#25 The Fall Guy; Swindon’s Art Howe


oor old Mark Cooper.  With a one year contract and one of the lowest managerial salaries in the Football League, Lee Power never rated him very highly.  The Swindon fans were always lukewarm.  The players never said anything positive about his coaching/managerial capabilities in stark contrast to First Team Coach, Luke Williams.  Luke Williams has been frequently described as “exceptional” and “innovative” who players are desperate to play under and coveted by Premiership teams; Cooper was described as ….. well no one said anything about Cooper.  The lack of praise, given Swindon’s superb 2014/15 campaign, was odd.

Dismissed after a dismal run culminating in an utterly abject Swindon performance away to Millwall, Cooper has been labelled by some as “the fall guy”.  In many ways the description is spot on.  Cooper’s remit at Swindon was very limited with little say on player recruitment, coaching drills or style of football.  Clearly, Swindon’s problems this season cannot be attributed solely to the incompetence of one individual with arguably the narrowest scope of responsibilities in the Football League. Surely it is unrealistic to expect his dismissal to result in a volte face in Swindon’s playing fortunes?

Yet Power, injury problems aside, believes, without explicitly saying so, that Swindon’s current problems, can be attributed in large part to Cooper.  Power believes that Swindon’s squad once fully fit ought to be mounting a play-off challenge.  He has said that Swindon’s back-to-front passing style - ‘playing through the thirds’ (the current in vogue football phrase) - which took two years to hone and refine, has been marginalised and suppressed over the past two months; the implication being that Cooper sought to rein in the possession based style with a more pragmatic approach, resulting in ineffectual performances that neither impressed in a technical, passing sense nor improved matters defensively. In effect, Cooper was not buying into Power’s and Williams’s playing philosophy.  He had ‘gone rogue’; a bit like Art Howe, coach of the Oakland A’s, in the film Moneyball refusing to select Scott Hatteberg, thereby rebelling against the radical ‘Moneyball’ philosophy of his superior, Billy Beane*.

Cooper never seemed, to me anyway, a fervent believer of possession based football.  Not helped by his uncharismatic, spiky, guarded media persona, he never spoke with any great zeal about it, other than it wore down the opposition, which the principle lower league advocates - Dean Smith, Sean O’Driscoll and Paul Cook - tend to do.  In fact, I felt that Cooper had no strong playing preference and was a more of a pragmatist (as demonstrated by his previous managerial spells) prone to tinkering without a clear vision.  By the end of his tenure he seemed to resent ‘the Swindon way’; saddled with a group of players unsuited to any other playing style.  His relationship with Williams was seemingly broken.

After Cooper’s dismissal I had thought that Luke Williams would assume Cooper’s responsibilities.  Appointing Williams would be logical as there would not be a risk that his day-to-day coaching regimen would not be carried out on match days by another who did not wholeheartedly agree with his playing philosophy.  Yet Williams is seemingly not a candidate.  For all one knows Williams does not want to assume additional managerial responsibilities?  Perhaps Power wants all of Williams’s focus to be on training?  Maybe, perhaps maybe, Power does not want Williams to be the fall guy?

*My friend, Mike, must take the credit for this comparison.

#24 League 1 - Shots Per Game Averages

Dear Mr Westley,

I admire your ‘can do’ approach and your commitment to ‘beautiful’ football.  

Further to your recent letter to Peterborough FC supporters in which you said that you “will be seeking to raise [the] minimum standard to beyond 600 passes per game, leading to 25+ attempts at goal”, I thought that my comments and table below would be helpful.  I hope you don’t view these as yet more criticism from someone without a name or face (though, I do indeed have both). 

There is no absolute correlation between the number of passes and shots per game.  For instance, Swindon Town FC – a team who pass the ball a fair bit – are only 19th in League 1 in shots taken, averaging 9.9 per game.  Conversely, Gilllingham FC with a possession per game average of only 49% are 2nd in League 1 in shots taken per game at 14.1.

Furthermore, Peterborough FC would have to adopt a ‘shoot on sight’ policy to get close to averaging 25+ attempts at goal per game.  As per the table below, Walsall – currently the most fluent, passing football team in League 1 – have the highest number of attempts at goal per game, averaging 14.6.  Blackpool and Crewe have the lowest attempts per game at 8.5. 

