Swindon Town only came into the Football League in 1920. Their highest league finish was in 1970 when they finished fifth in Division Two. They had never played in English football’s top division. But progress during the ’80s looked like the wait would be over. Success in the Second Division Play-off against Sunderland at Wembley in 1990, confirmed it. Yes? Er, no.

Instead of promotion to the top table of English football they were thrown back two divisions and told to try again. Why? Well, read on.

Brian Hillier

Our first character is Brian Hillier. A local businessman he’d been a lifelong Swindon Town supporter. In 1984 he was elected Chairman. At the time they were languishing in the Fourth Division (now League Two). They were relegated there for the first time in 1982. Hillier had plans to bring the good old days back to the County Ground.

Swindon’s finest moment was their League Cup triumph over Arsenal in 1969. As a Second Division side, they beat an Arsenal side who, twelve months later, would win the League and FA Cup Double.

But the early eighties had seen them slip down the ladder and Hillier was desperate to change direction. The club needed money. They’d ended the season before in 17th in the Fourth Division or 85th out of 92 football league clubs. At the beginning of the season insurance firm, Lowndes Lambert offered to sponsor the club. However, this was on one condition. The club needed to appoint a big-name manager.

At the time they were managed by Ken Beamish a former player who’d spent his career around the lower leagues. He’d replaced club legend John Trollope. But still, these were names mainly known to those in and around the lower reaches of English football. Swindon needed a name.

They appointed former Manchester United and Celtic striker, Lou Macari. Macari had been in the same Celtic team with Kenny Dalglish, then moved to Manchester United during a time which saw the club relegated to the Second Division. They bounced straight back and he was part of the side which won the FA Cup in 1977. He was in the Scotland squad for the 1978 World Cup. The board said, “we didn’t interview him, he interviewed us”.

Swindon offered him the job and they now had their name.

Macari came in as player-manager and brought with him former Manchester United goalkeeper, Harry Gregg. Initially, the results were mixed. They had a thin squad and had won as many matches as they’d lost when the FA Cup came around. In the First Round, they were up against non-league Dagenham. A goalless draw away from home meant bringing the part-timers back to the County Ground. But Swindon were dumped out of the cup in a 1-2 defeat. Macari needed to make changes.

They finished the season in seventh, a vast improvement on the previous term but still meant competing in a division they didn’t want to be in.

The following season started badly with five defeats in their first nine. Macari dropped himself and the results changed. They lost just three more all season. He moved Charlie Henry from a full-back to an attacking midfielder. It worked as he topped the goalscoring charts with 18. Another apprentice, Colin Gordon hit 17. Chris Kamara came in for his second spell at the club. Along with Dave Bamber, they added some much-needed experience. They ended the season 21 games unbeaten and stormed to the title with a record 102 points. Chester City were a huge 18 points back in second.

Macari made two important captures for the 1986-87 season. Goalkeeper Fraser Digby was signed on a free from Manchester United. Former Luton and Charlton striker, Steve White was signed from Bristol Rovers. Only three sides conceded fewer goals than Swindon and only two scored more. Swindon finished third and earned a play-off place.

The play-offs were a new introduction. After the two automatic promotion places, the next three went into the play-offs along with the side which finished third from bottom in the Second Division. In this case, it was Sunderland. There was also no Wembley final, each tie was over two legs with replays if the scores were level.

Swindon were up against Wigan Athletic and 0-2 down at half-time in the first leg. But goals from Dave Bamber, Jimmy Quinn and Peter Coyne completed a great comeback. The second leg was a goalless draw and Swindon were into the Final to take on Gillingham.

They lost the first leg 0-1 and were down by the same margin at half-time in the second leg. But once again they had the resolve to fight back as Coyne and Henry scored to give them the win. This meant a replay at Selhurst Park. Steve White showed the value of his acquisition with goals in either half.

Back-to-back promotions now meant they were up to the second tier. Heady times.

Second Division Football

Twelfth place in the Second Division was a very good performance, but better was to come. In 1988-89 they finished sixth, their highest ever league finish. This meant a play-off place. Unfortunately, they fell at the first hurdle against Crystal Palace. A 1-0 home win was wiped out at Selhurst Park as the home side won 2-0.

During the season there were worrying signs for Swindon fans as Macari appeared to lose interest in his job. His new assistant, former player Chic Bates, was often left in charge of matchday affairs with Macari off scouting players. His stock was high, attracting attention of bigger clubs.

Chelsea approached him to be their assistant manager and rumours were rife he’d accepted. But then shortly before the new season began he accepted an offer from West Ham United.

Swindon then used the same blueprint to choose his successor. A successful player who wanted his first stab at management. They plumped for former Tottenham and Argentinian World Cup winner, Ossie Ardiles. Immediately, he set about changing the style. There was a lot of ‘route one’ football about but Ardiles favoured a more ‘samba style’. He implemented a new diamond formation and this provided some great attacking football.

