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Panda Paws
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« on: Friday, December 13, 2019, 09:01:56 »

Town making the splash on The Athletic this morning!

It's paywalled, so:

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That familiar keyboard melody pierces the air, the harbinger of a tune so unmistakably noughties that it might as well arrive in revellers’ ears wearing cargo pants and a Von Dutch trucker hat.

It’s May 6, 2012, and pop rockers Toploader are at Swindon Town’s promotion party performing their infectious sugar-coated hit Dancing in the Moonlight — but with an almighty twist.

Wearing leather gloves and aviator sunglasses, a guest vocalist is on stage at the County Ground, screaming himself hoarse as he wails the song’s chorus. He is mangling the lyrics and some onlookers may be bamboozled by the oddity of the situation but Paolo Di Canio is the undisputed star of the show.

It’s an outlandish, oddball crescendo to the most memorable season in Swindon’s modern history, with Di Canio securing them their first trophy since 1996 and an instant return to League One in his first year in management.

Their 2011-12 season had been a white-knuckle thrill ride, punctuated by Di Canio’s firebrand intensity. Now, Swindon are on the rise again, top of League Two and in possession of Europe’s leading goalscorer.

Seven-and-a-half years on, something special appears to be brewing once again in Wiltshire, though even a season that ends in glory is unlikely to match the extraordinary events of the Italian’s reign.

This is no humble backwater, and Swindon fans are no strangers to the cult of celebrity.

In the 1989-90 season, Ossie Ardiles led them all the way to victory over Sunderland in the Division Two play-off final at Wembley, initially appearing to seal the club’s first promotion to the top flight. Yet Swindon would admit to breaching 36 league rules, almost all related to illegal payments to players, and were demoted to the Third Division before their enforced relegation was reduced on appeal to staying in the second tier.

Then, in 1992-93, player-manager Glenn Hoddle — like Ardiles, a Tottenham Hotspur legend — shone on the pitch and in the dugout, guiding his team to a thrilling 4-3 First Division play-off final win over Leicester City that lifted them into the newly-formed Premiership, sumptuously side-footing home the first goal of the game.

Hoddle would soon depart to take over at Chelsea and, under his former assistant John Gorman, Swindon finished bottom of the Premiership. They took points off Liverpool, Tottenham and eventual champions Manchester United but also became the first team to ship 100 goals in the modern iteration of the top flight, albeit over what was then a 42-game season.

It was the start of a long slide and in 2006, Swindon became the first former Premier League team to be relegated to the fourth tier of the Football League (albeit they were promoted in third place the following season).

By May 2011, with Swindon having once again been relegated from the third tier under interim boss Paul Hart, new chairman Jeremy Wray went for the glamour option. He was ultimately rewarded with both substance and stardust in equal measure, though he surely could never have imagined it would end with Di Canio channelling his X Factor traits so literally.

Paul Benson had to be a part of it. He was searching for a route out of Charlton Athletic in late November 2011 and submitted the paperwork for a loan to Swindon from a service station on the M6, having been given a glowing review of Di Canio’s work by former Charlton team-mate Alan McCormack, who had moved to the County Ground that summer.

But, following his first training session in Wiltshire, the FA informed the then 31-year-old that his forms hadn’t been filed before the expiry of the loan window and he was forced to wait until the January, when he signed for Swindon permanently.

Benson’s transfer was a swap deal involving Leon Clarke, who had clashed with Di Canio in front of the TV cameras after just the Italian’s seventh game in charge.

At the end of a 3-1 defeat by Southampton in the League Cup, Clarke had argued with the fitness coach Claudio Donatelli and then, after protesting to his manager that “he (Donatelli) says we have to run again tomorrow,” the striker and Di Canio started grappling and had to be pulled away from each other.

“They were physical days and Leon came in, and he didn’t have much of a pre-season before,” explains former midfielder McCormack.

“Paolo wanted him up to speed as quickly as he could and regardless of the minutes he played on a Saturday or a Tuesday night, he was back running the next day. The players at the time were a bit shocked at how much he was running separately on his own.

