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SWINDON TOWN: Onuora reflects on life at Swindon and Gillingham
IFFY Onuora knows a thing or two about life at Swindon Town and Gillingham.
The 46-year-old has played for and managed both clubs and holds fond memories of his spells at the County Ground and the Priestfield Stadium, despite going through challenging periods on and off the pitch.
Now a regional coach with the Professional Footballers’ Association, Onuora served the Gills in two spells either side of his stint with Swindon, scoring 81 goals in 251 games in total.
Speaking to the Advertiser ahead of the clash between Town and Gillingham this weekend, the ex-striker reflected on happy times with his former employers.
Onuora joined Swindon in 1998, as one of Steve McMahon’s last signings for the Robins, but became a pawn in Town’s perennial struggle to avoid the drop from the Championship to League One.
“The money side had just started to struggle at Swindon, which is probably why they came for me. Wayne Allison had just gone - he’s a good friend of mine but he’d left to go to Huddersfield,” he said.
“They wanted a target man, I came and I feel I struck up a good partnership with George Ndah.
“On the pitch it was okay, I scored some goals, my family settled down in the south west which is where we stayed. From a family lifestyle point of view it was fine but from a football point of view it was okay but I think the club was probably starting to cut its cloth accordingly from the Premiership years and probably starting to decline.”
Onuora played under a variety of characters at Gillingham and Swindon, where he had to adapt to the methods of Tony Pulis, Steve McMahon, Jimmy Quinn and Peter Taylor - learning from each as he went.
“It was probably fairly similar to playing under Tony as he is now, he’s not changed an awful lot, he was always organised, a good coach, very strong-minded in how he wanted his teams to play and successful,” he said.
“I really liked Steve McMahon. He was a tough guy but I always admired him as a boyhood Everton fan, though I wasn’t too impressed when he went to Liverpool. He wasn’t there too long before Jimmy took over.
“Jimmy’s task was a little bit difficult. He had to manage senior players and was asked to slash the wage bill.
“Having been a manager now I’m loathe to criticise other managers because it is a very tough job but I’ve always taken something from every manager I’ve played under - good or bad - and that was the case.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given his strong links with both clubs, it took Onuora until the time he took on the managerial reins at Swindon to realise the hostility that exists between fans of Town and the Gills.
The animosity between supporters stemmed from an incident in March 1979, when a Gillingham fan punched and knocked out the referee during a game at Priestfield.
Two months later, a fracas took place in the tunnel at the County Ground with players of both teams involved and from then on there has been an underbelly of hatred beneath this most peculiar of ‘derbys’. Not that Onuora knew much about it.
“Funnily enough I didn’t know,” he said. “When I was at Swindon the first time there was still the hangover from the Premiership days and Gillingham were making their way up from what is now League Two.
“I only really became aware of it when I went from Swindon back to Gillingham and managing the team as well. I could never understand it. I think there was some origin in a previous game because certainly geography-wise there was no connection.”
Onuora still counts former Town teammates Scott Leitch, Frank Talia and Kerslake amongst his friends today, while he remains close to Ndah.
“Injuries were always a shame for George,” he said. “I was a big fan of him, not just as a guy but as a player. He never quite managed to string together a run of games and we never saw the best of him. He could have been a top, top player.”
As a manager Onuora had less than a season in charge of the Robins in 2005/06 as well as a caretaker spell in Kent.
“The first gig at Swindon was tough, taking over from Andy King,” he said. “It taught me a lot and was almost a crash course in management. Having to do a shorter term job at Gillingham was a bit more of a firefight.
“I thought they were very much a question of cutting my teeth in the coaching and managing world. They were tough but I enjoyed them.
“No one likes being sacked. I felt like I could have been given a longer chance as caretaker by Gillingham but they had Mark Stimpson which I understood.
“You feel a little bruised by those experiences but I’ve never been one to sit back and wallow and I take those experiences as very positive.”
Since then Onuora has gone on to manage Ethiopia - an experience he says will remain unforgettable.
“It was very, very different,” he said. “The facilities and resources were always a struggle. At Swindon we pretty much always knew where and how we were going to train. That could never be guaranteed in Ethiopia.
“It asks different questions of you as a person, when it’s not handed to you on a plate. You have to be a bit resourceful and shrewd. They were great lessons.
“The players were a delight and really, really gifted. They wouldn’t look out of place in higher divisions here.
“It was eye-opening in terms of the administration - finding somewhere to train, dealing with people who I guess weren’t used to dealing with professionals expecting a certain standard.”
While he could quite accurately be described as a journeyman as a manager and player, Onuora would not have had his career any other way.
“Contrary to many myths out there, the amount of money you can earn is limited to those at the very top of the game so money was never the driving force and I’m glad it wasn’t,” he said. “I like to think, although I’m not 100 per cent sure, that kids come into the game now with the same motivation.
“I hope they do because that’s all it is for me - the love of the game - and wanting to put something back into it. I managed to have a career which started late and got 15 years out of it.”
Onuora is a rarity amongst footballers in that he holds a degree in law but he stressed that a lack of paper qualifications does not mean his peers are any less intelligent than others.
“Football players’ backgrounds are such that the formal education is not available to them - the colleges and universities - they’re almost geared towards playing football,” he said.
“Don’t for one minute think that means they’re not clever in another way. They’re very sharp, they’re very bright.
“I often have this argument with other people that you underestimate players’ intelligence at your peril. They’re bright people, they don’t have formal education but that’s not to say they’re not bright.”
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