WORDS: NICK JUDD
They’ve seen more protests than Swampy, more takeovers than English banks and they haven’t beaten their fiercest rivals since 2001, yet lifelong fan Nick Judd (pictured, below right in specs and scarf) explains why it’s not all bad when you follow the “fifth most stressful club to support in England…”
I’m proud that the football club I support isn’t categorised by how many fans it has in Asia (or around the world), or by how many Twitter followers it has, de rigueur these days.
My club has spent money this summer, but you won’t find players on £150,000 a week or foreign owners injecting amounts that resemble a small nation’s deficit. When we’re discussed as a club in crisis, we really are in trouble. No finishing fifth in the Premier League or losing four consecutive games, here. No, we’ve flirted with closure more times than the characters in Dawson’s Creek , but we always bounce back.
We’re Swindon Town and we reside on the third rung of the football pyramid. We’re a yo-yo club; a bit like West Brom except we switch between the bottom two divisions not the top. It hasn’t always been this way, but most fans under 20 won’t recall Championship matches being ‘the norm’. We have one end without a roof and until recently one of our two main stands was filled with multicoloured seats thrown out by other clubs. However, we’re the only club in the world with a Rolex timepiece behind the goal and we were the first league club to have floodlights (in 1951).
We’ve dismantled Juventus. In Italy. To win a cup (Anglo-Italian). Our greatest achievement, winning the League Cup in 1969, still gives Bob Wilson – and Arsenal fans of a certain age – sleepless nights. Until 2010 we boasted an unbeaten record at Wembley and I can’t imagine there are too many clubs with a trophy resembling a silver bull in the trophy cabinet.
There are 5,000 or so likeminded individuals who gather at our modest shrine each week and watch the team play regardless of division, manager, owners or players. Last season we won the league, so there’ll be nearer 8,000 in 2012/13. That’s the way it is.
Swindon Town were, of course, part of the elite for one season, in 1993/94 but it’s not about playing Manchester United, Liverpool or even winning. Instead, there is something unique and endearing supporting a team that has more bad days than good. Even now, memories of our solitary season in the spotlight are remembered fondly by stoic tales of adversity, such as watching the lads get tonked at Newcastle, Everton and Aston Villa, as much as the five (that’s 5) games we won.
Not surprisingly, Swindon were once deemed the fifth most stressful side to support in the country by theoffside.com. Given that ‘health and industry’ is our motto – Salubritas et Industria – supporting us can be bad for both! The club has been through as many relegations as promotions in my lifetime. On numerous occasions the club has been threatened with liquidation. We’ve seen more protests than Swampy, more takeovers than English banks and we haven’t beaten our rivals, Oxford United, since March 2001.
I don’t know many of the people who share this passion. Maybe 60, more by face. And yet for those you recognise but don’t know there’s an inimitable bond; a recognition that somewhere in the past you shared an unlikely embrace, an embarrassing defeat or a shared disbelief that you’d travelled to some backwater on a wet Tuesday night in January.
So why Swindon? Firstly, like many who travel up from the surrounding areas, I’m not a Swindonian. My dad first took me when I was about 12 when Swindon were in the equivalent of the Championship. Ossie Ardiles, of whom my dad was a fan and who enticed him west, was manager. I often wondered what the World Cup winner thought when he came out of the tunnel to face half a half-closed stand – Shrivvy Road – the result of a fire and structural problems. His tactics were push and run. Exciting. The style was refined by Glenn Hoddle – my hero growing up – from 1991. The club had a unique community feel, perhaps hardened by demotion in 1990.
Hoddle was incredible. He introduced the pre-match cross-field warm-up and made you smile with his ability to find a pass so accurate not even a laser-guided missile could do better. He turned average players into Pele. Only the odd success – promotion in ‘96 and ’07, near promotion in 2004 and Paolo Di Canio’s class of 2012 – have permeated a disappointing sequence since, although things look brighter under an ambitious board and unpredictable Italian.
To outsiders supporting a lower-league team doesn’t make sense. Yet for a few hours on a Saturday nothing compares to being surrounded by likeminded people who have made the same decision, people who share your passion and who understand what it all means. There’s a collective sense of defiance, pride and unwavering loyalty. For some it might be more about spending time with a loved one rather than the football, for others it’s a release from the weekly grind. For all of us there’s the lure that, like last year, Swindon will do something special. Maybe it’s because we don’t know any different.
I’ve spent some of the best sporting experiences of my life in the company of these strangers and thanks to social media I meet more. I recall being hugged by a weeping 30-something at Wembley in 1993. I was 15 and thinking grown men shouldn’t cry. I probably follow him on Twitter now. Seventeen years later, after negotiating a hazardous play-off semi-final at Charlton – thanks largely to two footballers Swindon didn’t own – I wept tears of joy myself, grabbed anyone around me, just as the guy at Wembley had done, and sang songs with people as if we’d been friends for years. Twitter allows me to relive those memories with others who were there.
Last season, under Paolo Di Canio, Swindon won the league title playing the kind of football that hooked me in the first place. It was a rare campaign in which we travelled to games more in expectation than hope (even then there was an underlying feeling that if we did mess it up it wouldn’t be a surprise, because that’s what we do).
It’s seasons like 2011/12 that keep us going, those rare euphoric highs justification for the frustration, boredom, jealousy and disappointment of other seasons.
But I wouldn’t swap them. You pledge your loyalty at an age when you don’t know any different and stick with the hand you’re given. It’s the twists that make it interesting…