About this time 28 years ago the star of Swindon Town’s only season in the top flight finally started scoring. Jan Åge Fjørtoft had been signed in the summer of 1993 for a club record £1.3m to spearhead Swindon’s attack on the Premier League but he failed to find the net in the first half of the campaign and was on his way out until a goal in a FA Cup third-round replay against Ipswich in January 1994 triggered a dramatic change in his fortunes.
But not, alas, in those of Swindon, whose elan going forward could not offset ramshackle defending. The club wound up being relegated after conceding 100 goals, the first top-flight team in 30 years to reach that undignified milestone and still the only team to do so in the Premier League era.
“I almost get tears in my eyes when I talk about my first goal in that January,” says Fjørtoft, a 54-year-old pundit for television channels in Germany and his native Norway, before Swindon play Manchester City in the Cup’s third round on Friday. He cherishes his memories of Swindon and of a season in which he and his team endured harrowing lows while trying, and sometimes succeeding, to play stylish and enterprising football.
“We conceded 100 goals, finished bottom and are considered the symbol of a side not doing well in the Premier League but we weren’t a bad side, we were not that far away,” says Fjørtoft. “We were a very good football team with a lot of good players and we were quite confident on the ball. To be fair, we were useless at defending.”
Swindon had won promotion to the top flight with such brio that their manager, Glenn Hoddle, was hired by Chelsea, leaving his assistant, John Gorman, to plot their assault on the Premier League. He was determined to stay faithful to their slick passing approach. Signing Fjørtoft was supposed to add a sharper tip to their attack. To be fair, he was useless at first.
Swindon did not win until beating Queen Park Rangers 1-0 in their 16th league match, by which time Fjørtoft, still goalless, had been dropped.
“In the first game of the season at Sheffield United [lost 3-1], I got a knock,” says Fjørtoft, bought on the back of four free-scoring seasons with Rapid Vienna. “I had never been injured in my life and that was the start of a bad circle for me. I kept on playing because I was desperate to get that first goal and contribute to our first win. We were suffering heavy losses and it became the first time in my life that I didn’t score goals. I started to doubt myself. When you start losing your self-confidence, you make compromises in the way you play and then you kind of drag yourself further into the dump. By the time of that win against QPR, I was struggling.
“Then Christmas Eve of 1993 was the lowest point of my career,” he continues. “I played for Swindon reserves against Wycombe Wanderers reserves on one of these fantastic facilities you have in England with like 12 pitches next to each other. It was cold and windy, I was freezing to death and I was the worst player on the pitch. I remember I came home and opened the door and said dramatically to my wife: ‘Have a look at me now because no one can ever get lower in their football career than I am now.’”
Paradoxically, Fjørtoft was thriving on the international stage. But to retain his place in the Norway side for the 1994 World Cup he needed to improve his club form, so he negotiated a loan to Lillestrøm. “I had agreed it with them but then came the Cup game against Ipswich.”
Fjørtoft scored in a game Swindon lost 2-1. “The next morning I went into Swindon town centre to get something for my wife and I saw posters for the local paper with the headline ‘Please don’t go, Jan.’ It was all over the place. That was an unbelievable moment.”
An amazing transformation took place. Suddenly flush with confidence, Fjørtoft cancelled the loan and became convinced he would open his Premier League account against Tottenham four days later, in Swindon’s 27th league game. “After 20 minutes [Spurs goalkeeper] Erik Thorstvedt, who was my roommate with the national team, got injured and as he was being carried off I went up to him and screamed, ‘Fucking coward!’ because I somehow knew I was going to score my first goal in the Premier League. I thought he wasn’t daring enough to stay on.” Fifteen minutes later Fjørtoft did indeed score, flicking the ball over Colin Calderwood before thrashing it past Thorstvedt’s replacement, Ian Walker.
The floodgates opened: in the final 16 games of the season Fjørtoft scored 12 goals, a tally bettered only by Southampton’s Matt Le Tissier. “I developed a very good understanding with Nicky Summerbee, who was one of the best crossers of the ball I played with,” says Fjørtoft. “I used to say I had no clue why I couldn’t score in the first half of the season and then scored for fun in the second half but now, when I look back, I see it’s about that circle you get into with a lack of confidence.”
It was not enough to save Swindon. Although they scored more goals than Aston Villa and Coventry, who both finished in the top half, their inability to plug their leaky defence meant they won five of 42 matches.
Their heaviest defeat came in March when they lost 7-1 at Newcastle. “We were sitting on the bus on the way home and Shaun Taylor – our captain and warrior – said: ‘Well at least Andy Cole didn’t score.’ And I said: ‘Every other Newcastle player did!” The next day John Gorman – who I love – came to me and said: ‘Jan, we did some great passing yesterday.’ That sums up our season. We loved our game. We just wanted to play.
“You could call it naive, that’s probably the right analysis, but [Gorman] was a romantic. He really loved passes: if we made five passes, it was almost like three points for him and I say that in a positive way. He just loved to play football. I think it’s cool you have guys like that in the game.
“The other thing to say is that if we were a team who had played very disciplined and sat back and all that, I’m not sure we would have got more points.”