This is the story of how Glenn Hoddle resurrected Swindon Town from potential financial oblivion to the Premier League big time.
Swindon Town thought they’d won promotion to the First Division in 1990. They had, but an FA investigation found they‘d breached multiple rules. Their punishment was severe, including relegating them down to the Third Division. On appeal this was reduced to just one relegation, which in practice meant they were to compete in the Second Division again for the 1990-91 season.
At the time they were managed by former Tottenham and Argentina World Cup winner, Ossie Ardiles. He had taken over from Lou Macari, who had brought them up from the fourth tier. They achieved two successive promotions in 1986 and 1987. Two years later they were knocked out by Crystal Palace in the play-offs. Then in 1990, they beat Sunderland to book their place, for the first time in their history, in the First Division.
But then it all fell apart, spectacularly.
An FA investigation found them guilty of breaching a number of rules including illegal payments. It wasn’t just the FA who took an interest. Illegal payments also meant tax wasn’t paid, so the Inland Revenue were sniffing around. Their defence was they weren’t doing anything other clubs weren’t. But they were being made an example of. Initially, they were to drop down to the Third Division, but after an appeal it was decided they would drop down one division back to the Second.
Having paid the money back the club was now strapped for cash. Ardiles was instructed to sell players to balance the books. The result was a slump in form. By the end of March 1990 they were only a few points above the drop zone and Ardiles accepted an offer from Newcastle United.
There was real concern around the town about the future of the club. Twelve months earlier they were third in the table and dreaming of automatic promotion. The fans were the ones to suffer from the sanctions and now they were scared their club could be in freefall.
Macari had almost got them up. Ardiles achieved it. So what now? For both Macari and Ardiles, the Swindon job had been their first in management. Would they now settle for more experience?
They plumped for potential. To much surprise, Glenn Hoddle was offered the job. The fans were lifted. They were particularly hopeful of some classy football, the kind Hoddle used to offer up as a player.
Hoddle had been one of the most gifted players of his generation. He came into the Spurs side just as they were losing the battle against relegation to the Second Division in 1977. They bounced straight back up and soon put together an attractive side with the likes of Ardiles, Ricky Villa, Micky Hazard, Steve Archibald and Garth Crooks. Hoddle was the midfield talisman, who could hit a 40-yard at will and also score some sumptuous goals.
Often misunderstood and mistrusted in England, Hoddle moved to France at the end of the 80s and played under Arsene Wenger at Monaco. He found the fame and adoration he craved and soon began to learn all about management.
A knee injury had meant the end for the playing career in France so he returned to England. He signed for Chelsea but before he played a senior game for them the Swindon job came up.
He arrived at the County Ground with the club just five points above the drop zone. Hoddle had just eight games to keep them up. His first game was a home encounter against the bottom club, Watford. Swindon lost 1-2.
Hoddle had been unable to continue his playing career in France due to the knee injury, but he re-invented himself as a sweeper at Swindon. English football still marvelled at the role, which was more common in Europe. Bobby Robson had, almost reluctantly, successfully employed the system in the 1990 World Cup with England. For Hoddle, running was never really part of his game. Why should it be when he could land the ball on a sixpence from 50 yards?
Swindon had a mixture of youth and experience and Hoddle was a trump card. Ex-Tottenham midfield teammate, Micky Hazard, was still making the watching public purr. Steve White was still a threat up front after spells at Bristol Rovers, Luton Town and Charlton Athletic.
There were some with Tottenham links, and not due to Hoddle. Shaun Close had played once in the 1987 team which came close to winning the title. John Moncur began his youth career at White Hart Lane. They also loaned Terry Gibson from Wimbledon. He began his career at Tottenham before spending time at Coventry City and Manchester United. Another loanee was former QPR midfielder, Gary Waddock.
During the summer they signed Australian international, David Mitchell. The striker was at his eighth club, having had spells at Rangers, Chelsea, Eintracht Frankfurt, Feyenoord and Newcastle United. Another purchase was the big central defender, Shaun Taylor. The 28-year old had spent his whole career at Exeter City.
The season began at home to Leicester City. A generous 13,238 crowd was at The County Ground, ultimately the largest of the season, to see Hoddle’s debut for the club. The two clubs had both dabbled with the threat of relegation the previous season. They played out a cagey 0-0 draw.
