NICK WATKINS INTERVIEW: The managers that got away, the relationship with Di Canio and how close Town came to insolvency (From The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald)
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NICK WATKINS INTERVIEW: The managers that got away, the relationship with Di Canio and how close Town came to insolvency
ON Wednesday, Swindon Town confirmed that Nick Watkins was stepping down as chief executive at the County Ground.
The announcement marked the end of an extraordinary five years for Watkins, who swapped LA for SN1 in 2008 and established himself as a favourite of the Robins faithful.
His experiences could fill several novels, but in an open and honest interview with the Adver, Watkins recounted half-a-decade of success, failure, misery and joy at Town.
It all began with a phone call from an old friend, Andrew Fitton, while he was working in the sunnier climes of California.
“I’d known Andrew for many a year and we’d often spoken about whether it would ever be possible to bring professional management into a sports environment,” he said.
“I was out in Los Angeles when Andrew called me and made mention of the fact that he had somewhere far more glamorous for me than Los Angeles should I return, and it was called Swindon.”
Watkins returned to the UK and met Fitton at the County Ground in late November 2007.
“I went into the boardroom and the whole club at the time was in a state of disrepair and there was definitely a smell of decay around. It was unloved.
“I went into the boardroom and there was Jeremy Wray, who I’d met several times previously. Paul Sturrock was there and announced he was leaving to go back to Plymouth.”
When Fitton’s consortium assumed control of Town on January 8, 2008, Watkins was tasked with taking a consultancy role overseeing the commercial side of the club.
Over 18 months that developed into his full-time placement as chief executive as his workload increased.
With Sturrock departing a new manager was needed at the County Ground, with Fitton in the end opting for Maurice Malpas.
“I think Andrew went in the press and said when he was looking for a new manager it would be important to find someone with League One or Championship experience,” said Watkins. “As you would expect, the fans upon hearing that drew up their own shortlist and they had all sorts of names.
“I think even Ian Holloway was seen in the stands disguised. The next thing I know is Andrew has made an appointment.
“I was told it was Maurice Malpas and I think I was as confused as the fans in terms of ‘who is Maurice Malpas?’ “I think there was a wave of disappointment among the fans. He had a fantastic playing pedigree but not a managerial pedigree that the fans related to.
“He wasn’t the most extrovert of personalities and he didn’t find it easy engaging with the fans. We began to sink in League One.
“A first class coach, Maurice, but probably not ready for management at that time - but a delightful man.”
Having recognised the error of his ways in appointing Malpas singly-handedly, Fitton included Watkins and Wray in the interview process the second time around.
With press interest in the vacant position high, the three decided to conduct interviews at The Feathers Hotel in Woodstock. Ian Holloway, John Ward, Richard Money and David Hockaday were all spoken to.
“Holloway was hugely energetic, an interesting character and knew a lot of the players because of his time at Plymouth and QPR,” said Watkins. “I think it was fairly apparent that Ian and Andrew might find themselves locking horns. (Ward) was a charming man but perhaps needed to get Carlisle out of his system.”
At the slighlty less luxurious surroundings of a hotel off the M1, the trio also met with Gary Speed.
“Gary was coming to the end of his playing career and I think the three of us were in agreement that we hadn’t met a more complete individual than Gary. He was very keen to get into management.”
However, Speed’s employers at the time, Sheffield United, were not willing to let him leave and Watkins & Co turned their attention elsewhere.
“Andrew was in America and we had long, late-night conversations about who it should be and Andrew was getting very anxious to make an appointment,” said Watkins.
Fitton plumped for Money, provided Newcastle did not demand compensation, but one call from Watkins soon established that he was not available for free.
Instead the Town board turned their attention to Danny Wilson, recently sacked by Hartlepool.
Watkins said: “I phoned Andrew to tell him Danny had been released and he said ‘I’ll think about it’.
“Andrew Fitton loved statistics and he analysed Danny’s win and loss ratio and told me it was worth a conversation.”
The relevant parties met in London on December 23, 2008 for breakfast.
“We all liked Danny enormously,” said Watkins. “Late that night I got a call from Andrew to say we had a Christmas present.”
Wilson helped guide Town clear of the drop before building a squad which took League One by storm in the following campaign.
Watkins fondly recalls the trip back from Leeds after a 3-0 win took Town second in the table. But things faltered in the final stretch, Town finished fifth, went to Wembley for the play-off final and lost.
“I was told by people who had Danny as manager before that you’d never get to know him but I like to think I got to know him quite well.
“For some reason I was engaged in various sorts of activities required by the Football League and I ended up in the changing rooms just as Danny was delivering his team talk.
“I remember Danny and I had talked about a great friend of mine who was dying of cancer, called Andy Ripley, and there had been an article in the press the previous weekend about Andy’s courage.
“Danny used this as his final rallying call and he said ‘go out there lads and like Andy Ripley, have no fear.
“I’ve got a qualification in executive coaching and the use of language and I remember thinking ‘that’s the worst thing you could have said’.
“For the first 30 minutes they had nothing but fear. The consequences of losing were devastating.
“I travelled back with Danny on the coach and it took an age to get down the M4. We were at junction 13 before Danny eventually uttered one word, so devastated was he.”
From then on things fell apart.
“At the chairman’s conference I saw Andrew Fitton talking to the chairman of Brighton. I said ‘what do Brighton want?’ He said ‘they’re interested in Gordon Greer’.
“I said ‘please, please don’t sell Gordon Greer. He is such an integral part of the team.’ “I think the general consensus was between Andrew and Danny that Gordon wouldn’t be a Championship player.”
Greer went to Brighton.
“For me, from my own perspective, it was one of the major reasons why we got relegated,” said Watkins.
