New Year arrived and after enduring yet another Cliff Richard Christmas number one, Swindon could reflect on some valuable points won over the festive break. A fantastic home win against fellow play-off hopefuls Blackburn on Boxing Day was followed up with a draw against Newcastle and after a comfortable New Years day away win at Watford, Swindon found themselves in fifth.

Come the month of March while Britain’s militant community were busy priming Molotov cocktails and purchasing balaclavas for the Poll Tax riots, Town were on a brilliant run, suffering just one defeat in 13 – including a 3-2 win against table topping Leeds.

Swindon scored three times in three consecutive matches that month, so as cars burned and Coppers ‘kettled’ on Oxford Street, Colin Calderwood was firing home an extraordinary strike from just over the halfway line in a home victory against Port Vale.

Again though, Swindon ended up in the spotlight for the wrong reasons and eventually, against the constant backdrop of scandal and allegation, Hillier is found guilty in court and banned for six months for breaking FA Rules on gambling – lengthened to 3 years on appeal. Former boss Macari is fined £1,000 for his part in the scandal, he too decides to appeal, which is one step too far for his current employers West Ham who force him to resign.

Town soldier on but just before the last game of the season another blow hits the club when Hillier, Macari, Colin Calderwood and Secretary Vince Farrar are arrested and questioned by the Inland Revenue concerning charges of tax fraud. Calderwood is released without charge, the others are given bail.

The season eventually comes to a close with Swindon sitting in 4th, our highest ever league position. With every fan frothing with play-off excitement, Swindon travelled to Blackburn’s Ewood Park for the semi-final first leg, looking a more prepared unit compared to the side that featured in the previous year’s play-offs.

On the whole, Blackburn were outplayed over the two matches, with Steve Foley scoring an absolute barnstormer in the away leg to clinch a fantastic 2-1 win, I almost broke my ankle collapsing down the crumbling terrace under the sheer weight of celebration.

The result made the second encounter almost a formality as Swindon won by the same scoreline to book their place in the Wembley final.

I can’t remember much about the actual day, I had been to Wembley before to see a couple of FA Cup finals, but this was the first time to watch Swindon.

Town triumphed 1 nil, in a very one sided encounter, with Alan McLoughlin bagging the vital goal via a deflection. “The biggest 1 nil thrashing you’ll ever see” summarised ‘Greavsie’ when I watched the VHS recording the next day. It crowned a fantastic season for Alan, the goal was his seventeenth of the season – not a bad return for a midfielder and it also earned him a late call up to the Eire World Cup squad.

After the game, the majority of Sunderland fans were pretty magnanimous in defeat, wishing us all the best as we milled away from the ground. But the spectre of possible future sanctions loomed large in everyone’s mind – whilst queuing to get out of Wembley a Sunderland fan had a sheet of paper pressed against a coach window with “THE TAXMAN WILL GET YOU” written on it.

My heart sank when I saw it, all the euphoria and excitement I had accumulated during the day dissipated in an instant.

Post match, every TV news report of the game always started on a celebratory note but then descended into a void of depression when the language turned from ‘winners’ and ‘promotion’ to ‘irregularities’ and ‘relegation’. We made a splash on the back page of The Times the day after the final, hardly the most celebratory of headlines, no “Yeah! Swindon! Division One!”

By the time Adamski hit the number one spot with aptly named song ‘Killer’ it finally happened, our dreams were killed. With almost a feeling of perverse relief I heard new Chairman Gary Herbert telling us that the unthinkable had happened – Swindon were to be demoted two divisions and would start the 90/91 season in Division Three.

Italia 90 kicked off, I thought that might help me forget our enforced double relegation, but not even the sight of various Cameroon players merrily kicking chunks out of their Argentine counterparts could alter my mood.

Eventually on appeal the punishment was lifted slightly – with Swindon only being demoted the one division – annoying the hell out of Bournemouth and Tranmere in the process who needed to reshuffle to make way.

Alternative Rock Combo the Teenage Fanclub once advised us all “not to look back on empty feelings”, and this lyric encapsulates brilliantly the whole sorry mess. I look back now and feel nothing, I’m totally devoid of any emotions concerning that season. All we achieved was totally wiped away by the scandal that followed, no-one outside Swindon remembers the lovely football, the fantastic goals, they just remember the negative headlines, the demotions and the arrests.

So, at the end, how do I sum up such a complicated season up in one paragraph?

Well, imagine you’re playing Hamlet at the world renowned Globe theatre and you’re performing the role better than Olivier or Gielgud ever managed. The hushed audience is simply awed by what they’re witnessing, a brilliant career defining performance – and then, whilst you emotionally deliver your final, dying words you fart, really, really loudly and ruin it all – absolutely everything.

And there you have it, right there, the 1989/90 season; the one that got away. So rightly celebrate our promotion from League Two today because its ours, we won it on the pitch and these promotions are like gold dust…

Read more tales from promotion campaigns…


  • 89-90 (up to the demotion point) is my favourite ever season of watching the Town, the football played in my opinion is the best i’ve seen a Town side play, better than under Hoddle. Living away, i wasn’t so aware of the goings on re the People (i was young and enjoying life so didn’t read the papers) so it was only on hearing people talking about it at the matches that i picked up the problems. The worst part of it is that i am confident that that side would have stayed up, for a while at least. And then with the Premier League starting and all the money we could have got ourselves established as a good Championship side…but we’ll never know, so i’ll enjoy this season and look back at my many videos of that season and remember the good football….


  • Oaksey Moonraker

    Without a doubt, I believe that we would have stayed up in Division One if we had been allowed to stay up. That 1989/90 team was it’s absolute peak with the likes of Calderwood, McLoughlin, Bodin, Gittens, Digby, Shearer, Kerslake in their mid 20’s. Ross McLaren hadn’t started to suffer the injury problems which limited him later on.

    With all the attention given to Swansea this season for playing a passing game we would have had the same sort of impact and pre Premier League, promoted teams tended to hang around for a year or two.

    Unfortunately, it didn’t happen and we missed out from a football sense and financially. By the time we did get promoted in 1993, that great team had either been sold or were probably past their peak. The Club missed out on the post 1990 World Cup boom and the momentum from being in the top Division and it set the tone for the later financial woes.


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