Swindon Town need to be quick out of the blocks…
New TheWashbag contributor Adam Tanner looks at the importance of a strong start to the season for Swindon Town’s bunch of fledglings.
“The league table means nothing until after Christmas.” Any wizened old pundit worth his salt will tell you so.
There is generally some logic to this, as our own history shows. The most striking example was 2011/12, in which 4 of the opening 5 league games were lost, and form remained indifferent well into the winter. On Boxing Day, we were 7th. We ended up as champions, with 93 points. Lou Macari’s flagship 85/86 team had a similar experience (according to my Dad, anyway). 7 points after 8 games; 102 after 46. Danny Wilson’s 09/10 playoff team managed 4 wins from its first 14… and 17 from its next 26. Andy King’s 03/04 side, which ended up 5th, was 14th halfway through.
You get the picture. But this season, I can take no comfort from history. We really need to be up and running before the cricket stops.
Let’s look at the fixtures. On the whole, August looks relatively gentle:
- Peterborough (A)
- Torquay (H)
- Stevenage (H)
- Shrewsbury (A)
- Gillingham (H)
- Crewe (H)
Peterborough away is a tough start for sure, but it’s followed up with 4 home games out of 5. Stevenage may be under new / old management, but we beat them 7-0 on aggregate last season, and they have had a dismal 2013 so far. Shrewsbury struggled throughout last season and just about scrambled to safety. Again, we took 6 points from them. Gillingham are newly promoted, and traditionally travel badly at this level (they managed just 6 away points when they were last relegated in 09/10). Crewe have had a difficult pre-season, and always allow their opponents to play, which should certainly suit us. Factor in a kind cup draw at home to Torquay, and we have an ideal platform on which to build some momentum.
September, frankly, looks hard:
- MK Dons (A)
- Wolves (A)
- Bristol City (H)
- Preston (A)
If we can be quick out of the blocks and approach those games with 9-10 points in the bank, they can be cherished and enjoyed. Our young cherubs can go out with smiles on their faces, and show off their quality to the masses. If we have only 3-4 (or worse), the pressure will be on, and the 5-figure crowds and big days out will suddenly seem a lot less appealing.
So let’s take the worst case scenario. We start slowly and stumble through August, taking no more than a small handful of points. September offers no charity, and we take a few more hits. It’s all a bit too much too soon for our willing and talented but naive bunch of lads, and morale is low.
The instinct then, of course, is to revert to the transfer market. From September to January, no permanent signings will be allowed. Traditionally, this brings into play that trusty old failsafe… the loan market. The Get-Out-Of-Jail Card that we all turn to once the novelty of the summer signings starts to wane. It’s fair to say that “emergency” loans have served some of those past STFC teams referred to above pretty well. Wes Foderingham and Danny Ward are the standout examples, but there are hoards of others, from Alan Sheehan to Liam Ridehalgh, who made really positive contributions to problem positions, and without whom things could have been different.
But this season, it seems likely that, by August, the squad will contain 5 season-long loanees. With a maximum of 5 loan players per matchday squad, there would need to be casualties further down the line if incoming loanees were to be accommodated. Early indications suggest that the Tottenham link is important, perhaps essential, to the strategy of the club, and they are unlikely to take kindly to their players being frozen out. Therefore, unless Spurs are willing to effectively allow us to pick and choose our favoured 5 from a conveyor belt as the season progresses, the prospects of any freshness about the squad seem remote.
Instead, we will have to get by until January, when we at least have the opportunity to sign players permanently. But, as few will be out of contract at that stage, any signings will generally cost money – in terms of fees as well as wages. On that basis, I think we can all agree that there won’t be much, if any, room for manoeuvre. We’ll be unlikely to get hold of a Rory Fallon or a Paul Benson, to give the season the impetus that it might need.
So it looks as if, broadly speaking, we will have to make do with what we have.
Having a high ratio of young players isn’t necessarily an issue. Wes Foderingham is young. So is Nathan Thompson. Aside from their obvious quality, both have proved themselves to be resilient, focused and loyal. Few fans would trade either of them in. The main reason why they are such attributes is that they been allowed to develop quickly from boys into men within strong, positive structures. Thompson has had the composed, experienced Ward and the immense Flint alongside him, and, for a few months at least, Ritchie in front who, as well as being probably the best Town winger of my generation, was definitely the hardest working – his defensive cover was superb.
Foderingham has played behind not only a strong defence, but a whole team brimming with defensive discipline and nous. Think of Joe Devera, Simon Ferry, Raffa de Vita. None of those guys were beyond their early to mid-twenties… but by last season, all had dozens, if not hundreds of games behind them, and were streetwise enough to know most of the tricks in the book, to never leave their teammates exposed, and to help junior colleagues to quickly adapt and develop. Of course, di Canio’s influence was also a relevant factor – something else that we no longer have.
This season, despite the welcome addition of Ryan Harley, it seems likely that most of our starters at Peterborough, and most of the substitutes, will have well under 50 first team appearances behind them. If and when form is against them, they will do exceptionally well to turn things around. Ward will be priceless, and it is now imperative that he stays. Foderingham and Thompson are strong characters who will do their bit to help. Andy Williams urgently needs to toughen up, both physically and mentally; if he does so, he could also be valuable. But, on the basis, as seems likely, that Collins, Benson, Rooney and Caddis will leave, and the likes of Navarro and McEveley, if they do stay, will always be susceptible to injuries, we will be asking so much of so few if and when the going gets tough… whenever that might be.
I appreciate the need now, more than ever, for strong, positive support, especially at home. I promise to stay outwardly positive, and not to whinge or moan. Those who sit around me can hold me to that, as long as they follow the same code themselves. But, if we emerge from August with nothing more than red faces (and I don’t just mean from the sunburn), you’ll find me inwardly twitching, and desperately trying to resist the urge to launch myself, all limbs flailing, towards an old foe…