Swindon relying on football's fire-fighter
The County Ground
Feargal Sharkey once claimed that a good heart these days is hard to find, but Swindon are hoping that one has arrived at the County Ground as they battle against relegation to League Two.
The Wiltshire club reached the League One play-off final last season but this campaign has been one of disappointment and despair, and Town have turned to Paul Hart to ensure it does not end in disaster.
The 57-year-old readily admits that he was not doing all that much before the call came, asking him to do for the Robins what he had previously done at Portsmouth in the Premier League in 2009 and Crystal Palace in the Championship last season.
Hart had been taking in a few football games and improving his forehand on the tennis court, but he leapt at the chance to return to management for the first time since his triumphant farewell with the Eagles.
The likeable Lancastrian had taken over at the financially-troubled London club on 2 March 2010 and kept them in English football's second tier after a dramatic and extremely tense final-day draw at Sheffield Wednesday, who were relegated instead.
Almost exactly one year after his appointment at Selhurst Park, Hart was unveiled as successor to Danny Wilson at the County Ground. The new boss had 13 games to haul the Robins out of the relegation zone and chairman Andrew Fitton had made it very clear that he had been chosen because of his proven track record of beating the drop.
But what exactly is it that makes Hart suited to the pressure of battling relegation?
"I have learnt that there are some basics," Hart told me. "It sounds simple but if you can make sure players focus on their strengths you are halfway to getting over a lot of
Hart understands the pressure of a battle against relegation. Photo: Getty Images
"We certainly do not talk about relegation every day and instead focus on what we want to do in the next match, that helps direct a player's thinking towards what is important."
Hart comes across as very level-headed and controlled as he discusses Swindon's predicament - qualities that must surely help to relax the players. He took over with Swindon three points adrift of safety, and in his three games in charge he has seen the club slump to the bottom of the table and climb back up to 22nd despite so far failing to win a game.
"There are a lot of strange results at this time of the season and plenty of twists and turns, with teams dropping into and moving back out of the bottom four all the time," he added.
"We have got to make sure that we remain consistent and remember that it is where we are at the final whistle on 7 May that matters."
His one signing so far is striker Calvin Andrew, who has joined on loan from Crystal Palace.
Andrew was a member of the Palace squad that beat the drop last season and, after making his debut in Saturday's 1-1 draw against fellow strugglers Dagenham & Redbridge, he said: "The manager's enthusiasm and detailed planning is what allows his teams to get out of situations like this.
"Last season at Palace he kept everybody's heads in the right place, that was the key thing, making sure that we took it game by game."
Hart talks fondly about his 12-week spell in charge of Palace. He remembers listening to the squad singing a Proclaimers track in the dressing room before the crunch game at Hillsborough and thinking at that moment that his team would survive. Hart reckons that even though there was incredible tension inside the sold-out Hillsborough he did not feel stressed at all.
There was undoubtedly tension inside the County Ground on Saturday as Swindon's winless streak was extended to 14 games. The draw meant that Town have picked up just two points under Hart from three crunch games against a trio of relegation rivals in the space of eight days.
It has been an extremely testing start for Hart and assistant Ian McParland - and the edgy and nervous atmosphere suggested that a season of struggle has eroded the confidence in the team among many of Swindon's supporters.
As I wandered around the ground an hour before kick-off I heard one young fan ask his grandfather if he thought Swindon would avoid the drop. "There is more chance of me winning the lottery," was the reply.
Certainly at first glance the facts are not particularly encouraging. Until Mike Grella's excellent lobbed finish put the Robins ahead on Saturday they had not taken the lead in a fixture since the 4-2 win over Charlton on 3 January - more than 1,200 minutes of football. Last season's prolific strike duo of Billy Paynter and Charlie Austin have both left the club and finding the net has been a major problem. Swindon have not scored in eight of their previous 14 fixtures. In that period they have found the net more than once in just one game.
Austin (second left) left in January and remains the club's top scorer. Photo: Getty Images
Yet against the Daggers I thought there was plenty to encourage Hart and the club's supporters. The 4-3-3 formation that Hart favours worked well, with combative new recruit Andrew in the middle of a front three alongside Grella and Matt Ritchie.
Hart's first two games were a goalless draw against Walsall followed by a 1-0 defeat at Plymouth, but against the Daggers his side at least showed a little more cutting edge and were unfortunate to encounter veteran keeper Tony Roberts in such excellent form. And as it turned out, the draw wasn't perhaps too bad a result for either team as none of the bottom seven sides managed to win, with Bristol Rovers, Plymouth and Tranmere losing.
"I thought the players looked very poised and confident and during the next week I will be stressing to them what they have done well," added Hart. "They were a little bit down when I took over but they soon sparked into life."
I'm told that the football had become increasingly direct and error-strewn under Wilson, with Town taking just three points from his last 11 games. Wilson did a commendable job over his near two-and-a-half years in charge but a sense of panic had started to take hold in the squad in the weeks before his resignation.
Hart seems to have restored a sense of calm and is working hard to instil patience in possession. You could see that on Saturday as Town stroked the ball across their backline as they probed for openings.
The Town boss, who had a five-game spell in charge of QPR last season before resigning in mysterious circumstances, is focusing purely on the remaining 10 games, but he is keen to extend his stay at the club.
"The last few years have been hard in many ways with the stresses of fighting relegation," he said. "But before I finish I would like to help someone build a club in the proper way."
At one point in his career Hart had a reputation for developing young players. This was forged during lengthy spells at Leeds United and Nottingham Forest. Players such as Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell, Michael Dawson and Jermaine Jenas all owe Hart a debt of gratitude for his role in their development.
More by accident than design, Hart has become known as a football fire-fighter; a steady and reliable presence who is able to help those in trouble.
Whether he gets the chance to prolong that at Swindon will depend on what happens during the next eight weeks, but with consecutive away fixtures against promotion-chasing Huddersfield Town and Brighton next up it is definitely not going to be easy.