It worked too. Ten months later they were back in the play-offs. They finished fourth and were up against Blackburn Rovers in the Semi-Finals. 2-1 wins in both matches saw them progress to meet Sunderland in the Final. For the first time, the Play-off Final was a single tie.

In front of just under 73,000, Swindon took to the Wembley pitch against Sunderland. The Sunderland team contained Paul Bracewell, who’d won the League with Everton and Eric Gates, part of Bobby Robson’s excellent Ipswich Town side of the late 70’s/early ’80s. The game swung on a shot from Alan McLoughlin which was deflected in by Gary Bennett.

Swindon had done it. They were into the big time for the first time ever.

It looked as though they’d mirrored the achievements of clubs such as Watford, Wimbledon and Swansea in going all through the divisions to the promised land.

Nothing could go wrong now. Or so it seemed.

Trouble behind the scenes

For all their success on the pitch all was not well behind the scenes.

Even as early as his first season in charge there was controversy involving Macari. His style was very much based on getting the ball forward quickly with strength and fitness being important components. Incredibly his staunchest critic was his assistant, Harry Gregg. Things came to a head in April 1995 when it was so clear the two were not getting on. Amazingly the board decided to sack them both on Good Friday. Fans were so incensed they protested outside the ground. Four days later Macari was reinstated.

That was mild compared to what followed. At the start of the 1989-90 season, a tabloid newspaper ran a story claiming Chairman Hillier had made a bet on his side winning the Third Division title in 1986-87. Such a bet was against FA rules. Hillier claimed it was ‘an insurance policy to play for player bonuses had they won the title’. They finished third.

A few months later there was another story claiming Hillier had bet £6,500 on Swindon to lose an FA Cup tie against Newcastle United in January 1988. They lost 0-5.

To bet on your own club winning a title is one thing, to bet on your own club to lose is a much more serious matter.

In January 1990 the FA punished both Hillier and Macari over the Newcastle bet. £4,000 was won from the bet, and the FA found them both guilty. Hillier received a six-month suspension from football. Macari was fined £1,000 and Swindon Town were given a £7,500 fine. Both men appealed their sentences. Hillier’s was unsuccessful and The FA increased his suspension to three years. Macari’s fine was upheld on appeal.

Hillier was becoming obsessive and controlling. A week after the fine, Hillier sacked club secretary Dave King. King was suspended the week before and told if he spoke to the press he would be sacked. He did and so he was.

Unfortunately for both Chairman and club, the stories did not stop coming. In January 1990 the most damning accusation arrived when it was claimed Swindon were making widespread illegal payments to players. This time it wasn’t just The FA and Football League whose ears were pricked. The Inland Revenue got involved and arrests were made.

In April 1990 Hillier heard his appeal against his suspension had failed. Club director, Gary Herbert was then brought in as new club Chairman. There were concerns around the club they could face a points deduction or even relegation if the FA found them guilty of the accusations.

A hearing to decide the club’s fate was scheduled for 4th May 1990 but was postponed till after the play-offs. The club was charged with 36 breaches of Football League regulations, 35 of which related to the payments made to players between 1985 and 1989. Cash from gate receipts, programme sales and sponsorship had been used for signing-on fees and topping-up players’ wages without the formality of declaring the payments to the football authorities or the Inland Revenue. The club were alleged to have manipulated attendance figures to pocket the cash. They were also accused of under-declaring players’ wages in the transfer market so they could benefit.

After Swindon beat Sunderland at Wembley on 28th May, Swindon officials and legal team made their way to the Football League hearing on 7th June. Swindon pleaded guilty to all 36 charges against them a further 20. The league decided the club would be denied promotion to the First Division and instead be demoted to the Third Division. They, therefore, decided Sunderland would be promoted in their place, as they’d been losing Play-off Finalists. Newcastle weren’t particularly happy with this.

They’d finished third in the Second Division, six points clear of Swindon, Blackburn and Sunderland. Another club who were aggrieved were Sheffield Wednesday. They were relegated from the First Division and felt they should be allowed to remain, seeing as the extra promotion spot had gone to a team which had been tarnished and found guilty of fraud. But the decision stood. Dropping two divisions meant there was a free place in the Second Division. Tranmere Rovers, losing finalists in Third Division Play-off, were to move up a division.

Swindon then launched a High Court appeal against the double demotion. They claimed it was unprecedented, “harsh, oppressive and disproportionate to previous penalties”. However, within days they dropped this action and instead appeal directly to The FA.

On 2nd July the FA Appeal Panel sat and agreed the punishment should be reduced. Swindon were to drop just one division, so Tranmere stayed where they were. Effectively Swindon would play again in the Second Division for the following season.

This was devastating for the players and the supporters who would’ve been unaware of the dodgy dealings. Third Division football would’ve be bad enough, but missing out on First Division razzmatazz was a real killer blow.

