“This is one of the biggest appointments the club has ever made,” Swindon Town chairman Lee Power declared in November. The press room at the County Ground was busier than normal, indicative of the fanfare surrounding Swindon’s announcement, but still sparsely populated by Premier League standards.
League One clubs increasingly only get national media attention when crisis or circus comes to town, and this was the latter. Tim Sherwood was the ringmaster. Even the club’s press officer had not been told the nature of the appointment. “We’re still a bit shocked that we’ve managed to persuade Tim to take it on,” Power continued. “We’re very mindful not to use the title ‘manager’ – it’s not a demotion for Luke Williams. He’ll be head coach still. Tim will be running training alongside Luke.”
For a man keen not to muddy the water between different roles within the club’s hierarchy, Power soon allowed confusion to fester. Sherwood, out of full-time work since being sacked by Aston Villa in October 2015, was officially unveiled as Swindon’s Director of Football. By the second half of his second game in the role, he had moved from the stands to the touchline and was offering instructions to the players. Williams stayed on the bench.
Deliberately or other otherwise, Sherwood undermined Williams during that November unveiling. “Luke Williams is at this football club because of me. He was my recommendation,” he told reporters. “I came across him on the development phase of the game and I recommended him to Lee.” Cut the bluster and faux transparency: This was a power play.
In fact, Swindon treated Sherwood as if he was a mythical, mysterious football fixer, the great sage of the Premier League. He was given remit to train players, effectively placed in charge of recruitment, given responsibility for team instructions and tactics, and to lead the players during matches. If that sounds like two or three jobs rolled into one, you have spotted the flaw in Power’s plan sooner than he did.
For all the initial – and eventual – cynicism, there was a positive spin to Sherwood’s new guise. British managers are often urged to learn their trade in the lower divisions or move abroad in order to prove their worth, rather than crying foul over the lack of opportunities in the top flight. Sherwood was fortunate enough to be given two chances in the Premier League, but lasted no longer than ten months at either Tottenham or Villa before being sacked. On the outside, this was a pride-swallowing career decision.
The reality, as any Swindon supporter will readily tell you, is very different. Power’s puffed-up pride at Swindon’s coup left a thin facade over what appears to be a ‘jobs for the boys’ relationship, threatening to take the club backwards and down into League Two.
Swindon did not lure Sherwood to Wiltshire through the attractiveness of the project, because Power and Sherwood are not merely football acquaintances. The pair are great friends and roomed together as players at Norwich City. They have started businesses together, and Sherwood was the best man at Power’s wedding.
In Power’s first official statement as owner in December 2013, he made the point of name-checking Sherwood as ‘a good friend of mine’ and ‘one of the most knowledgeable and forward-thinking men currently in the game’. Between Sherwood’s appointment as technical director in 2012 and leaving the club in 2014, Tottenham sold one player to Swindon and loaned them another five, some sent to the County Ground on multiple occasions. Power asked then-manager Mark Cooper to visit Tottenham to update Sherwood on the club’s loanees and seek advice from his friend.
By February, Power had admitted as much. “One million per cent it was an old pals’ act,” he told talkSPORT. “I’m very fortunate that Tim’s a friend of mine and has been for very many years.”
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘jobs for the boys’, and football is an industry in which the principle of an old boys’ network reaches wider and lower than almost any other. Managers, owners and chairpersons all have favourites; who you know is often as important as what you know. Yet such blatant nepotism inevitably attracts thorough scrutiny, with the fan base suspicious that decisions are not being made in the best interests of the club.
Sherwood’s time at Swindon barely stands up to even the most cursory investigation. Having promised League One consolidation as his immediate aim, that goal has not been reached. When Sherwood arrived, Swindon were 21st in League One, in the bottom four on goal difference. They are now 21st in League One, in the bottom four by one point and having played more games than any team around them.
More importantly for supporters, Sherwood has hardly embraced the requirements of his role. He has never spoken to the media pre or post-match, leaving Williams to those duties despite it quickly becoming clear that Sherwood was pulling the strings. For a man who gained notoriety at Tottenham for his soundbites, Sherwood lost his tongue somewhere along the M4.
“An essential part of running any football club is clear and precise communication between the fans, players and management,” says Sam Morshead. Sam has been a Swindon Town supporter for more than 20 years, and covered them in a professional capacity too. He is involved in the Swindon Town supporters’ trust.
“If you don’t do that you’re only going to distance yourself from your community, and doing that at League One level is absurd when you’re averaging less than 7,000 people at matches. It has improved in recent weeks, as the club realise they need the support of the fans for the relegation run in, but that has nothing to do with Sherwood. He still hasn’t spoken.”
Not that Sherwood has remained permanently silent, as proven by his two-game ban for abusing referee Mark Brown in which Sherwood allegedly used the phrase “f**king mug” on three occasions. If Sherwood was intended to be the wise owl offering his wisdom, his feathers have been ruffled. It did not help that Swindon won both games for which Sherwood was banned from the stadium.
More recently, Sherwood has not even attended Swindon’s matches. His absence during the derby defeat to Oxford United was noted by supporters and, after the Swindon Advertiser asked Williams why his colleague had not been attending games, the head coach confirmed Sherwood was taking a step back.
“I’m sure that he is looking to the future as well and trying to forge strong links with other clubs and to get around and look at other players,” Williams said. “He is not as prominent on the pitch any more, he is still of course welcome to come down any time to watch training or to join in, but for now he is away from the training pitch and concentrating on other sides of the club.” Yet again, it was Williams forced into the role of messenger.
If Sherwood was so valuable to Swindon, as Power originally insisted, why had his responsibilities been diminished when Swindon’s need was greatest, in the midst of a relegation battle? Morshead points out that Swindon have won consecutive matches twice since Sherwood stepped into the shadows, having never done so under his guidance. You can forgive the cynicism that this is mere coincidence.
“It has become a little bit murky,” he says. “When he was brought in we were told he was going to be in charge of everything. Three months later, when things were going badly, Luke Williams was back in charge. It’s looks like when the going got tough, he got out. We’re now seeing him disengage from the club.”
If the answer as to where Sherwood’s appointment has left Swindon is easy enough – exactly where they started – the flipside is more difficult to determine as Sherwood’s managerial career continues to drift. While most work their way up, his journey in the opposition direction goes on. Perhaps this latest nadir was merely a misguided attempt to assist a friend, but Sherwood’s track record in management goes against him.
And what of the supporters, perennially the ones who suffer most? The majority are left bemused by the lack of communication, a scattergun approach to recruitment and lack of focus in the club’s direction. Forgetting this bizarre episode ever happened would be best for all, but this dalliance with national media attention may leave a lasting mark. Plenty are close to that most depressing of football states: apathy.
As chairman and owner, Power must accept culpability for the mood. “I want to get this club into the Premier League,” he said in December 2013. “It has been in the past and even recent history shows that smaller clubs than Swindon have managed this feat and I see no reason why we can’t.”
Ambition is positive, but it is a short step to naivety. Power is the latest football club owner to overlook the inescapable truth that a manager can only achieve sustainable progress if he is not working in quicksand. The Tim Sherwood experiment was high on profile but low on success. Not all publicity is good publicity.