“Gordon pulled them all together and that lack of cohesion in the changing room was what caused it to become fairly fractured.”
After the 3-0 defeat at Leyton Orient on February 8, 2011, Watkins bumped into Matt Ritchie - recently signed from Portsmouth - outside Brisbane Road.
“Matt just said ‘that was a shambles, things are desperately wrong in the changing room’.
“I tried to get some sports psychologists in and do some work with Danny but it was too late by then.”
Following a 4-1 thrashing at Southampton, the Town board met and decided it was time to end Wilson’s reign.
Fitton had already picked out Paul Hart as Wilson’s replacement with little consultation. It proved to be a monumental failure.
“The dressing room in my view was now dysfunctional and no matter how hard you tried it wasn’t going to be knitting together.
“I remember the Notts County game at home when relegation was virtually inevitable. We gave a goal away and the fans came down from the Arkell’s Stand and threw their season tickets into the dug-out and Paul Hart reacted very angrily. That really marked the end.”
Swindon had to prepare for life in League Two without Fitton. Hart was sacked.
“Paul played with the greats and had been managed by Cloughie and was a great raconteur but he didn’t have time to engage with the fans.”
Another new manager needed finding. Wray and Watkins spoke to John Hughes and Gus MacPherson, while Dietmar Hamann was interviewed at The Bear Hotel in Hungerford and Paul Tisdale showed interest.
None were discussed in as much detail as a former Swindon hero.
“We got into detailed discussions with Glenn Hoddle about Glenn coming back, but it meant Glenn folding his entire academy into Swindon Town and I just couldn’t see that working cohesively”.
Then the landscape changed.
“An agent asked if I’d be interested in talking to the ex-Brentford manager (Nicky Forster),” said Watkins. “I said yes and they said if I was interested in talking to an ex-player then would I be interested in another player who hasn’t managed called Paolo Di Canio.
“I innocently said yes, I’ll be honest with you - I didn’t quite know who Paolo Di Canio was.”
As Watkins was cycling with members of the office staff to Tranmere the following day, he told Wray - a West Ham fan - of Di Canio.
“We met Paolo a week or so later at the Runnymede Hotel and in walked this charismatic individual with dark sunglasses,” said Watkins. “For three hours he had us captivated by his views on football, his ethics, the importance of a wholly integrated club.
“The club needed resuscitating and we thought Di Canio would be more than capable of that.”
With majority shareholder Andrew Black convinced by Wray that the Italian would be a good investment, on a sizeable salary, Di Canio was appointed. In his early months in charge, the former Celtic and Lazio forward was quick to splash the cash on costly failures.
“I think they were probably considered to be mistakes, for sure.
“I think Paolo would be the first to acknowledge that there was a naivety in what type of player you need for League Two.”
Despite some transfer flops, Di Canio established a reputation as a talented tactician as he guided Town to the League Two title.
Over the summer, Black and the rest of the Swindon board committed to a £4million playing budget and new terms for Di Canio, which doubled his salary.
“The whole rationale was pitched was that we have the momentum and the ability to get a back-to-back promotion and send Swindon into the Championship - then the investment of Andrew Black and the other investors might have a chance of being realised.
“He was hopeful that he would sell the club early on and not have that burden but that sale fell away.
“There were a whole raft of reasons. I only met one member of the consortium but I’m told the money behind the consortium, the individual behind it, died and therefore access to funds was no longer there.”
With a proposed takeover in the summer of 2012 fallen by the wayside, Black had to back Di Canio for the whole campaign.
Black’s relationship with Fitton had deteriorated and his long-standing friendship with Wray was tested by Di Canio’s demands and actions.
“I think he began to get more and more irritated by some of the goings-on, some of the outpourings from football management about embargoes and restrictions being imposed on the club’s ambitions.
“He was also being advised away from football that maybe this wasn’t the best use of his funds. If you had slow Japanese water torture day in, day out there comes a time when you say enough is enough.”
That time came in early January, but it had been preceded by the removal of Wray as chairman.
“The relationship between Andrew Black and Jeremy Wray had become quite stretched and strained,” said Watkins. “Sir William Patey came in as the new chairman and Jeremy stepped aside. I had my own views on the manner in which that was done and probably given time again you could have orchestrated that in a slightly different way with the same result.”
On January 4, Watkins and the board were informed that Black was pulling out his funding. Although £4million had been pledged, that figure had not been delivered in its entirety.
“In January we were operating exactly in budget in terms of cash call,” said Watkins. “We were operating on budget on the commercial side and we were performing to expectation in terms of being third in the league when Andrew Black decided he had had enough.
“That’s his choice and one cannot but be grateful for the fantastic support he gave the club.”
That input was more than £10million over five years, but removing his money in the manner he did left Swindon with a race against time to avoid insolvency.
“We were snatched from the jaws of administration by Jed McCrory’s consortium,” said Watkins. “I know it was an incredibly tense time for everybody and none of us wanted to see the club go into administration.”
In order to secure Town’s future, Ritchie had to be sold. Di Canio did not take kindly to it.
“Without that the club would have been insolvent and we all know what insolvency means.”
After stating his position was untenable on February 1, Di Canio quit two-and-a-half weeks later.
“Everybody was disappointed that an incredibly colourful era in Swindon Town’s era and rich in terms of entertainment, enthusiasm, excitement should come crashing down when we were on the cusp of bringing new owners to the club and on the cusp of achieving what Paolo said we wanted to achieve.
“That’s a tragedy. I’ve found there is nothing so strange as football in the five years I’ve been at Swindon, and strange decisions get taken.
“The results are there for everybody to see but football lives on, you just have to pick up the piece of the fall-out and move the club on.
“It’s Walsall on Saturday. It’ll be the first home fixture in five years I’ve not been present at.”