Q&A with Iffy Onuora
In the latest of Steven Fyfe’s Q&As, former Town striker and manager Iffy Onuora who gives an honest recount of his time at the County Ground…
This week I’ve spoken with a former Town player and manager. In 80 appearances he scored a very respectable 25 goals for the Robins. In this very open and honest recount of his time at SN1 I got to learn a lot about a man who played before my time supporting Swindon. My thanks to Iffy Onuora for taking part.
How do you look back at your time with Swindon?
“I really enjoyed my time at Swindon. I was coming up to 30 years old at the time; I signed back in 1998, very much the peak years as a striker, and looking forward to making the step up to the 2nd tier from League One.
“It was soon obvious that the club was in financial problems and the team was struggling at the wrong end of the table, so looking back it was important that there were enough senior experienced players to guide us through to safety, and actually we had a good camaraderie off the pitch so we got on well too.”
What memories spring to mind when you think about Town?
“Memories you hold on to are the times you spend coming in and training every day and the banter of dressing rooms, it’s a bit like a fraternity that you were once part of and you share that bond so that when you meet up even these days, it’s a bit like an old boys’ club.
“Of the players I played with I tend to bump into a few of them every now and again rather than stay close too”
Who, in your opinion, were the best players you played with at Swindon?
“I would say from a playing point of view even at the age of 35, Mark Walters was still a class act, and George Ndah was wonderfully talented, just a shame that he was injured for a lot of the time he was there.”
It is fair to say you had an eventful debut.
“What an eventful debut!!! I remember us going a goal down and Fraser being sent off before the late Alan MacDonald went in goal against his former team and saved everything that came his way!
“George was making his first start for about 4 months, and wreaked havoc for an hour before coming off!
“I then got on the end of a Mark Walters cross to score on my debut before half time, and we basically held on for the rest of the game.
“I remember Alan Mac taking it all in his stride (complete with a cheeky fag!), wearing a big smile on his face afterwards, lovely man, left us too soon.”
You managed to get quite a bizarre injury (fractured cheekbone). For those of us too young, can you explain?
“Yes, unbelievably I managed to avoid tough centre halves mainly, before succumbing to injury via … the ref!
“It was all fairly innocuous, I only had eyes on the ball from the goalkeepers kick, and to this day I don’t understand why the ref stood where he did right under the ball, and I collided with the back of his (firm) head!
“To complete the story, I ended up getting a Harry Kane-style mask fitted so I could play in the remaining games of the season, and it was delivered to our team hotel before the next day’s game at Norwich.
“Brian Borrows who I work with now at the PFA picked it up and told everyone how strong and unbreakable they were before, yeah you guessed it, snapping it in half! Let’s just say Steve Mc Mahon wasn’t impressed”
I have heard and read a lot about your partnership with George Ndah. Why did it work so well?
“We knew each other from his loan spell at Gillingham the season before and we hit it off on the pitch too. I’m quite proud that I’ve always had good partnerships wherever I played, before George it was Steve Butler and Ade Akinbiyi at Gillingham, and after Swindon, it was Carl Asaba and Marlon King.
“George was easy to play with, he was quick, skilful and direct, and could read my movements well too. In addition we were close off the pitch, so it was a no-brainer.”
Reports suggested you were close to a Scotland call up but sadly it never happened. Do you wish it had?
“At one stage I hit a real purple patch of goals and there were rumours that Craig Brown was interested but nothing came of it, so nothing to regret really although I’d have been happy with just one international cap.
“I did bump into Craig Brown some years later and he spoke at a dinner and mentioned that he regretted not picking me. That was nice of him to say.”
Swindon were in a poor financial situation, did that affect you?
“Like I said, it was in the background throughout my time, and we were always struggling to keep our heads above water. When you get on the pitch you just concentrate on the game, but it all added to the fact that the squad was only ever going to be weakened over time”
You were all set for a move to Cardiff but they pulled the plug at the last minute, how did that feel?
