Q&A with Alan Connell on life at Town and Bradford City
In the second of a new series, Steven Fyfe catches up with some heroes and the nearly-men of Town’s recent past. This week, former striker Alan Connell was kind enough to discuss at length his time at the County Ground. He gives his views on working under Di Canio, why he left the club and how his later achievements at Bradford City were a personal high in his career.
In July 2011, relegated Swindon Town signed non-league hot shot Alan Connell from Grimsby to spearhead their promotion campaign. He was one of the first (and arguably most successful) signings of new manager Paolo Di Canio. In an up and down season for him personally he managed 44 appearances (23 starts) and finished the clubs top goal scorer with 13 goals…
The question I think everyone wants to know the answer too is what was it like working for Paolo Di Canio?
“I always get asked this question! It was obviously very eventful, you just never knew what was going to happen next. He was a fantastic coach on the training field and we were a very well drilled side that were difficult to score against and always scored goals.”
“His attention to detail in the way we trained, played, the opposition just everything was so thorough. He was very demanding and would push us to the limit both physically and mentally. His record at Swindon speaks for itself, it was excellent. There were some things I think he could have handled differently but I have a lot of respect for him.”
“It was definitely his way or you were out, that was shown by the high turnover of players during his spell in charge. There are so many crazy memories from playing under him but looking back it was a great experience and never boring!”
“I was constantly in and out of the team which was frustrating and with maybe more belief from him I could have scored quite a fair few more goals as we always created chances. Although on the flip side he always put me back in after leaving me out so maybe he did believe in me after all who knows!?”
You described it as “eventful if not frustrating at times” but how do you look back on your season with us?
“I look back at great pride that I played for Swindon town, a big club that has a passionate support and I played in quite a few home games where we would have over 8,000 and up to 14,000 maybe for the Port Vale game where we won the league.”
“The club had just been relegated when I signed and the club paid a reasonable amount of money to Grimsby Town to bring me in so I knew myself and the team had to deliver promotion. I said at the time it was the perfect move for me, back down south and playing for a big club with ambition. I learnt so much that year and loved playing at the County Ground where I gave it everything I had and I feel that I had a great relationship with the supporters there.”
“I do have some frustrations, with more minutes on the pitch I feel I would have scored more goals, losing the JPT final and even losing at Leicester in the 4th round of the FA Cup because for the first hour I felt we were the better team that day but overall I look back with great satisfaction and pride with what myself and the team achieved that season”
Despite the frustrations, what memories were you able to take with you? One of my personal highlights of you was the Wigan game in the FA Cup – which was also my 21st birthday.
“I have lots of highlights to look back on. Having been taken off early in our defeat to Southampton in the league cup a few days before to come off the bench against Rotherham who were top at the time and score the equaliser and winner live on Sky on the Saturday was amazing and a day that helped kick-start our season.”
“Scoring in the memorable win at Northampton on New Year’s Eve was special and again to score against Premier League Wigan in the FA Cup to help knock them out was brilliant, I had lots of family there as well that day which made it even more satisfying.”
“Barnet at home in the JPT area final where my goal meant we went to Wembley was something that I’ll never forget and the final itself to walk out at that famous stadium in front of so many fans and my family was genuinely a dream come true.”
“The Shrewsbury home game where I had been ill all day and kept quiet because I was desperate to play, we were 1 down at half time when the gaffer put me on and I played one of my best all round games for the club and scored the 2 goals that put us top for the first time and we then stayed there until the end.”
“Being part of 10 league wins in a row and creating history was nice as well and then finally scoring in the game that won us the league in front of my family and a packed County Ground against Port Vale was the perfect way to cap the season.”
The squad that Paolo put together that season was easily (in my opinion) one of the best in my time supporting Swindon, who in your opinion was the best player you played with?
“The boys in the squad were brilliant, we all got on great which helped forge a team spirit that meant we really enjoyed being around each other. I played with some great players at Swindon, the stand out was Matt Ritchie for his ability, delivery, attitude and ability to do something special out of nothing. Him and Paul Caddis had a great understanding down the right side.”
“Cads (Paul Caddis), Alan McCormack was excellent as was Simon Ferry, Rafa De Vita, Joe Devera, Aden Flint and Wes Foderingham.”
“There were many others; Jonathan Smith played a big part, Paul Benson was great to play alongside also when Callum Kennedy was good he was very good but he never quite got given the run in the side I felt his talent deserved.”
“I’ve mentioned a fair few and there were others but we were very much a team. It’s been great to see so many of them have success since we all played together, I always keep an eye out for them boys in particular to see how they are getting on.”
Aside from winning the League, the JPT final is a big memory for me from that season, what do you remember of that experience?
“In the build up to Wembley I was desperate to get in the starting line-up but with Paolo in charge I knew anything could happen. The Saturday before I had been an unused sub at Crewe where we lost and I couldn’t I understand how I never came on? Then on the Tuesday we had a top of table clash at home to Torquay where I was starting and knew a good performance would probably seal my place in the final.”
“Luckily for me we won, I scored and I played one of my best all round games of the season. Even then though it was an anxious build up, I roomed with my strike partner Paul Benson and that was a good sign that I’d be starting as every week we had new roommates for away games and often there would be hints in those choices!”
“We found the team out 2 hours before kick-off and I was in, I was so happy and quickly called my dad. I loved everything about that day, except the result and that horrible feeling of losing at Wembley when we were the better team I thought.”
“As I said earlier walking out in front of 50000 at a place I so wanted to always play at was incredible and an experience that will live with me forever. I had a lot of family and friends at the game but when the national anthem played all I could think about was my mum who had passed away 3 years before and would have loved to have been sat in the posh seats with my dad and brother.”