Swindon’s first win in the league came in their next match when they put Barnsley to the sword. Barnsley, themselves without a win, took an early lead in the first minute. They were still in front at the break, but Hoddle’s half-time team talk worked wonders. Steve White scored his first of the season. Martin Ling came off the bench to head them in front. Then White turned provider to give Shearer his fourth of the season. Swindon were off and running.
They followed this up with a performance which really made people sit up and take notice. They travelled to Portman Road to take on an Ipswich Town side who were early leaders. Swindon scored first in another move which began with Hoddle. Fitzroy Simpson was involved as Shearer hit the post, but White was there to bundle it over the line. They rather gave away the lead as a poor goal-kick from Fraser Digby in the visitors’ goal fed straight to Chris Kiwomya. He fought off a challenge to slip the ball in for the equaliser.
Swindon were back in front just before the break. Hoddle played a delightful chip into the area. Shearer was again unlucky to hit the woodwork before Colin Calderwood eventually found the net. In the second half, Shaun Taylor scored his first for his new club, heading in a free-kick from the right. Then towards the end, a powerful run from Simpson ended with him slipping Hazard in, and the former Spurs and Chelsea man completed a 4-1 win.
They were third in September, fourth in October and then after a goalless draw at Charlton Athletic, who were playing their home games at Upton Park, they were top. It was the first match since the opening day where they failed to find the net. But then what followed seemed typical of the club at this stage. They immediately lost at Southend, lost the lead in the table and then struggled in front of goal too.
By the end of February they were still in the play-off places, but only just. Four successive defeats at the beginning of March saw them slip to tenth and dreams of promotion looked to be fading fast.
Then the board basically confirmed their belief promotion wasn’t an option. Duncan Shearer was on fire with 20 goals in the league. Blackburn Rovers were top of the Second Division with Kenny Dalglish in charge. Owner Jack Walker had money, Swindon did not. Blackburn put in an £800,000 bid and Shearer was off to Ewood Park. At this point, only one team had scored more in the league than Swindon: Blackburn. After Shearer’s departure, Swindon managed just seven goals in their final nine matches. They finished eighth but five points away from the play-offs. The season had promised much but ultimately ended short.
Next season would be different
For their assault on promotion, Hoddle made some important signings ready for the 1992-93 season. Striker Craig Maskell was signed from Reading for £250,000. Kevin Horlock was captured on a free transfer from West Ham to stiffen up the midfield.
This was the first season of the newly named Premier League. With the extra money in the game, many of the Second Division (not yet named Championship) teams were desperate to get a piece of it.
The season kicked off for The Robins at home to Sunderland. Sunderland were only five points from the drop the previous season, despite reaching the FA Cup Final. Over 11,000 watched Glenn Hoddle score the only goal of the game.
Four days later they made the short trip to Bristol to take on Rovers. Goals from Taylor, Mitchell and Bodin gave them a 3-1 lead at the break. They eventually won 4-3 to continue their good start.
A draw at Wolves was followed by the first meeting with one of last season’s play-off sides. Cambridge United visited the County Ground. Maskell had opened his account for his new club at Molineux and followed this up with a hat-trick in a 4-1 victory.
Four games into the season and Swindon were once again well placed near the top of the table. Second only to Charlton Athletic.
September was a dreadful month. Four games, two defeats and no wins. When they lost 0-2 at Charlton they were down in ninth, a full 12 points behind leaders Newcastle United, managed by Kevin Keegan.
Then all of a sudden things changed for the better. They went to Torquay in the League Cup and won 6-0, and then Craig Maskell scored the only goal of the game to beat Grimsby in the league and the drought ended. One win became five in six. By the end of October they were second to Newcastle with Maskell repaying his manager’s faith in him with 11 goals.
Then after the hope of October, November returned to the form of September. One win in five. They earned a goalless draw up at St. James’s Park, but failure to beat Bristol City or Peterborough saw them back to fourth. Things weren’t desperate as they were only a point behind second-placed Tranmere Rovers.
They had just two matches in December, and lost them both 2-4 to play-off rivals Derby County and Leicester City. No matches over Christmas meant they ended the year down in 10th, two points off a play-off place with two games in hand.
1993 would be an important year for the club
A measure of how serious Hoddle was taking this season was he’d started every game so far. His first absence didn’t occur till mid-January, in a draw at home to Charlton. The end of January saw them up against Wolves in a crucial match at The County Ground. Paul Bodin scored the only goal in a 1-0 win. It would be one of four successive matches the left-back found the net. Swindon now moved above Wolves into eighth. Between Leicester in sixth and Grimsby in tenth, five clubs were separated by two points.