Court Case

30th July 1992 at Winchester Crown Court, Hillier and former part-time accountant, Vince Farrar were sentenced for their part in the shenanigans. Hillier was jailed for 12 months for his part in the tax fraud to make secret payments to players. Farrar was given a six-month jail sentence, suspended for 12 months.

During the five-week trial, 20 players gave evidence in return for immunity from prosecution. The players, including Chris Kamara, admitted to receiving irregular payments for various reasons. Overall the fraud was a total of £100,000. By the time of the sentences, the club had already paid the money back.

Lou Macari was cleared of his alleged part in the fiddle. By then he’d left West Ham for Stoke City. He always maintained he knew nothing of any illegal payments, despite some witnesses giving evidence to the contrary.

The Independent reported;

“Judge Ian Starforth-Hill told Hillier he was convicted on the most overwhelming evidence. It was clear he had put into practice a scheme to pay substantial sums of cash to players without the knowledge of the Football League and to avoid tax.”

Hillier had maintained what he had done was being carried out throughout the country, but the Judge was unmoved stating it was time someone did something about it.

Farrar had played a minor role as part-time bookkeeper. He was not a qualified accountant, which would seem odd as to why a football club would employ him. But then maybe that was the point.

The Judge said he appreciated once Farrar became aware of the illegal activities it would be difficult for him to give up his job. There was no such thing as whistle-blowing legislation back then so he wouldn’t be certain of any favourable treatment had he blown the lid on the whole thing.

At the time this was the most stringent punishment imposed by the FA and reverberations were felt throughout the football world. There was a huge debate about how widespread the practice was amongst other clubs.

Meanwhile, Swindon Town fans were left feeling the effects of their club being made an example of. In time, it is hard to find many clubs who have been punished for following the same procedures as Swindon. So either they stopped, or they weren’t carrying on as Hillier would have us believe.

What happened next?

For many clubs, the punishment they suffered would’ve put them back years. It may have meant freefall. For a while, it seemed as if this would be the case, but then they turned things round. After their appeal Swindon were to play again in League Division Two for the 1990-91 season. But Ardiles was instructed to sell players to balance the books. Their form deserted them and by February as relegation-threatened they were without a manager. Ardiles was offered the Newcastle United job and he couldn’t turn it down.

Ardiles’ former Tottenham teammate, Tony Galvin had been his assistant and he took over for one match before following Ossie to Tyneside. Swindon then kept things very ‘Spursy’ and plumped for Glenn Hoddle.

As with Macari and Ardiles before him, this was Hoddle’s first managerial appointment. He had just eight games to keep them up, and he did, albeit on goal difference alone. Leicester City were the side to lose out, dropping to the third tier. Swindon beat them 5-2 in their third to last match of the season and in the end this staved off the drop.

The 1991-92 season saw improvements really take shape. They finished eighth, five points off a play-off spot. This was the springboard they needed as 1992-93 saw them compete for promotion. As Kevin Keegan guided Newcastle United to the title in the second tier, Hoddle was doing similar work with Swindon. They finished fifth which meant the play-offs once again.

They were up against Tranmere, the club who thought they might be replacing Swindon in Division Two after the FA punishment. They eased past them to earn a Wembley meeting with Leicester City, the club who’d lost out to Swindon in the relegation battle two years earlier. Hoddle put Swindon in front just before the break. Craig Maskell doubled the lead early in the second period before Shaun Taylor made it 3-0 soon after. But Brian Little’s side hit back and with 20 minutes to go were level. With just six minutes to go Paul Bodin converted a penalty and Swindon had won.

This time there was no court case, no FA sanctions. Swindon Town were into the Premier League. But the summer wasn’t without shock. Within days of the play-off win Hoddle announced he was taking up the vacant manager’s job at Chelsea. So for their first ever outing in the big time they would be without the talisman who’d been such an influence on them getting there.

Hoddle’s assistant, John Gorman another former Tottenham player, took charge. They had a great time, visited some great grounds but overall the experience was a forgettable one. They conceded a record 100 goals, finishing bottom after winning just five matches.

It could be argued they were better off financially for missing out on promotion in 1991 as the Premier League in 1994 was able to offer them more in the way of prize money than the First Division of 1991.

After a promising start to the following season their form tailed off badly and by November Gorman was sacked. Steve McMahon came in for his first managerial post and was unable to stop the rot as Swindon suffered a second successive relegation. But they bounced straight back up the following season as Champions.

It is a remarkable story of a club who dreamed of the big time, did whatever they thought it would take to get there. Only to be found out they’d pushed the boundaries too far and were knocked back. But they weren’t knocked out and got up, dusted themselves down and came back again. Finally, they achieved their dream, however brief, and can count themselves as one of the clubs who have tasted Premier League football.

They now compete in the fourth tier of English football, still dreaming of a return to the good old days.