My 23 years in professional football was spent mainly at Charlton Athletic (in two spells) and The Football League but sandwiched in between was one very eventful year at Swindon Town FC.
I’ve often been asked if I regret leaving The Football League to join Swindon but I can honestly say I learnt so much that year that held me in good stead for the rest of my football career. Having said that, if you had asked me during the opening few weeks of the 98/99 season if I regretted going to Wiltshire I might well have answered in the affirmative!
The 1998/99 season was extremely challenging. Apart from dealing with the Club’s financial problems, redundancies, dwindling support and a seemingly inherent inertia and resistance to change that permeated throughout the Club and certain sections of the support base, I was also commuting daily to The County Ground from my home in Bexleyheath! The original plan was to move closer to Swindon but my wife Helen and I stopped house hunting due to the uncertainty of the Club’s future and in the almost certain knowledge that my time at Swindon Town would not be a long one.
The problems at the Club had been mounting up for weeks. The fans were getting more and more agitated by how they perceived Chairman Rikki Hunt was running the Club and Steve McMahon’s relationship with the Swindon supporters was strained to say the least, which was sad for me personally as I enjoyed a really good working relationship with Steve.
With a home match coming up against Watford I sensed that things might be coming to a head. Sadly I was right….!
Here’s my diary extract from that time:
Saturday 19th September 1998
I had reasonably good journey back to Swindon after leaving home at 8.00am. I arrived at the ground at about 10.30am and I have to say that I was feeling good about my side of things but not confident at all about the team. The changes that I had instigated this week were having an effect. The procedure for welcoming guests was much better in the hospitality areas and in reception, the new all-area pass system seemed to be working and the sponsors’ arrival and reception was working well. My matchday guests were two associates of mine from my time at The Football League; Dennis Signy, the doyen of football journalism and Stuart Wartalski of Endsleigh Insurance, the former sponsors of The League. However, as it turned out, it was the worst possible match to invite them to!
The team played extremely poorly. Although George Ndah put us into the lead, Watford replied four times to win 4-1 and I have to say that some of our defending was scandalous. The fans had had enough. Their frustration had been building throughout the second half and at the final whistle we had, to my mind, a predictable pitch invasion. The mood of the crowd was getting very ugly and the stewarding was appalling. Another reason for me to take a serious look at a complete re-vamp of the stewarding operation. The crowd were calling for Steve McMahon to be sacked and for Rikki Hunt to go with him. I tried to reason with some fans who were apoplectic with frustration at how bad the situation at the Club was. In the end though, talking had to stop and it was time to ensure the safety of everyone in the lounges. With the stewarding almost non-existent I took control of the situation and got all the pitch-facing doors locked and moved Steve and Rikki into one of the lounges. The stewarding was inept and as there were no police in the stadium, I instructed the Chief Steward to call them in. I then took steps to ensure that the reception area was secure as it was obvious to me that the fans would target that next. I was right. However, we did have time to get the guests away, including Dennis and Stuart, who both wished me ‘all the best’! I felt terrible that these two had had to witness these scenes but there was nothing that I could have done. Apart from an unprofessional response to a thug who screamed in my face and verbally threatened me, I was pleased with the way that I controlled the situation. Although the guy who verbally abused me was completely out of order, it still hurt me because my colleagues and I are ‘working our socks off’ for this club.
The staff were clearly shell-shocked. No one likes to experience things like this and it is terribly upsetting for everyone. After today’s nightmare, the timing of my holiday to Venice on Monday isn’t ideal but there again, in some ways perhaps it is. I am not a quitter but I must admit that I felt angry and I do not need to take this aggressive abuse. However, to counter this, one of the senior partners at one of our sponsors, Wyvern Staff, who knew how tough the day had been for me told me that I was ‘the best thing that has happened to Swindon in ages’. I really could have kissed her.
The demonstrators finally departed at about 6.30pm and I got way at 7.30pm. This was one occasion when I was definitely most pleased to see Swindon in my rear view mirror!.
I got home at 9.45pm; I was drained and emotional and I really didn’t know what would happen now.
The best thing about today was watching Charlton draw 3-3 with Liverpool on Match of the Day. I kept thinking to myself whilst watching the game that somehow I don’t think my friend Peter Varney, the CEO at Charlton had experienced the same sort of day at work that I’d had!
N.B Steve McMahon resigned from his role as manager of Swindon Town four days after the Watford match. I watched the press conference from my hotel in Venice.