“Leon, being extremely tired, reacted badly and it got highlighted even more because the cameras were there. A lot happened that night that will probably stay in the dressing room but it happened, it was done, and Paolo moved on very quickly. We still had the same goal at the end of the season.”

The controversy over Di Canio’s public clash with Clarke did little to dissuade Benson, neither did the strict standards his new manager would demand.

In just his second game in a Swindon shirt, he scored the winner as his new team came from a goal down to beat top-flight Wigan — who would win the final the following season — 2-1 in the FA Cup third round. The win prompted Di Canio to tell BBC Wiltshire: “My lads today deserve to have their names put on this stadium. I know you normally do this when you win something important and I don’t want a big statue, but maybe a plaque.”

Their reward was the Ronnie Radford Award, a short-lived accolade handed to each season’s most impressive FA Cup giant-killers.

Swindon had lost four of their first five league games under Di Canio but by the January, the juggernaut was rolling, with winning 17 of their 23 matches in League Two after the turn of the year, including a run that took them to the EFL Trophy final (which they lost 2-0 to Chesterfield in the March).

Benson thrived, matching Alan Connell as the club’s joint-top scorer in the league with 11 goals and while it was often tough going, Di Canio’s approach was working.

“He was always difficult to read as a person. I was probably a bit fortunate because I had a bit of experience behind me — the younger players weren’t sure how to take him,” says Benson, who is now an academy coach at Luton Town. “He was intense. There was a game were we beat Crawley 3-0 (in February 2012) and he came in and wasn’t happy at all. He tore strips off certain individuals and sometimes, it can be difficult for younger players to deal with that.

“He would happily single someone out in front of everyone else and you had to be mentally strong to deal with it. We were a strong group because we had this real strong bond between us at players.

“He didn’t have favourites. There were times when I would get singled out, or Matt Ritchie would get singled out, so as a group, we could say, ‘It was your turn this week’ and almost laugh it off. We won the league in the end, so it obviously didn’t affect players that much.”

Swindon made 20 permanent signings and brought in 11 more on loan before and during the 2011-12 season, with Ritchie, Benson, McCormack, Wes Foderingham, Paul Caddis and Simon Ferry proving Di Canio’s most trusted foot-soldiers. Not that it spared them from his emotions at times.

On April 17, 2012, an anticipated victory at Aldershot Town was set to confirm promotion for a side eight points clear at the top of League Two. Yet Di Canio dropped five key players as punishment for some of the squad having gone on a night out. Swindon subsequently lost the match, 2-1.

The night out was a celebration of the birth of McCormack’s first daughter, Olivia, but he admits they “maybe stayed out a little bit too late” and it drew a furious reaction from Di Canio, who was in Italy at the time following the death of his mother.

“The Irish and English mentality is that you go out and wet the baby’s head, so we all agreed to meet out that night,” says McCormack. “But unfortunately, Paolo had lost his mother the day before and flew back to Italy. He had sent me a great message explaining what had happened to him, so as one person was lost, another person was born, and he was very much delighted for me and my family for that happening.

“We were in training Sunday morning and we maybe stayed out a little bit too late. It got back to Paolo that we’d been out on the Saturday night. He didn’t take it very well and came steaming into the dressing room and just absolutely laid into everyone, dropped everyone from the squad apart from me and one other, I think.

“After the game, he just lost his head and was calling players all sorts of names. They were funny. There was, ‘Big white rabbit in headlights’ for Aden Flint and other things like that.

“The fans that had seen us out that night were buzzing to see us but when the dust settled, and with the result on the Tuesday night, we learnt the hard way.”

Swindon were also defeated, 3-1, away to Gillingham in their next game, yet got promoted that day as Torquay United and Crawley Town dropped points. The title was secured in a 5-0 home win over Port Vale in the penultimate game, Benson scoring twice.

“Paolo was the most passionate man I’ve ever come across,” says McCormack. “He left the family back in Italy to concentrate on the football here and from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep, it was pure football and pure Swindon Town.

“To play under somebody like that; I feel grateful for that happening. He was a great bloke. We all saw first-hand his passion for the game. We heard him smashing the dugouts and breaking the perspex.