“As I said I enjoyed the game and felt we played quite well in spells but it wasn’t to be and we lost to Chesterfield. We were gutted and the meeting at the training ground the next day didn’t make us feel any better as we watched the game back and were told by the manager how we should have won. The priority of course was the league but to this day I still think of that game and it feels like a missed opportunity.”
What has always been a mystery is why the club allowed you, our top goalscorer and a fan favourite to leave to League Two Bradford City. Were you given an explanation?
“At the end of the season I felt really good and positive about what we had achieved and was really excited about the following campaign but I had a nagging worry that with the money being spent at the club and how the manager loved bringing in new players that I may be told to leave. And so it proved one day after Paolo signed a new deal he rung me and I feared the worse. He explained that he would rather speak face to face but he was in Italy and he just said that he wanted to bring in new players that suited his style which he described as powerful runners. I’ve never been that but I’d given everything for him the season before and I explained that I’ll do that again and was willing to fight for my place but he was adamant it was best I leave.”
“It was very amicable but I was gutted. I loved playing for Swindon and was settled living there. I had a year left on my contract so let my agent deal with everything that summer. There was a lot of teams interested but Swindon wanted a transfer fee for me which was taking time to resolve behind the scenes.”
“I came back to pre-season and was made to train with just Jonathan Smith and Lee Cox with an assistant fitness coach. The lads then went on tour to Italy as the 3 of us stayed behind and worked very hard. Two weeks later the squad were back and still there was a lot of things that needed to be sorted, I didn’t want to leave and had a year left on my contract.”
“I remember doing some work about 100 yards away from the boys thinking ‘we won the league last year, I did alright, finished top scorer and now I’m not deemed not good enough for this big squad’ It was tough to take and that’s the other side of football the fans don’t always see. Players always get blamed for different things but it works both ways.”
“Eventually Bradford City made me a good offer and while initially I was hesitant to move so far away from home again the lure of playing for a massive club with big ambition made me quickly realise that I just had to do it. Within a couple of days I was signed and off on a pre-season tour with them to Ireland really excited and proud to be a Bradford City player.”
“I had a text off the assistant manager and fitness coach at Swindon but honestly can’t remember if the manager did or not. I’ve not seen him since but genuinely wish him all the best. You can’t take things personally in football as its normally one man’s opinion of you at a certain time that can mean whether you stay or go.”
As a neutral, the time you spent at Bradford was remarkable in terms of what the team achieved, how was it for you as a player?
“I loved my year at Swindon and felt like I could have gone on to achieve more there but maybe it was fate that I went to Bradford as we had a remarkable year winning promotion at Wembley and reaching the league cup final beating 3 Premier League teams along the way in Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa.”
“We made history and there is now a 2013 lounge at Valley Parade dedicated to that season which is special to all of us involved. I loved playing at that stadium the crowd were so passionate and supportive and we played in front of some big crowds. As a league 2 team we would play in front of 18000 sometimes and I think there were about 25000 for the Arsenal game.”
“I do feel very lucky that for a lower league player I played for some great clubs with magnificent support such as AFC Bournemouth, Swindon Town and Bradford City. Grimsby Town as well were amazing to me.”
What career highlights have you got that you can pass to the Grandchildren one day?
“I’ve had some great highs and moments in my career as a professional footballer that I’ll very fondly look back on. My dad has recorded all my goals and kept a scrapbook from the very start. However there have been many lows as well, having long term injuries, bad games, loss of form and being unwanted to name just a few.”
“I wouldn’t change it though, I dedicated myself to be a professional football player from a very young age and had many obstacles to overcome and, while I would have loved to play for England and be a Premier League player that never happened, but I am content and proud that I lived my dream and had a successful lower league career.”
“To name a few personal highlights is difficult but I’ll go with the following;
- “Signing my first contract as a professional footballer aged 19 at AFC Bournemouth, then first game and goal etc.”
- “Years later I scored the second goal in the game that saw us promoted with Bournemouth at Burton in what was the first of the three promotions that saw the club now in the Premier League.”
- “At Grimsby I set a club record of scoring in consecutive home games, I think it was 9. That was a great year for me personally as I scored a lot of goals which got me my move to Swindon and I’ve spoken about the highlights I enjoyed with the club.”
- “The amazing season we had at Bradford City where we won promotion and reached the league cup final creating history.”
- “The three Wembley finals I was involved in and the four promotions I experienced are all very special to me as well. Each promotion shirt I wore I got signed by my team mates.”
“I tried to enjoy the good times as it flashes by so quickly, I looked after myself and gave everything I had for every club I played for. Sometimes it was good enough and sometimes it wasn’t, that’s football.”
You are now back playing Non-League football and in your 30’s, do you have any plans for the future?
“I’m 33 now and playing Non-League football for Poole Town. I’ve moved all over the country for my career and even though I’m from London, the Bournemouth/Poole area is lovely and where I consider home really so it’s nice to feel a bit settled.”
“I’ve done some of my coaching badges and looking to progress with that as I start to think about my next step in life, I’m currently working in the AFC Bournemouth academy as a coach which I’m loving. I’m learning all the time and it’s very rewarding if you see improvements in the players under your guidance. I also love watching football and always keep an eye out for my old teams.”
On returning to watch Swindon, one final note from Alan replied:
“I’ve not been back to the County Ground since the day I left but one day it would be nice to return and watch a game.”
I would like to thank Alan for taking the time to describe all of his experiences and emotions in such detail and wish him the best of luck for the rest of this season and moving forward his coaching career.