During January they were knocked out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle. QPR won 3-0 at Loftus Road with Les Ferdinand scoring twice. Hoddle had scored the only goal of the game against QPR to lift the cup for Spurs back in 1982, this was their payback. A further setback came in the last game of the month when one of their most influential players of the past two seasons, Micky Hazard, picked up an injury. He wouldn’t re-appear for another two months.
Able to completely focus on the league they marched into February with a real purpose.
Five matches and four clean sheets, they were becoming tight at the back. Fifth placed Tranmere arrived at the County Ground and were dispatched 2-0 with both goals coming from David Mitchell. Four days later fourth-placed Portsmouth turned up and Bodin scored again in a 1-0 win.
Swindon were now up to fourth, still with a game in hand on those around them. There was a third of the season to go and they were well placed this time.
Newcastle were top with four points clear of West Ham, and those two were well ahead of the rest. Millwall and Swindon were locked on 53 points, seven behind West Ham. Portsmouth were then two points back with Tranmere and Grimsby together five points behind Swindon. The chasing pack were a further four points in arrears.
March was going to be critical, with seven matches to negotiate.
A Steve White hat-trick saw them thump mid-table Watford, 4-0. White scored again in a disappointing draw at relegation-threatened Southend. Swindon were now joined on 57 points by Millwall and Portsmouth. Mid-March would see the arrival of leaders, Newcastle United.
Newcastle were unbeaten in their last five and beaten only once in their previous eleven. Keegan had assembled the makings of a squad which would challenge for the Premier League within a few years: Srnicek, Venison, Beresford, Lee, Bracewell, Howey and Clark.
In front of the second-biggest crowd of the season at the County Ground, Swindon had the better of the first half. But just before the break, David Kelly put the visitors in front volleying past Fraser Digby.
Five minutes into the second period and Swindon were level. Steve White was brought down in the area and Paul Bodin converted the spot-kick. Just four minutes later and the home side were in front. A scramble in the area from a corner saw Colin Calderwood turn the ball in at the near post. Swindon were good value for their 2-1 win.
Swindon’s game in hand ended with a goalless draw at Luton Town. They were now in third, a point above Millwall and Portsmouth, and six ahead of the seventh place.
Their six-match unbeaten run came to an end at Derby County. March ended with two matches against sides in the bottom six. Four points was probably a disappointing return but they were still fourth. Portsmouth had now bridged the gap to West Ham in second. Swindon, Millwall and Leicester were now separated by a solitary point. The gap from the play-off places was now six points and surely it was just a matter of keeping their form?
They began April with a comfortable win over Peterborough, but then defeat came during the trip to Tranmere. Things were now really heating up at the top. Swindon were still fourth and five points off an automatic promotion spot, but they were still looking over their shoulder with Tranmere now closing the gap to the play-off places.
Some good news for the final six matches was that Hazard was now fit again. When Luton arrived Hazard was in the starting line-up for the first time for 15 games. Paul Bodin scored his tenth of the season in a 1-0 win.
Millwall and Tranmere drew and so Swindon were now six points above a non-play off place. Portsmouth beat Bristol Rovers to move above West Ham into an automatic promotion spot. Swindon were still five points away from that.
Two days later they travelled to Birmingham City, who were just three points above the drop. Nobody was ready for what transpired.
25 minutes in and the home side took the lead through Dean Peer. Four minutes later the previously miserly defence was breached again when John Frain doubled the lead. Just before half-time Shaun Taylor headed one back for the visitors, who still had plenty of work to do.
Whatever Hoddle said at half-time appeared to have the opposite effect as the home side came storming out. Paul Moulden restored the two-goal advantage and then Andy Saville fired a fourth from outside the area.
1-4 down- what had happened to their defence? They conceded four goals in back-to-back matches just before Christmas. In their next 18 matches there were just three occasions where they conceded as many as two goals in a game. A week earlier Tranmere had scored three and now Birmingham had done one better. Was the pressure beginning to tell?
Well if it was, their response was impressive.
Micky Hazard was making his first start since end of January and Craig Maskell just his third during that time. The pair combined to reduce the arrears to two, 2-4. Midway through the half, Dave Mitchell pounced after the Birmingham keeper, Gosney, parried a cross and it was now 3-4.
