‘You could see a change’: how Swindon bounced back to target Manchester City upset

The mere thought of Pep Guardiola and his Manchester City analysts sifting through footage of Swindon’s recent demolition of Northampton to prepare for an FA Cup third-round tie would have felt rather far-fetched when, in the midst of pre-season, the League Two club had only a handful of contracted players. To say they were operating on skeleton staff would be generous but these days the picture is markedly different and Swindon, too, will have done their homework when the teams meet on Friday. “I usually really enjoy watching them play … not so much this week,” grins their head coach, Ben Garner.

When Garner was appointed two weeks before the season, there were only six available first-team players. Pre-season was repeatedly pushed back and so haphazard that no player had completed a full 90 minutes by the time they visited Scunthorpe on the opening day, a game that kicked off a new era. A takeover by the Australian businessman Clem Morfuni, who appointed Garner, has breathed life back into the Wiltshire club. Before then, it was doom and gloom.

“The talk was: ‘Is the club even going to survive?’” says the midfielder Jack Payne. “Relegation is usually seen as the bottom and then things get better but things just carried on getting worse. There was a lot of negativity around the club, and you hear all of that, so for it to turn around as quickly as it has and now for there to be so much positivity is amazing.”

For fans, a date with the Premier League champions promises to be an occasion to savour at a sold-out County Ground, after a testing couple of years. In July Swindon were rudderless: without a manager, chief executive, shirt sponsor or strength and conditioning coach. The remaining staff and players were awaiting outstanding wages. The goalkeeping coach, Steve Mildenhall, was in effect the last man standing and lumbered with sorting everything from sports science to logistics, assisted by the academy coach Lee Peacock, while the defender Mathieu Baudry helped organise training. Youth players and trialists made up the numbers.

“The club was in a real mess and a lot of the players were sat at home thinking: ‘Will I be coming back in? Will I have to look for another club?’” says Ellis Iandolo, Swindon’s longest-serving player. “It was tough but once we found out about the takeover happening it was a matter of weeks before you could see a real change around the place. Training became exciting; you came in every day excited to see the new signings we were bringing in.”

One of Morfuni’s first decisions was to appoint Rob Angus, former deputy chair of the club’s supporter trust, as chief executive. Angus juggled his role as a performance director at Nationwide for the first five weeks with getting a dozen new players, including the Wales winger Jonny Williams. There are still problems – they are contesting a winding-up petition and remain under an embargo that limits them to free transfers – but they are fifth in the league and primed to challenge for promotion. “We want to do well [against City], but I’d love to get three points at Mansfield on Tuesday night, which for me is a bigger game,” Garner says.

If Swindon find themselves searching for evidence that City are fallible – the runaway Premier League leaders have won their past six games by an aggregate score of 21-4 – they need not look too far for inspiration. Swindon beat City in the Cup in 1910 and 1964, though Swindon’s heaviest defeat also came against City in this competition: 10-1 in 1930. “We’re certainly not going out there just trying to keep the score down,” Garner says. “We want to go out there and win the game and, as difficult as it may be, it’s not impossible.”

Garner insists there are chinks in City’s armour but stresses his side must show courage to have any chance of an upset. “When we get the ball we need to make sure we are brave and not turning down forward passes,” says Iandolo. They can take comfort from the fright Cheltenham gave City in the fourth round last season when the former Swindon defender Ben Tozer’s long throw unsettled Guardiola’s side. Not that Garner is planning to unsettle City with such direct tactics. “It’s against what the game should be about,” he says. “I’m a purist. Slowing the game down, loading the ball up, and throwing it in the box are not things we will do. We are not going to change for one game, regardless of whom we are playing.”

This week Garner suggested his skilful players make easy targets and need greater protection from referees, a gripe his City counterpart has previously voiced. It would have been easy to envisage him and Guardiola getting on swimmingly had they had the chance to share a post-match tipple, but Guardiola will miss the trip after testing positive for Covid, with Rodolfo Borrell taking charge. Swindon will not be rolling out the red carpet in any case. “If you start doing things for different managers, I think you’re being disrespectful to other managers within the game,” he says. “We’ll have the same post-match food and drinks as after every game.”