“He would sit us on the pitch some days and tell us stories. We all grew up watching him score unbelievable goals and do things with a football that the Premier League hadn’t seen.”

Passion, pure football and points in abundance — but that’s only one side of the story.

“Management by hand grenade,” was how former Swindon chief executive Nick Watkins categorised the Paolo Di Canio era after the Italian’s resignation in February 2013 and his own shortly after.

Di Canio was still getting points — Swindon were sixth in League One when he left — but tensions and spending were both getting out of hand.

As early as the September, Di Canio was having another public falling out with another player. He demanded an apology from his goalkeeper, Foderingham, who had reacted angrily to being substituted 21 minutes into a 4-1 loss away to Preston North End.

“It’s not acceptable to think, ‘I’m the goalkeeper, I can’t be subbed.’ When you have a bad day like he did, then you can be subbed,” Di Canio said.

He justified suggesting Foderingham should be fined by saying that, “otherwise, the next time I sub Matt Ritchie, he will come with a gun and shoot at me, and just say sorry to escape from the punishment.”

It was questionable logic and the row was another embarrassing moment for the club but a far more significant one followed when the club were placed under a transfer embargo for two months for overspending in the summer of 2012.

In accordance with Financial Fair Play, League One clubs had to limit their spending on salaries and player fees to within 65 per cent of their turnover, and Swindon exceeded this threshold after tribunals ruled they had to pay a combined £340,000 for the signings of James Collins and Troy Archibald-Henville from Shrewsbury Town and Exeter City respectively.

Collins and Archibald-Henville were two of eight players Swindon recruited on a permanent basis in summer 2012, with four more arriving on loan.

New chairman Sir William Patey, a former British ambassador to Sudan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan who had replaced Jeremy Wray, promised no extra funds for the January, prompting Di Canio to claim he would spend £20,000 to £30,000 of his own money to keep loanees Chris Martin, Danny Hollands and John Bostock at the County Ground — the latter two went on to agree 28-day extensions.

Boardroom upheaval followed at the start of 2013, with Ritchie being sold to Bournemouth for £500,000 and majority shareholder Andrew Black agreeing to sell the club to a consortium led by Jed McCrory — that sale would lead to a High Court ownership wrangle in 2015 between businessman McCrory and current chairman Lee Power.

The club were £13 million in debt and looking to avoid administration as McCrory’s takeover was ratified by the Football League but Di Canio’s patience had expired.

The Football League refused to sign off on three signings on that month’s transfer deadline day and, just over two weeks later, Di Canio quit.

There had been light-hearted moments along the way, like in October 2011 when Di Canio, took a wrong turn during a two-mile fun run — he was the event’s official starter — and accidentally ran the Swindon half-marathon. Or, in January 2013, when he bought pizzas for around 200 volunteers that cleared snow off the County Ground pitch ahead of a match against Shrewsbury, which Swindon went on to win 2-0.

In one final act of defiance, Di Canio entered his old office in the dead of the night using keys he had kept following his resignation and tore down pictures of his Swindon successes during an unforgettable 21 months in charge.

The club changed the locks and then changed manager four more times before they were again relegated to League Two in May 2017.

They say never go back, but how was Paul Caddis supposed to resist?

As captain of Di Canio’s 2011-12 champions, the Scotsman made the PFA League Two Team of the Year under a manager he had idolised seeing play for his formative club Celtic and later went on to establish himself as a Championship regular for Birmingham City.

Now 31, the defender is back at Swindon after signing a short-term deal as a free agent last month and has played in three successive wins that have taken Richie Wellens’ class of 2019 three points clear at the top of the League Two.

Wellens, the former Leicester midfielder who succeeded Phil Brown in November 2018 and works under director of football and former top-flight manager Paul Jewell, has constructed a talented team, who have been bolstered by 16 signings (a mixture of permanent additions and loan captures) so far this season.

Curiously, they have yet to beat another member of the top eight but have more League Two goals than anyone else — 35 at a rate of 1.75 a game — and there’s a sense that after two seasons back in the bottom tier, the spirit of six-and-a-half years ago has been rediscovered.