Ten minutes later and Mitchell equalised with his second of the game. Remarkably Swindon had pulled back level and there were still 15 minutes to go. 4-4. A corner from the left found Maskell at the far post and he looped his header, unchallenged, over Gosney and now Swindon had the lead for the first time in the match, 5-4.
Then in the closing minutes Mitchell was clear of the defence and rounded the keeper to complete his hat-trick. From the despair of being 1-4 down, Swindon had pulled off an unbelievable 6-4 win.
With Leicester losing to West Ham and Millwall not playing, Swindon were sitting comfortably in fourth and now 7 points ahead of Millwall who were seventh. Four games to go.
Leicester then beat Millwall, before turning up at the County Ground for a crunch game. Swindon’s home form was very good, with eight straight wins. But it was the visitors who went in front when Steve Walsh headed powerfully home in the first half. Craig Maskell had a goal ruled out soon after and it wasn’t until the second half that the home side got back into it. Nicky Summerbee floated a ball into the area and Shaun Taylor controlled the ball on his chest before beating Kevin Poole at his near post.
The game ended 1-1. Millwall lost their second successive game and third in their last four so Swindon extended their lead over the seventh-place team to eight points, with three games to go.
Next up was a trip to Notts County who were just a point above the drop zone. A win would make the play-offs a certainty for Swindon but they went behind thanks to a lovely goal from David Reeves. It was his first for his new club following his move from Bolton. Swindon soon hit back with a bit of Hoddle magic. Bringing the ball out of defence, the player-manager spotted Mitchell’s run and he played a ball over the defence. County defender, Walker, tried to head the ball back to his keeper but Mitchell got there and was pulled back in the area. The referee pointed to the spot and promptly sent Walker off. Bodin converted his fourth penalty of the season to take him to 11 league goals for the season. Not bad for a left-back.
Leicester lost at Peterborough and Tranmere couldn’t beat Birmingham. Millwall finally ended their losing run with a win over Charlton. Portsmouth beat Wolves to register their fifth straight win and their 11th in their last 12. Newcastle hit the top of the table in the second week of September and had held it since- now they were under threat. A day later they beat Sunderland to go back on top. West Ham were third, three points behind Pompey. Swindon were six points behind the Hammers and couldn’t now get into an automatic promotion place. But the play-offs looked assured with a six point lead over Millwall in seventh and only two matches left to play.
Third-placed West Ham arrived at the County Ground with both sides keen for the points. The Hammers still had a mathematical chance of the title but realistically were chasing the second automatic promotion spot. The day before, Millwall lost at Wolves and so a play-off place was confirmed for Swindon. Portsmouth suffered a shock 1-4 defeat to Sunderland and this gave West Ham hope of second place.
Trevor Morley scored his 20th of the season to give the Hammers a first half lead. In the second half, Julian Dicks lead a counter-attack before slipping in Clive Allen who made it 2-0. Then Hoddle and Hazard combined to give Marwood a shot which Miklosko let slip through his hands. Hazard then ran round him to put the ball into the empty net for a goal back.
West Ham won it in the end when Dicks again came forward and crossed to Kenny Brown at the far post, unmarked, and he fired them into a 3-1 win. The defeat didn’t matter in terms of a play-off place, but it could have had a bearing on who they would meet.
Two days later Newcastle were crowned champions when they beat Grimsby. On the same night, Tranmere beat Sunderland to move above Swindon into fourth. The two would meet in the play-offs unless Leicester could get a better result on the final day.
Mitchell and Bodin sat out the trip to Barnsley on the final day. Swindon clearly had their minds on other things as a Gareth Williams goal proved the only one of the game and Swindon had lost two consecutive matches for the first time since before Christmas. They’d failed to win any of their last four matches but at least they were into the play-offs at last.
Tranmere drew at Peterborough to cement their fourth place. Swindon finished fifth as Leicester City suffered a stunning defeat up at Newcastle. Hat-tricks from Andy Cole and David Kelly gave the home side a thumping 7-1 win. Both West Ham and Portsmouth won but the Hammers had the better goal difference so Pompey were into the play-offs.
We had our playoff teams: Portsmouth v Leicester City and Tranmere Rovers v Swindon Town.
Join us in the next instalment when we look at the play-offs and see if Swindon can hit the big time.