Tough times for a hard man

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The Independent Online
Simon O'Hagan

sees Swindon's fate sealed by yesterday's loss to Portsmouth

WHEN Steve McMahon became player-manager of Swindon Town last November, his aim was "to follow Glenn Hoddle and take this club back into the Premiership". Swindon did indeed get out of the First Division yesterday, though not in the direction McMahon had intended, defeat at home to Portsmouth consigning them to relegation for the second season running.

A year ago, the Premiership patted Swindon on the head and said: "Off you go". Everyone agreed that they had played attractive football, and that the rural charm of the little club from Wiltshire had added something to a hard-nosed world dominated by big-city teams. But really, you can't expect to let in 100 goals and still be able to play with the grown-ups.

Nobody is patronising Swindon any longer, and that is something they can be grateful for. There is not much else, as they near the end of a season which McMahon, drained of most of what optimism he had felt when he took charge, now describes as "traumatic".

Initial ventures into management are rarely easy, but for McMahon it has been harder than most. At 33, the former England, Everton, Aston Villa and Liverpool midfielder had been at Manchester City for nearly two years, unable to get in the team towards the end, when Swindon made contact. "They sold it to me," McMahon recalled last week. "Maybe it came sooner rather than later, but you've got to take your chances when you can."

Swindon were fourth from bottom. They had lost two of their best players from the previous season, Nicky Summerbee and John Moncur, and were laid low with a post-Premiership hangover. McMahon, tough, uncompromising, seething with Scouse passion, was supposed to cure it. Certainly his arrival meant a big change in managerial style. "Nice" John Gorman was being replaced by someone whose reputation as a hard man suffered little damage when, in his first match for Swindon, at Southend, he got sent off for elbowing an opponent. The omens were not good.

McMahon was discovering how much there was to management - not just the working with players, but the admin side, the "restructuring" at a club where the financial consequences of relegation from the Premiership have been severe, and "there is far more going out than coming in". Hence the sale for £1.3m of Swindon's leading scorer Jan Age Fjortoft to Middlesbrough - a move which soured Mc- Mahon's relations with the fans.

"I think going into the Premiership was a big hindrance to Swindon," McMahon said. "They just weren't geared for it. And coming straight back down again was a shattering blow. There's no point going up unless you've got the structure right. The damage is too great."

Against this background, it was perhaps not surprising that the team were to struggle. But it wasn't all bad news. In the Coca-Cola Cup, Swindon rediscovered their form, losing to Bolton in the semi-final only thanks to a late goal in the second leg.

But the Cup run was counter-productive. Around the time of the semi-final, Swindon had a number of players close to the disciplinary points limit and liable to be banned if they picked up bookings. Some restrained performances resulted.

For McMahon, the big let-down was not the defeat at Sunderland last week that put survival out of Swindon's hands, but the one at home to Stoke City five days previously. "That's when being player-manager becomes very difficult," he said. "When things aren't going right on the pitch you tend to lose your patience a bit. You tend to start coaching rather than playing, and that's what I got caught up in, trying to do both."

McMahon didn't have that worry at the County Ground yesterday. A second sending-off meant he was suspended and had to watch as Swindon's two central defenders, Andrew Thomson and Shaun Taylor, went for the same header to give Predrag Radosavljevic, Portsmouth's Serbian substitute, an easy chance from which he put his side ahead in the 38th minute. When Radosavljevic crossed for Deon Burton to make it 2-0 10 minutes into the second half, the blow was mortal.