Going Up! 1986/87 – A Season of Firsts
1986/87 saw Lou Macari’s young side secure back-to-back promotions, as Town returned to the second tier after a 13-year absence. From Digby’s debut to Chalkie’s elbows, this was a season of firsts, writes Ben Beaumont.
This was my first full season as a Town fan, having opened my account half-way through the 1986 Division Four title-winning year, at the tender age of eight. Obviously, I was already hooked. The players – Colin Calderwood, Charlie Henry, Chris Kamara. The big games – especially clinching promotion at home to Chester City. The unmistakable whiff of the North Stand – pipe smoke and cheap burgers. It also probably helped that I was yet to see them lose.
Then, of course, there was Dave Bamber. Teasing his lanky way into the penalty area, ball glued to his foot, drawing a mistimed challenge from a hapless fullback. Rising, with his dishevelled curly mullet, for an unlikely long-range header. Trotting around aimlessly, socks around ankles, tumbling over his laces yet again. “You great big fairy Bamber!” was the regular heckle from an entertaining old duffer sat behind me.
You can imagine my dismay, then, when dear ol’ Bambs got sent off in an early home defeat to Notts County. I was distraught, not least because my younger self didn’t realise that Swindon Town could actually lose. I thought there were rules against this kind of thing. But at least that game did provide my first sighting of Steve White, shorts hoisted tightly round his nipples, as he scored off the bench. In any case, Bamber’s red card – totally unjust, as I recall – and Town’s flat performance characterised an indifferent start to the season, which reached an early nadir a couple of games later, at home to Blackpool.
Strangely, that game sticks in the memory more than many of the countless wins of Macari’s era. Four goals down at half-time, Town were truly dreadful. I vividly recall the tannoy playing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ during the interval, with its refrain: “Every now and then I fall apart!” From that moment on, I’ve always had an uneasy feeling when I hear that song. But that could just be Bonnie Tyler’s window-shattering screeching.
But that night was memorable for another reason. The match itself was irrelevant – the team came out and showed a bit of pride, with two goals from Leigh Barnard taking the final score to an embarrassing 2-6. But my abiding memory is of the Town End singing ‘Lou Macari’s red and white army’, non-stop, for the entire second half. Here was a collection of big-hearted souls, who knew what it meant to back your team and manager, through good times and bad. It was their spirit and humour which lodged Town firmly in my heart.
In fact, the game was a turning point in the season, and in the history of Swindon Town. For the very next league match – following a 0-3 reverse away to Southampton in the League Cup – Macari dispensed with the occasionally erratic net-minding services of the shaggy-haired Kenny Allen, and brought in a fresh-faced lad from Manchester United called Fraser Digby. It’ll be no surprise to any Town fan that Fraser kept a clean sheet in his very first game, at home to Rotherham, and went on to keep another 16 in the league alone that season. With his brylcreemed quiff and flying leaps, here was a Town legend in the making.
With Digby on side, Town’s season burst into life, as they won five games in October, and picked up just a solitary draw away to Darlington. That game is still the furthest my family have ever travelled to see Swindon. Quite a way to go for a drab 0-0. Feethams was a truly titchy ground, made remarkable by the fact that you could walk all the way around it at your leisure, and switch ends at half-time, too. Marvellous. Just after that, in a 3-1 home win over York City, I recall an improbable bicycle kick goal for Mark Jones, a tousle-haired midfielder signed that season from Oxford United. By that stage, Swindon had climbed to sixth, just outside the play off places, where they stayed until the turn of the year.
New Year’s Day brought a miserable away trip to champions-elect Bournemouth, managed by Harry Redknapp. I have two clear recollections of this game: Dean Court’s buttock-hardening wooden benches, and a huge sense of injustice. Referee Lester Shapter – still the benchmark of terrible refereeing in my family – gave them a dodgy goal with five minutes left, disallowed a Town equaliser moments later, and sent off Mark Jones for good measure. (At least, that’s how I remember it. The reality could be very different, of course.)
But the injustice, or otherwise, sparked a remarkable run, as Swindon won nine and drew one of the next ten league games, and climbed up to third in the process. This spell included another landmark in the history of Swindon Town – the first sighting of Steve White’s sharpened elbows. Against a promotion-chasing Middlesborough side that included Gary Pallister, Tony Mowbray and, err, Bernie Slaven, ‘Chalkie’ mustered all his niggly-armed, high-shorted awkwardness to free himself from his marker and drill home the winner to send my family home delirious.
The promotion run-in kicked off, literally, when we played Bristol Rovers at Ashton Gate. The game had been moved because the ploughed field at Twerton Park wasn’t fit for football – even if it was Macari-ball. That must have been some going, because the pitches that season were diabolical. Inevitably some Bristol City fans infiltrated the game and caused no end of trouble. The game itself was a right humdinger, as Town came back from 0-2 and 2-3 to win 4-3, thanks to some peachy wind-assisted goals from Quinn and Bamber. (The comeback inspired my favourite ever Adver headline: “A RIP-ROARING SPECTACULAR!”).
The win moved us briefly up to second in the league, but we weren’t really able to capitalise. True, we went unbeaten for the last 11 games, which would normally be enough, but six draws meant we lost ground to Middlesbrough, who comfortably claimed the last automatic promotion place behind Bournemouth. An assortment of moments stick with me from the run in: thunder-thighed Dave Hockaday rifling home the equaliser at home to Bournemouth; fans’ favourite Bryan Wade snaffling a point for Town away to Brentford, minutes after the supporters had begged Macari to bring him off the bench; and Bamber getting walloped by a Bristol City fan after a draw on the last day which meant City missed out on the play offs. (This was back in the days when a game against City had much more edge than a game against Oxford. Probably because Oxford were busying themselves winning the League Cup and playing in the First Division, but still.)
Much has been written about our triumphs over Wigan and Gillingham in the play offs, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Not least because I wasn’t flipping there. Inexplicably, my Dad booked a fortnight’s holiday to Devon at the end of the season. I’ve never forgiven him. So we missed it all – Wigan at home, the two legs against Gillingham, and the replay at Selhurst Park. We did at least huddle around the radio for the famous comeback at Wigan, when Macari delivered one of the all-time great team talks to claw us back from 0-2 down. But the rest we lived through Teletext. Nerve-wracking doesn’t come close. Later, I made sure that Dad bought me the VHS of the Gillingham replay, so my final memory of that wonderful year will always be the Nobby Swatton commentary as Town gained promotion: “Just ‘ark at those Swindon fans!”
By the end of the season, I still thought football was mostly geared towards letting Swindon win. It would be a few years before the pain of relegation – and Brian Hillier – taught me otherwise. But 1986/87 was an important season, not least because it saw the debuts of three true Town legends: Digby, White and Phil King. We also had our first glimpses of Alan McLoughlin (who chipped in with 11 appearances) and Martin Ling (who returned to help Swindon into the top flight in 1992/93). Elsewhere, captain Calderwood cemented his place in the centre of defence with a staggering 64 consecutive appearances. The spine of a very successful side was taking shape.
And the parallels with the 2011/12 vintage are obvious: charismatic young disciplinarian manager with strong support from the fans; hardworking Scottish captain at the heart of the team; and a young goalkeeper already setting records. If Di Canio can repeat Macari’s remarkable achievement, and get Town up to the second tier at the first time of asking, I might just forgive my Dad for booking that holiday.
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