Paolo Di Canio may have ended his managerial career at Swindon Town by breaking into his old office at the County Ground but Aaron Oakley was there before all the madness. Five years on and after spending nearly two years in Sweden, it was a time in the defender’s career which is still well remembered even if it did leave him with a sense of what if?
“Growing up in the academy in Swindon was great,” says the 24-year-old defender. “I was born in the town so to play for your local team gives you that sense of pride.
“The Di Canio era was certainly the most interesting time of my career; the regime, the training, the atmosphere was all indescribable. He’s actually a very funny man, and a top coach – his attention to detail was unreal.
“Although a tough time mentally and physically, overall it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had to date.
During the 2012/13 season, Oakley was an unused substitute on six occasions for Swindon in League One and he also played for Wales at under-19 and under-21 level, having been eligible through his parentage, but it does not take long for the defender to recall the difficult spell in his career which followed.
“Not making my debut always makes me wonder what if? There was obviously going to be a time at some point where I’d get on the pitch – I’m convinced of that as Di Canio told me I’d get my chance.
“I then fractured my foot, he leaves the club and I’m out injured for the best part of a year overall.
“I believe I could have gone on to play a number of games for Swindon, that would have been the dream.”
The injury coupled with a change in management would curtail any further first team action for Oakley who left his local club in 2014. A difficult spell then followed for the defender in non-league football at clubs like Chippenham Town and Frome Town.
“After my injury, I obviously wasn’t match fit and was rusty and if you ask any free agent going into a new club, they will say trying to gel and fit in a new team’s system can prove to be difficult – especially in my case where I had just recovered from a bad injury.
“I then tried non-league football and to be honest, I didn’t suit it. Although I’m big, I like to play football on the floor and I think I play better with better players around me.
“I was still getting injuries and not playing consistently so it was a strange transformation from being pro to training twice a week.”
Oakley needed a change and the opportunity he was looking for came in the shape of an invite from a tiny village in Sweden.
“I spoke to a Swedish guy. He had heard about my release from Swindon and knew a bit about my background. He put me in touch with the manager Brian Wake, who was in charge of Ytterhogdal at the time.”
If the club Ytterhogdal sounds familiar to you, then it probably is. The fourth-tier club have recruited many English players (including Jordan Blinco) in the past and currently have an English coaching setup.
Last year with Wake in charge (he has now left to become a coach at top flight side Östersunds FK), Oakley settled into his new country and started to get the game time he wanted.
“I settled in straight away,” he says. “I moved into a house with a few lads and it was helped massively due to the fact we had a strong English contingency.
“The village has 500-600 people so they can’t attract local Swedish players. The club is very clever and uses the LFE programme to get young players out here who’ve been released from English academies.
“Having people from your country just helps you settle in that little bit quicker and it’s been a great experience.”
Oakley settled in well off the pitch quickly but it took some adjustment on the pitch at first. Despite that, his side won their division last season and earned promotion to the fourth-tier with Oakley making 19 appearances. This season, he has adapted under the new management team and has excelled whilst playing an attractive style of play.
“It’s a lot different out here. It’s more technical than back in England and less physical. I stand at 6 foot 7, so not many players are my height. I like to use my body and my strength usually, but out here you have to adapt sometimes as referees don’t let as many things go unlike in the UK where tackles fly in. You get 3 yellow cards and it’s a match ban out here, so you have to be disciplined.
“I love the style of football we play though. It’s possession based attacking football trying to build up from the defence and that’s credit to our manager Adrian Costello and the assistant Andy Hardy, who work tirelessly on sessions to make sure we can produce this style every week.”
It has not been a case of style of substance though as with just one game remaining in the fourth tier, Ytterhogdals are third in the league. In this division, top spot earns automatic promotion and second enters the promotion playoffs. A victory on the final day could see the former Swindon Town man’s side enter the playoffs.
It has been a great ending to the season for Oakley’s side but it didn’t start this way. On a personal note and as a team, it was a difficult start to the campaign for the defender.
“It [the season] started awfully for me. First league game after 60 minutes I got injured and couldn’t continue.
“I ended up spending about two months out, six weeks of that back in England recovering and doing gym and rehab work. As soon as I was fit we changed our system from four at the back to 3-5-2 formation.
“From there we kicked on and we then went on to win something like eleven games in a row keeping a few clean sheets on the way as well. This propelled us from the bottom four to the top four and for me I have been playing consistently and doing quite well, so that was important.”
It’s going to be a very exciting finish to the campaign in Division 2 Norrland this season and as Oakley looks ahead, it seems like it could continue to be an exciting spell in his career.
“For me, I want to play at the highest level I can. Ideally I’d like to return to the UK in the next few weeks and I have a couple of exciting options on the horizon so I’ll be assessing those when I’m back home.
“I feel I have unfinished business in the UK and I just want somebody to give me that opportunity to show what I can do. Hopefully I can continue to develop and I’m excited about what the future holds.”
By the end of this month it could be two years, forty appearances and two promotions for the 24-year-old defender. Whatever the outcome of this weekend’s results, Oakley’s move to Sweden seems to have set him up for a successful career in football.