Average number of shots per game
Port Vale
Sheff Utd

Regrettably, there is a significantly greater chance of Wigan Athletic FC attaining 100 points this season than Peterborough averaging 25+ attempts at goal per game.

Yours (outside of football),


#23 The Fluency Has Gone


ver the last two seasons Swindon have been one of the most technically assured, fluent teams in League 1.  Swindon fans have been utterly spoilt by the football on offer.

Unfortunately, at present, this is no longer the case with Walsall currently reigning supreme in this regard. Swindon’s possession based style remains, but it is sterile.  Thus far, Swindon have only been fluent in the second half against Bradford and in spells against Port Vale.  They are not outplaying teams as they did in most games last season. 

Admittedly, we are only eight games into the season and the new players will need time to adapt to Swindon’s demanding playing style, and in the case of Louis Thompson, Ojamaa and Ajose they are lacking match fitness.  Any criticism of the team and management should therefore wait until we are a further into the campaign (but because I hold myself in high regard I’ll weigh in with mine a little earlier!).

The most obvious explanation for Swindon’s performances (apart from the ‘bedding in’ period) would be that Swindon no longer have the players with the requisite technical quality to reach the performance levels of previous campaigns.  Certainly, losing players of the calibre of Stephens, Luongo, Byrne and Gladwin, and expecting the footballing levels to be unaffected, would be blinkered.  To other non-Swindon supporters this would be the obvious explanation and perhaps offering other explanations is therefore over-complicating matters unnecessarily.  Naturally, this explanation for Swindon’s recent performances is rarely cited by Swindon fans, particularly those with unrealistic expectations.

One criticism amongst Swindon supporters for the current performances, which I think has some weight, is the change in formation from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3.  Mark Cooper seems to think that playing four at the back suits his current group of players and would argue that pundits/commentators attach too much importance to formations in any case (which has merit).  Some would contend that Swindon no longer have the players to play 3-5-2 with no-one in the squad capable of playing as a right-wing back, without Nathan Byrne and the injured Kevin Stewart, except for the green Bradley Barry and possibly Will Randall.

My view is that playing 3-5-2 still suits the current squad in light of the restrictions imposed on team selection by having to play players on loan; the squad imbalances with a surfeit of deep lying central midfielders (Kasim, Traore, Rodgers, Williams (if not at centre back) and Marshall) and number 10s (Robert, Ojamaa and J.Stewart); and four good strikers, but no number 9s. My first XI for Swindon with everyone fit in a 4-3-3 formation from right to left (leaving out K.Stewart while Louis Thompson is on loan) would be: Vigouroux; N.Thompson, Branco, Turnbull, Ormonde-Ottewill; Williams, Kasim, L.Thompson; Robert, Obika/Thomas, Ajose; a line-up which has problems.

Firstly, playing at right-back negates Nathan Thompson’s influence on Swindon.  Last season, as a sweeper, N.Thompson (and Stephens) were pivotal in Swindon’s build up play from the back.  Indeed, in the second half against Bradford, Swindon were so much more assured in possession with a back three of Branco, N.Thompson and Turnbull, which quickly filtered through the side. 

Secondly, Ormonde-Ottewill, who is confident going forward, less so defensively, would be more suited to a left-wing back role. 

Thirdly, given that Swindon are seemingly obliged to play on loan Williams and Turnbull, one of them will be played out of position assuming that Branco and Kasim play (which they should).  As Turnbull is a centre back – lacking the pace to play left back – his inability to overlap and provide the requisite width in the 4-3-3 means that the wide left-sided front player has to offer the width instead thereby isolating the central striker in the front three.  In a 4-3-3 formation the full-backs need to provide the width for the formation to function effectively in an attacking sense.  N.Thompson is capable of doing that, Turnbull isn’t.  Alternatively, playing Williams as the holding midfielder in a 4-3-3 means that Kasim has to play more as a box-to-box midfielder and further up the pitch, negating his strengths.  Similarly, playing Williams to the right of Kasim is problematic as he too is unsuited to the right/left of centre role in the central midfield three.

