For years to come it will be an inevitable pub quiz question: which team won a league title without finishing top?
Swindon Town’s achievement, caused by a global pandemic and the mathematical points-per-game calculations used to settle a League Two season ended by it, will long be remembered for its unique circumstances.
What probably won’t be remembered is that until losing their final match before the suspension of the campaign In March, they had been top of the table for more three months.
Whatever basis it was handed to them on, this was a side fully deserving of their championship title and promotion to League One.
Success for Wellens
Swindon’s brilliant season was a first success for Richie Wellens, in his second managerial job.
He came to the club in November 2018 with a point to prove after his first role saw him thrown straight into the frying pan at Oldham Athletic. Unable to turn their fortunes around as they suffered relegation from League One, he was dismissed at the end of the season, eight months after his appointment.
Wellens’ arrival at the County Ground came in less dire circumstances, with Town opting for a new direction as Phil Brown left the club 15th in League Two. Results picked up slowly but the club still finished just outside the top half.
That made it two seasons without a play-off challenge since coming down from the third tier and the pressure was on Wellens, with a full pre-season for the first time as a manager, to bring them back into contention.
As it turned out expectations were surpassed, with a remarkable run of results from October onwards seeing them spend half of the season occupying top spot – even if a loss to Forest Green Rovers saw them knocked off with a three-month wait to discover if the trophy would be theirs.
Loans make the difference
This was no case of a team spending their way to success; Swindon didn’t spend a penny on transfers last summer.
Defenders Mathieu Baudry, Zeki Fryers and Rob Hunt all arrived on free transfers and went on to become regulars, as did midfielders Jordan Lyden and Lloyd Isgrove, and later right-back Paul Caddis who joined in November.
But most crucial to their success was their astute use of the loan market, the source of five players who would all become crucial parts of the team.
The hunt for a new first-choice goalkeeper saw Steven Benda arrive for the season from Swansea City, and the young German would prove a reliable shot-stopper. Also arriving from the higher divisions was Norwich City’s Diallang Jaiyesimi, and the tricky winger had the best year of his career so far with some spectacular performances.
Anthony Grant was one of League Two’s best midfielders, yet was a loan signing from Shrewsbury Town until the move was made permanent in January. The type of tenacious winner who would improve any team, his impact on almost every game was huge, carrying the team forward while doing so much defensive work as well.
Another shrewd addition from League One was Jerry Yates, who arrived from Rotherham United with limitless energy and desire up front and bagged 13 league goals.
But even Yates was only a foil to their best signing of all. Eoin Doyle’s struggle for consistency has been a mystery for some time but Swindon found the way to get the most out of him; 25 goals in 28 games, to be precise.
The mid-season transfer saga with Bradford City which ended with his original loan move becoming a permanent one was an unnecessary distraction, but they had no choice but to pay for their man after his remarkable performances. His goal tally included scoring in an incredible 11 games in a row between October and December, perhaps the most important being a 90th-minute winner at home to Stevenage that began a seven-match winning run from which they never looked back.
Contributing close to half of Swindon’s goals, it would be fair to say they would not be heading for League One without Doyle.
The partnership between Yates and Doyle up front was pivotal, and its potential made the switch to a 4-4-2 setup almost inevitable. Isgrove, Jaiyesimi, Kaiyne Woolery and Keshi Anderson gave them plenty of quality out wide, while Grant and Michael Doughty provided a balanced base, alongside Lyden when reverting to 4-3-3.
Two of their freebies, Doughty and Fryers, made for a solid central defensive partnership in front of Benda while another, Hunt, was uber-reliable at full-back, playing more than 500 minutes more than any other Robins player. Hunt was equally happy filling in on the right or the left, too, complementing Caddis and Ellis Iandolo.
Their recruitment ahead of the season was hugely impressive and made all the difference, and with key loan players returning and others out of contract, it will need to be so again in what will be a very different transfer market.
However, there is another big cloud hanging over the club at present. Chairman Lee Power’s attempts to sell the club are being frustrated by two stakeholders in the club, an adviser to Gareth Barry and an Australian businessman, who gained an injunction at the High Court preventing any sale without their approval.
Power says that he lacks the funds to keep the club going, and that it will be heading for administration if he cannot sell soon. The disputes at the top over who has what control over the club will only make the coming months even more challenging, and make it more difficult to build on the team’s fine achievement.