What a difference six months can make. Back in July, Swindon Town were in disarray. The place was mired in the fallout from the failed ownership of Lee Power: relegation from League One, only six players on the books, staff not being paid. Many feared the club that once, briefly, featured in the Premier League, was heading in one direction: downwards.
Spin forward to Friday night and they will be facing the Premier League champions in the FA Cup third round while sitting comfortably in the League Two play-off positions. More to the point they have got there playing some of the most eye-catchingly progressive football in the division. And, according to their manager Ben Garner, under the lights at the County Ground they have every chance of pulling off the most unexpected result of this and many a season.
“No one really gives us a chance and understandably so. But within these four walls we’ve got hope, we’ve got optimism,” he says. “In my opinion, every game is winnable. Now some games are obviously more winnable than others. But we’ve got an opportunity to win this game without any shadow of a doubt because if not, we might as well not turn up.”
Last July, when Garner was appointed manager by the new club owner, the Australian plumbing entrepreneur Clem Morfuni, he inherited a mess. With two weeks before the start of the season, he had to assemble a squad at breakneck pace.
“It was certainly busy,” he recalls. “Going into our first league game, not one player had completed 90 minutes in pre-season. It was challenging.”
Though in his path to the job, Garner had grown used to a challenge. After being injured as a young player, he had become a full time coach in his twenties, steering Crystal Palace’s youth sides. Promotion to the first-team staff at Selhurst was followed by a move to West Bromwich Albion and then an ill-starred first foray into management at Bristol Rovers, where he lasted just eleven months. But now, here he is about to face the club whose manager he regards as not only the best coach in the modern game, but the one who has had most influence over his own approach. For him, Pep Guardiola was always the model.
“I had strong values and beliefs when I first started coaching because I had frustrations from when I was a young player,” he says. “I felt there was too much emphasis in this country on size and strength and not enough on technique, intelligence and tactical understanding. His Barcelona team at that time had a really big impact on me. You’ve got the likes of Xavi and Iniesta who physically were far from dominant but had wonderful ability. They were running games and winning everything there is to win at the highest level. It was always said you couldn’t play that way in the Premier League and that it wouldn’t work. Well, he’s come in and proved that it can. For us, we play this way in League Two. I believe we can get promoted playing this way and that’s our aim.”