Fourthly, playing three up front does not suit Swindon’s attacking players.  Robert and Ojamaa are more effective centrally and all of Swindon’s strikers prefer playing in a front two (which probably applies to most strikers, I concede).  Ajose, Hylton and Obika are not particularly effective out wide.  Similarly, neither Obika nor Thomas are natural number 9s.  Given Thomas’s size, superficially, it is easy to bracket him as a number 9, but, as Birmingham fans will tell you, he is not particularly adept at holding the ball up or dropping deep.  He plays ‘on the shoulder’ and, ideally, would prefer to play alongside a target man.

Playing 3-4-1-2 would suit the majority of Swindon’s current crop of players.  I would play from right to left: Vigouroux; Branco, N.Thompson, Turnbull; L.Thompson, Kasim, Williams, Ormonde-Ottewill; Robert/Ojamaa; Obika/Thomas, Ajose/Hylton.  This system would involve playing Louis Thompson as a right-wing back.  Norwich played him at right-back for parts of pre-season and I would be confident that he could play as a right-wing back as he has the requisite qualities: quick, energetic, great at winning back possession and defensively minded.  Clearly, playing him as a wing-back would be a bit of a waste as he is more suited to a central role, but the overall balance of the team would, I feel, be better.

Of course, suggesting that a change in formation is a ‘silver-bullet’ to Swindon’s travails is simplistic. Swindon ought to improve in time – though probably not reaching the technical heights of last season – and the current malaise is not that bad.  Additionally, the 4-3-3 has tightened Swindon up defensively with Swindon generally looking more organised and cohesive off the ball (the Barnsley game aside).  Branco, in particular, has been superb.  There are very few quick, technically assured, good in the air, physically imposing, 6’4”centre-backs in League 1.  Clubs higher up the football pyramid will probably be monitoring him.     

# 22 Spend some fakkin money


osing 0-2 to the most replete side of League 1 boasting a starting XI including Basham, Reed, Adams, Sammon and Sharp, and a second XI that would be very competitive, should not have resulted in much disgruntlement amongst Swindon supporters; but, naturally, it did.  Swindon were not outplayed, although Mark Cooper’s assertion that a 0-0 draw should have been ‘the worst result’ had a whiff of the @DeludedBrendan about it.  Sheffield United largely ‘parked the bus’, which in itself demonstrates the high regard in which Swindon are held by other managers in League 1 (if not Swindon supporters).

Alas, the defeat has focused Swindon supporters’ attention on to the Club’s small squad and the urgent need to ‘strengthen’ before the transfer window closes.  In fact, assuming Nathan Byrne is the only departure, I don’t think that Swindon have a dire need to add to their ranks.  Although the Club has one of the smallest budgets in League 1 (because they are one of the few – perhaps only – clubs in League 1 who don’t lose money), the squad is not desperately small, ameliorated by the versatility of several members.

Vigouroux, Belford, Thompson, Branco, Turnbull, Williams, Ormonde-Ottewill, Barry, Brophy, Kasim, Traore, Rodgers, K.Stewart, Marshall, Randall, Byrne, Robert, J.Stewart, Obika, Hylton, Smith (I haven’t included Storey); that’s 21 players, not a tiny squad. 

Admittedly, there are several green players listed whom, ideally, won’t feature too much this season, but that is the lot of many clubs in Leagues 1 and 2.  Swindon have been unlucky, thus far, on the injury front, unlike last season when they were pretty fortunate.  Conversely, current League 1 leaders Walsall have been largely unaffected, unlike last season when Sam Mantom missed most of the campaign and Tom Bradshaw was out for lengthy spells. Walsall’s results suffered, but the Club ultimately rode it out, knowing that they would not be able to attract superior short-term replacements within budgetary constraints.  Short-term pain for long-term gain.  Mantom and Bradshaw are now fit and flourishing, and so are Walsall (though, clearly, their success is not solely attributed to this). Most League 1 clubs missing four of their first XI through injury are going to suffer; certainly players of Obika’s and Hylton’s ilk.

Swindon will not be able to attract a ready-made replacement for Obika/Hylton given the likely wage demands of players like Ajose.  If Swindon could get Ajose on a short-term loan then fine, but, unless Leeds perform a volte face, this is unlikely.  There is little merit in bringing in another ready-made striker (unless Smith leaves) who will potentially block Obika’s and Hylton’s first team chances.  Swindon is not a big enough club to have Obika and/or Hylton on the bench. 