“This was a strange one insofar as I was pulled out of a game having more or less agreed terms with Cardiff a few days before, then for some reason it never happened.
“I was actually ok about it, as I wasn’t in a hurry to leave, it was the more that he club needed to sell me to raise money. This was around October I think and in the end I stayed before leaving for Gillingham on New Year’s Day”
And how was your return to Gillingham?
“Conventional wisdom was that you don’t return to somewhere especially if it’s been a happy time before, but the reality of football is that you go where the work is, like any job. Besides if anything, my second spell was even more enjoyable than my first.
“Tony Pulis had left to be replaced by Peter Taylor so you basically had the same set of players as from my first spell 18 months beforehand, but training was a bit more enjoyable and we gained promotion via the play offs that year.”
“Winning at Wembley was definitely the highlight of my career; it was a magical day with teammates who had a spirit that got us through that game, and many more.”
If we can shift the attention to your coaching time at Swindon, you came back to Swindon as Head of Youth. How was that and were there any players that caught your eye?
“I’d not worked at development level before, and it definitely gave me an insight into Academy football etc.
“The stand out player was probably Lukas Jutkiewicz who went on to make his debut at 16 before signing for Everton.”
You then got the top job, how was that experience for you?
“Being asked to take over as manager was a very proud moment, and despite the obvious problems I didn’t hesitate to accept the post.
“I’d always been interested in coaching and had a brief spell with Paul Merson at Walsall so I could handle the responsibility and was ready for the challenge.”
“People will have their own thoughts but I look back on my time with pride despite relegation that year.
“The odds were certainly stacked from the start but I think we improved the squad in many respects and in so doing helped the next manager.”
I have to ask about the Big Ron saga, what actually happened?
“It was all much ado about nothing in the end. It was a reality show in an arena where you’re literally trying to survive as a new manager, and keep the club in the division to boot.
“I didn’t fall out or dislike Ron Atkinson, we just failed to establish a rapport, and that’s as much to do with the concept of the show and context, rather than any personality clash.”
How did relegation affect you?
“Probably the most crushing moment I’ve experienced in football. I remember relegation being confirmed despite a valiant performance away at Bristol City where we drew the game, rather than take the three points we needed.
“I remember returning to my flat that evening and getting quite emotional, far more so than when you play because the sense of responsibility is that much greater.
“The passage of time allows for more perspective but at the time it’s crushing.”
You left when Bill Power came in, what happened?
“I didn’t get to know Bill really, when he came, though the initial vibes I received were good and that he had a regard for me and how things had been.
“The reality of football though is that a new owner normally equals a new manager so in hindsight, it was no great surprise that he brought in Dennis Wise. I understand that better now than I did then, it’s the business we’re in.”
You managed to get some international experience as manager of Ethiopia. How was that?
“Just a marvelous life experience, a much as a football one. I have many memories (mostly good!), and made many new friends out there at the time, though I’ve lost touch now really with them all.
“I think it made me more humble, I saw some extremes of poverty but experienced real kindness towards me too. I basically lived out there in a hotel in the capital, Addis Ababa for a year.
“Among the many great memories was working with the players who were all very technically gifted, and a joy to work with. Amongst the most bizarre was coming out of my hotel room one morning to find armed guards in the corridor, apparently there was an African Union conference in Addis and the heads of state were staying at my hotel, including a certain Mr. Mugabe of Zimbabwe who was staying directly opposite my room!
“I came back after a year and was gutted to leave though I did miss my family.”
You are at The PFA now, what are you up too?
“I now work at the PFA as a coach educator, meaning that I help deliver the coaching courses for all players wishing to embark on a coaching career. I really enjoy my job, it feels like I’m putting something back especially when you see the candidates go on to become coaches and managers.
“In addition I also work across the Equalities department of the PFA which can be as diverse as sitting on committees with bodies like the FA, Premier League etc, and also going into clubs and speaking to senior pros about do’s and don’ts’ in relation to player behaviors … always a challenge !”