“It was difficult to say until you got into the dressing room but there’s definitely signs of similarities to that season,” says Caddis. “(Di Canio was) quite similar to Richie Wellens in terms of knowledge of the game. In the modern game, you don’t get a lot of managers like those two. Di Canio always had a back four, and then he’d be working with them, and then the midfield four, and then the attackers — Richie Wellens does the same.

“Both of them are passionate. He (Wellens) is not afraid to make decisions. He’s ruthless as well. Against Mansfield (on November 23), we were 1-0 up but we were under the cosh, with Mansfield going a bit direct, and he wasn’t afraid to bring another centre-half on. He’s not afraid to make decisions. He makes decisions on what’s best for the club or that match, and whether the fans or somebody else doesn’t agree, I don’t think he’s too fussed on that, and that was very similar to Di Canio.”

Two loanees are spearheading Swindon’s latest promotion push — and one of them is leading the way for the whole of Europe.

Rotherham academy product Jerry Yates has scored 10 times in 17 League Two appearances and Eoin Doyle has 18 from the same amount, making him the leading scorer in the top four divisions of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. Lazio’s Ciro Immobile, who has 17 in Serie A, is his nearest challenger.

The 31-year-old Dubliner is on a run of 11 goals in his last eight matches and was named League Two player of the month for November with Wellens taking the managerial equivalent after winning all three league games. However, Doyle is a Bradford City player and with the sixth-placed Yorkshiremen just five points behind Swindon in the promotion race, surely they’ll want him back as soon as possible.

“He’s absolutely flying,” says Caddis, who played alongside Doyle for Bradford as they were relegated from League One last season. “Of course, we’re worried that we’re going to lose him but when I’ve spoken to him, he’s just concentrating on Swindon. He wants to be here, he’s enjoying his football and everybody knows that he loves working under the manager. It’s great for us and would be great for ‘Doyler’ if we could keep him.”

They’re whistling a happy tune in Swindon right now and beating Grimsby Town 3-0 away at the weekend saw them record their first six-game league winning streak of the century and their first since Di Canio’s reign.

Big challenges await, with a trip to third-placed Forest Green Rovers — led by a former Swindon manager in Mark Cooper — looming next weekend, but if the good times roll on, who could blame starry-eyed supporters for dancing in the streets?

Or in the moonlight.


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jayohaitchenn
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« Reply #1 on: Friday, December 13, 2019, 09:32:57 »

Nice read, thanks for sharing.
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pauld
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« Reply #2 on: Friday, December 13, 2019, 10:25:20 »

+1. Seems to have a fair bit of good stuff, The Athletic, but if I'm going to spend that amount of money per month on reading about football, I think I'd rather my money went to WSC.
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Red Frog
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« Reply #3 on: Friday, December 13, 2019, 10:26:09 »

Yep, good read that.
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Tout ce que je sais de plus sûr à propos de la moralité et des obligations des hommes, c'est au football que je le dois. - Albert Camus
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« Reply #4 on: Friday, December 13, 2019, 11:10:03 »

+1. Seems to have a fair bit of good stuff, The Athletic, but if I'm going to spend that amount of money per month on reading about football, I think I'd rather my money went to WSC.

I bought it on a whim for the year - It's good, but I don't read enough to get my money's worth at the moment.
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pauld
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« Reply #5 on: Friday, December 13, 2019, 11:28:12 »

I bought it on a whim for the year - It's good, but I don't read enough to get my money's worth at the moment.
That was my concern. Tried the app for a week or so and I enjoyed the articles I read but just didn't feel I'd read enough of them to justify the outlay
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« Reply #6 on: Friday, December 13, 2019, 12:36:16 »

Thanks PP! I'm sure will get The Athletic eventually, I buy the Blizzard every quarter and it's bad enough that I don't get through those!

Athletic industry push has been big!
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Panda Paws
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« Reply #7 on: Friday, December 13, 2019, 14:58:58 »

Yeah their budget, break-even point and valuation are all crazy. Just another example of a company continuously over-valued and a darling of the VC. Will never be profitable.
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