Many fans think that Lee Power should spend some of the ‘fakkin’ money from the Luongo and Gladwin transfer fees and from the play-off gate receipts.  I don’t, unless he sees fit.

Firstly, Lee Power is entitled to recoup some of the £2.5 - £3 million that he has reportedly invested in/squandered on the club to date.  Just a reminder: the Club was in an incredibly parlous state when he took the reins and severely hindered by the involvement of Mr McCrory: a man of low cunning with probably about £10 in his bank account.  It’s now solvent.  Secondly, some of the transfer proceeds and additional gate receipts/TV money together with the Nigel Eady legacy will contribute towards Swindon’s new training facility: vital if Swindon are to develop and attract young talent.  Thirdly, transfer fees do not need to be incurred to attract talented players: Branco, Traore, Robert, Gladwin and Hylton to name a few.  One wonders if Power had spent £200,000 each on Traore and Robert whether the fans lust for incurring transfer fees would have been satiated.  Fourthly, spending money shortly after a relative windfall is generally ill-advised.  Sitting on cash for long periods is sometimes necessary to avoid squandering it.  Finally, if Power came across a player, whom he admired and would fit into Swindon’s wage structure, I have little doubt that he would spend up to £400,000 (as he did with Luongo). 

Lee Power is one of the few virtuosos in the transfer market and certainly knows more than every Swindon Town fan in this field.  If he makes no further additions before the transfer window closes it will almost certainly be the right decision (which might not necessarily be reflected in results).

#21 The Pre-season Pessimism Seems a Little Silly


espite the severance of the last vestiges of the excesses of the Di Canio era with the departures of high earners Foderingham and Andy Williams, the signing of Jordan Turnbull on a season long loan, recruiting another batch of talented, highly sought after youngsters from Liverpool, and retaining Kasim and Byrne (at least for now), the expectations amongst Swindon supporters and local media outlets on Swindon’s prospects for the forthcoming campaign have been overly negative.

Of course, in part, the pessimism was logical. Swindon lost five outstanding players in Foderingham, Stephens, Luongo, Gladwin and Louis Thompson. The play-off defeat left many supporters wounded, jaded, fed up with the naivety and lack of nous of the precocious Swindon youngsters, preferring pragmatism, experience (even seemingly for its own sake, despite Ricketts’s ineffectual spell) and graft if this ultimately yields ‘results’. Then there was the disappointment of Alfie Mawson opting to sign for Barnsley and the misguided frustration of many at Swindon not rapidly investing the Luongo and Gladwin transfer proceeds by incurring transfer fees on new players. Perhaps, more significantly, the media restrictions imposed by the Club  naturally irking those reporters of local media outlets (and me for that matter), who are influential in calibrating supporters’ pre-season expectations – unduly tainted the local media’s views on matters strictly football related. Indeed, Total Swindon Sport’s Sam Morshead – the most prominent and articulate critic of the Club’s media restrictions – in the most recent podcast of The Washbag (the principal Swindon Town FC blog), particularly peeved, half-jokingly suggested that last season might prove to be a ‘well-orchestrated fluke’. I would certainly disagree with such sentiments, but, ultimately, we shall see.

Swindon’s 4-1 drubbing (and it was an utter drubbing in the second half) of Bradford on the opening day of the season has shifted supporters’ expectations. Swindon’s performance, particularly defensively, was stronger than the last season opener against Scunthorpe in which Scunthorpe missed three or four sitters and Swindon’s defence looked vulnerable to all long, central upfield punts.

Swindon began the match with a 4-3-3 formation with Vigouroux in goal; Nathan Thompson at right back; Branco and Turnbull as centre backs; Ormonde-Ottewill at left back; Jordan Williams as the holding central midfielder with Kasim and Stewart in more advanced positions either side; and a front three (right to left) of Byrne, Hylton and Obika.

