Something very interesting is happening at Swindon Town in England’s League One.
Their chairman, Lee Power, is a former player and agent who is exploiting his contacts in the game to sign up some very promising young players.
Liverpool have just recalled Brad Smith who had been on-loan at Swindon since August. The left sided player is highly regarded by Brendan Rodgers and there are rumours Smith might be negotiating a new contract at Liverpool.
The 20-year-old was born in Australia to English parents and moved to England at the age of 14. He joined Liverpool at 16 and made his Premier League debut against Chelsea last December.
He has played for the England youth sides from U17 to U21 level but was capped by Australia in September in a friendly against Belgium.
We caught up with football writer, and regular Swindon watcher, Alex Cooke to get the lowdown on Smith and the youth revolution that is taking place at the County Ground.
– What is Smith like as a player? What are his main qualities?
He’s quick, he’s persistent. He works hard, running up and back. He doesn’t become deterred by mistakes or not getting the ball, which happens frequently. His pace was his main quality and that and being just one of the two left footed players in the squad. That certainly helped him, particularly early on when he struggled. He did get better towards the end though
– Where and how has he been playing for Swindon?
He was played as a left-wing back, very high up the field. Frequently he was the outlet when play was switched quickly from the right to left, as Town are stronger on the right flank. The problem was that he would wander offside or miss-control when he really could have got in behind the opposition defence and presented an easy crossing chance. His left-footed crossing on the move could be very erratic. He seemed under instruction to go low and hard for near-post runs still too many would drift straight out.
– What does he need to work on?
He had to be given the ball in front of him to run onto. He couldn’t beat a man through a change of pace or dropping a shoulder. He would all too often run for the by-line rather than look to come off the line and into the space between full-back the covering defensive midfielder. When he did (such as against Sheffield United) he set up goals. Mostly if given the ball while marked, he would have to give it back – and not always brilliantly. This made him under-used in build up play.
– What is he like tactically/defensively?
Defensively he was diligent and seemed aware of when he needed to tuck in as a marker, such as if the back three got overloaded. There were a few air shots in there and would get sucked under the high ball a few times but he had the right idea. Execution was as you’d expect from a young player. Defending wasn’t his primary role though, that was adding width.
– How does Smith compare to the other young starlets at Swindon?
He didn’t always compare that well to many other Town players, except in regard of his energy. But then it is a high standard at the moment – higher than for many years. The vast majority of whom are the same age as him, or younger.
This is a technical team of ex-Premier League development players and he could be found wanting compared to them. A player was brought in from Birmingham (Amari’iBell) to cover Smith and probably would have started to edge ahead of him in the pecking order if Smith hadn’t picked up a few knocks. Smith seemed popular with the players though – if Twitter is anything to go by.
– Who have been the most impressive youngster at Swindon over recent seasons?
In recent seasons, the best young players have been: Jack Stephens (Southampton), Ryan Mason and Alex Pritchard (Tottenham Hotspurs) and Nathan Thompson (Now owned by Norwich) and Nile Ranger.
We’ve got Yaser Kasim and Massimo Luongo too and they are both internationals (Iraq and Australia) and I’d expect Championship football for both – but Kasim is a deep-lying playmaker so might need to go abroad to find another natural home.
Ranger, you’ll know all about. He’s too good for League One but yeah, he’s pure tabloid. Pritchard looked good and scored goals and looks like one to watch in a season or two. Mason was perhaps the best technician of the whole lot and now is getting first team games for Spurs. Stephens is on loan with us again and may take a little longer but looks like Premier League material.
– How is Swindon doing under Lee Power? How has he changed the club?
The club is making great progress with the new structure. Power has an incredible eye and contacts for this level. Genuinely don’t think he has brought in player who can’t play a level above this, particularly as they get older – I say that as (i think) only one of the current squad is over 24.
The budget is very tight though and Power will need to keep finding good talent and arranging these complex deals in which fees seem linked to appearances and sell-ons – both in and out. The worry is that the team might get broken up at any moment – and it is already pretty thin- and the chance for promotion will go.
– How is manager Mark Cooper performing?
Cooper and his assistant Luke Williams have done a superb job creating and defining a style – 3-5-2 possession football with a reliance on defending 1v1 and counter-pressing when the attack break down.
They seem to be able to break the complexities down for the player so everyone understands even if what is being asked of them is more than most L1 coaches demand. It is great stuff to watch – far better than you might expect for League One.
– How are you feeling about the commitment to youth at Swindon?
I am positive about it. It is driven by budgets rather than ideology but it is good to see so many young, English and even local players given a chance. Obviously the concern is that it could become more like Crewe – financially precarious – or demanding a complete rebuild every season.
However at the moment, we play football of a style second only to the type we did under Glen Hoddle. We will need to replenish the squad regularly as many will need to leave to find the club. Keeping hold of Luke Williams (first team coach) could be as hard as any star striker.
– Can Power and Cooper take the club forward?
Power is harder to like as a person. He has a history as a businessman, a reputation and a few links that worry some fans. Perhaps this concern can be seen in the way that the supporters Trust has swollen its membership massively in the last few months.
Mark Cooper is less of a concern. He isn’t a natural with the media and those outside might be surprised by his relatively low popularity with the fans. But he seems to be able to ‘manage upwards’ and keep a squad together even when confronted with the likes of Nile Ranger and a revolving door of loans.
– Is promotion a realistic aim?
Before the season I predicted a mid-table finish. Now, I want a top six one. This might be our one shot at promotion for some time to come and I feel like we might have to deliver it now.
The worry is that with two internationals due to leave for the Asian Cup in January and a squad so thin that it actually looks good in leggings, we could well fade as winter sets in.
Beyond that? Who knows. Currently with our contract situation and finances, we would be in danger of needing a whole new team, front to back.