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In the strangest of circumstances, Swindon Town are champions of League Two and will be playing in League One next season.
The EFL confirmed on Tuesday that the season is over for both of the bottom two divisions, and that the table is to be decided on a points per game basis. That confirmed Swindon’s place at the top of the table, having been second on goal difference but with a game in hand before football was postponed in March.
Champions, then, but in a slightly surreal way. Manager Richie Wellens wasn’t even able to celebrate properly.
“I need my wisdom tooth out,” he told Sam Parkin on the Totally Football League Show. “So I was ringing round the dentists in Manchester, and the NHS helpline, but no one could get me in. So I didn’t have one drink yesterday, and the only thing I ate was tomato soup. Can you believe it?
“Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we can have a few beers with the staff and more of a steak and chips celebration. We’ll be enjoying the next couple of weeks. We’ve earned it. We deserve it. So I think it’s right that the staff and the chairman have a good drink together and enjoy it because it’s not very often you get a chance to win the league, and then the players can obviously enjoy the next two or three weeks. Then we look forward to next year.”
Inevitably, even though the result was what Swindon wanted, ultimately winning the division like this is slightly unsatisfactory. Covid-19 has denied a lot of people a lot of things, and in the grand scheme of things the final moment of glory for a football team is not among the most important, but it was still a slightly odd feeling for Wellens.
“The best thing about getting promotion or winning the league is that final whistle going. The pressures that you’ve been under to get that and to get over the line, it would’ve brought us together even closer. And it would’ve made me a better manager, seeing how I react to extreme pressure circumstances, because we wouldn’t have played ten games going all swimmingly and winning every single game.
“We would’ve had moments in those games where we would’ve gone behind or not playing so well. So we’ve lost out a little bit. I’ve lost out personally, but it’s the best that’s the best thing that could have happened in this situation, and I think we deserve it.
“We should have won it on the pitch. I have every confidence that if we’d have played on, we would not only got promoted, but we would’ve won the league as well. That’s easy for me to say now. We had a couple of tough months in January and February, we beat all the top teams and then we had seven of the bottom nine to play. So I truly believe that we would have been champions anyway.”
Of course, one of the key factors to their promotion was the form of Eoin Doyle, who scored 25 goals in 28 games, initially on loan from Bradford before he signed permanently in January, after a brief spell back at his parent club.
Doyle looked lost at Bradford, but Wellens was clearly able to get the best from him.
“If Eoin Doyle works hard, he’s not as effective,” says Wellens. “I know it sounds stupid. I don’t want him working hard, I don’t want him running channels, I don’t want him closing full-backs down, I don’t want him dropping in pockets of space. I don’t mind it every now and then, but his game is playing on the outside of centre-backs and about his movement in and around the box.
“Then it’s up to me as a coach to organise our players to get the ball in areas where where he can take advantage of that and do what he does best, which is finishing chances off. When I watched him for Bradford, he was asked to go up for headers and he’s chasing flick-ons from Clayton Donaldson or James Vaughan: that’s just not his game. I think we’ve got the best out of him, but I have to say the players behind him made chance after chance. He finished on 25 and I think if you asked him yourself, he could have easily been sitting on 45.”
Attention is already turning to next season in League Two, augmenting this promotion-winning squad but perhaps more importantly keeping the players that have got them here together as best they can.
“We’ve offered a couple of players new contracts, just because we think we’re around what they’re asking for.
“We were getting Doyle and Anthony Grant for less than 50 percent of what they were on at their parent clubs. When we signed Doyle permanently in January, obviously we had to pay the whole amount, which makes him our highest paid player by a mile. We’re not in a position to offer Eoin anything near that under the current circumstances. If we can get season ticket sales up and running then the situation might change.
“What didn’t want to do is offer players a concert that at the moment we can only offer, and they look at it and say, “you know what? We’re not happy with that.” We don’t wanna take the micky out of them. We just trying to stay patient, and when we can offer them a contract that we think is is right and proper, and when we get a bit of light at the end of the tunnel in terms of finances coming in, my main priority is to try and keep the nucleus of the squad that we had last year.
“I only probably want three or four new signings. The loan players will be difficult because every loan player that we get, they come in and they’re brilliant, so other teams come in and can offer more money. Jerry Yates will be highly sought after. Stephen Benda will play in the Premier League – if he doesn’t go back and play the Swansea in the first team, then I would imagine a club will come sniffing. So they’ll be difficult.”
For now though, they can enjoy their achievement. Hopefully with something a little better than tomato soup, though.
You can here more from Richie on the latest edition of the Totally Football League Show here, to which you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.