Swindon were not that bad in the first half and Bradford were certainly not the dominant side as many reports have suggested. The first Bradford goal was very good and did not stem from bad Swindon defending. In the 4-3-3 formation Swindon looked okay defensively, but the formation was adversely affecting Swindon’s passing and attacking play. Swindon were playing in straight lines and Kasim could not influence the game in an advanced midfield role. Kasim’s the ‘Iraqi Pirlo’ and, accordingly, needs to be played in a deep central midfield to dictate matters. Swindon’s build-up play from the back was conservative with Vigouroux often punting the ball long because of a paucity of passing options. This was completely different after the break with Nathan Thompson playing as sweeper and Kasim in the deep lying central midfield role.

After the break, Swindon played what some have labelled a 3-5-2 formation, which is a simplification. In fact, it was a fluid 3-2-3-1-1 formation with a back three of Branco, Thompson, Turnbull; Williams and Kasim sitting in front with Stewart in a more advanced central position; Ormonde-Ottewill and Robert (who came on for Hylton ten minutes into the game) pushed up on the flanks; and Byrne playing in a free, ‘number 10’ type role with Obika as the ‘number 9’.

The change in formation coincided with Swindon pressing Bradford high up the pitch and winning back possession rapidly, often in advanced areas. Bradford did not have any significant spells of possession in the second half and after about 75 minutes were spent physically. 

The negative of the match from Swindon’s perspective was the injury to Jermaine Hylton suffering a suspected fractured collarbone, which will probably result in a two month absence. A blow for the Club given his talent and the lack of options up front. Swindon will sign another striker before the transfer window closes.

A brief word on each Swindon player:

Vigouroux: A very impressive debut. He has presence, calmness and good distribution. His distribution is not as good as Foderingham’s yet, but I think it might well be after 10 to 15 games. There could be a few howlers in the interim. I was concerned how Swindon would cope without Foderingham; I’m not any more.

Rossi-Branco: Always plays well against Bradford and once again shackled James Hanson, who was reduced to an unathletic, bedraggled, sweaty mess by the game’s end (I’m very glad that Swindon’s game does not revolve around a 6’4”front man). Branco is underrated by most Swindon fans with many unduly prejudiced by the much publicised grappling with Aden Flint. His ability on the ball has improved vastly and he deserves more starting opportunities (although Swindon’s loan arrangement with Liverpool will mean that Jordan Williams will be given preference ahead of Branco if Williams is moved to centre back).

Thompson: Looked okay at right back, but very impressive as sweeper. With Kasim he dictated Swindon’s build-up play in the second half and played with great authority. His talents are wasted at right back where he becomes peripheral.

Turnbull: Excellent, as always.
Kasim: Needs a team to be built around him which probably explains the relative lack of interest from clubs higher up the football pyramid. As a deep lying creative midfielder he is outstanding. He dictated Swindon’s rhythm and tempo with Thompson in the second half.

Williams: Incredibly big for a 19 year old and a good tackler. He was assured in possession, but dwelt on the ball for too long at times. He looked a little uncomfortable when receiving the ball in tight situations at the back. He will improve rapidly as he adjusts to the pace of first team, competitive football. I expect him to blossom at Swindon. His lack of pace means that he is suited to the centre. He will probably be used as a centre back and central midfielder this season like Jack Stephens.

Robert: Good on the ball and creates space for others, but was largely peripheral. He will not offer much defensively. He was the least impressive of the new Swindon signings and I’m glad that the Club only offered him a one year deal. His best position is as a number 10 as he doesn’t have much pace. I’ll give him ten games before I make a definitive judgement.
Stewart: I was very impressed. Very athletic and physically stronger than I was expecting. A much needed replacement for Louis Thompson, offering athleticism and dynamism in midfield and protection on the counter-attack. Like all Swindon signings he is technically proficient. Already, he is one of Swindon’s most important players.

Ormonde-Ottewill: Looked more comfortable in the second half in a more advanced role. Technically assured, quick, with a cultured left foot. A good signing.

Byrne: magnificent in the free role. I think Cooper would have liked to have played him in this role more last season were it not for the plethora of attacking central midfielders Swindon had last season. Unfortunately, he did a little too well and will probably be sold before the end of the transfer window.

Obika: Linked up play well and is vital to Swindon’s prospects this season as the only number 9 type striker with the seemingly impending departure of Michael Smith. His first touch for his goal was exquisite. I think he is of Championship calibre.