Town moved top of League One for the first time in over ten years with victory over Tranmere Rovers, writes Daniel Hunt.
Who needs a manager, backroom staff and supportive board of directors? Not this group of brilliantly committed players and loyal travelling supporters – embodying why Swindon Town Football Club will go on strong without Paolo Di Canio and his entire backroom staff. That Fabrizio Piccareta chose to announce the collective resignations of he and his colleagues post-match, should not detract from a fantastic, at times bizarre, victory on the ground of a fading promotion rival. You can forget about Tranmere as an automatic promotion contender, it seems their supporters have too, with just over five thousand witnessing their third PrentonPark demise on the trot.
Tranmere will point to their injury and suspension crisis as an excuse but the truth is Ronnie Moore’s men were outplayed and undone by an impressive Town performance led by the brutish James Collins and a second-half Gary Roberts exhibition of extraordinary finishing. A sloppy ten minute period late in the second half threatened to scupper Swindon’s near faultless display but footballing justice was served in stoppage time as Town re-established a two-goal lead.
Another twist in an unsettling week surfaced before kick-off when it was revealed that recent flu victim, Alan McCormack, was stripped of the club captaincy for seeking medical help from a doctor (of all things!). Swindon’s new captain, Simon Ferry, limped off in the 75th minute meaning that Di Canio’s final meaningful act as Town manager was reversed almost instantly, McCormack finishing the match with the armband on once again. The Irishman then led the post-match love-in between players and fans – believe me, there’s something special on the cards this season.
The only changes to the eleven that started against Hartlepool were McEveley for Thompson at full-back and the surprise front two of Collins-Storey preferred ahead of Williams and Adam Rooney. For 25 minutes, before he limped off, young Storey was one of the standout players on the whole pitch. He found a lot of space in front and behind the Tranmere defence and looked really sharp. Such a shame then that Storey later revealed on Twitter that his night’s work ended with him “balling his eyes out in the dressing room at half time”. Chin up Miles!
But for a five minute period before the half time whistle, the first half was mercilessly controlled by a Town side now unbeaten in 12 games. The protagonists of the piece were James Collins and Tranmere goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams. No less than three times Collins was foiled by the palms of the eccentric Fon Williams; in the 5th and 11th minutes Collins hit low efforts, one on either foot, that were tipped round the post for corners. The best save of the lot came on the half hour mark though, a sumptuous McCormack ball over the top into the right channel was hammered towards goal by the Republic of Ireland Under 21 International and the parried save just eluded the Swindon players on the follow up.
Surely the solution for Collins and co. was to take Fon Williams out of the equation all together then? Sadly this approach resulted in Collins rolling agonisingly wide of the left post in 22nd minute and Raffa De Vita volleying sweetly over the bar a minute later from a Storey cross. The Collins chance was all of his own doing as he pressurised the keeper and defender into miscommunication when dealing with a tame chipped ball forward. The mix up gifted the ball to Town’s number 9 who neatly sidestepped a couple of challenges before stroking it wide of goal with Storey perhaps better placed in the 6 yard box.
When Rovers finally got going towards the end of the half, they actually mustered together a couple of chances. Both fell to youth team graduate striker, Cole Stockton, but he blazed over when well placed in the 41st minute and inexplicably managed to head wide when it seemed easier to score two minutes before the break. Foderingham cut a very relieved figure in the Town goal in front of the travelling Red Army.
With Tranmere finishing the first half on a high, the interval energised the Swindon players and they came out all guns blazing following the first, and last, Fabrizio Piccareta team talk in Town history. From a Collins flick on in the 47th minute, Andy Williams’ toe-poked effort was saved well by a lunging Fon Williams but Swindon would only have to wait another 60 seconds before scoring the crucial first goal. A smart one-two with Gary Roberts in the central third of the pitch put Collins in behind the Tranmere defence and he finished smartly past an onrushing Fon Williams. My gut feeling from the away end was that the Tranmere keeper made Collins’ life very easy by charging from his line.
The manager-less Robins continued to play well on a sticky surface and Andy Williams grew into the game as the half went on. He could have done much better with two chances, one blocked for a corner from 3-4 yards and the other a horribly misplaced shot when closing down on the Rovers goal, either side of a correctly disallowed Gary Roberts goal at the back post in the 58th minute. Gary Roberts’ influence on games has increased markedly since the departure of Matt Ritchie to Bournemouth, is this perhaps the only blessing in the whole debacle?
Roberts confirmed his new status with a truly remarkable strike on the half volley to put Town two up with twenty minutes to go. The beautiful goal’s origins were a Miller diagonal pass and a miscued Williams header into Roberts path. The ball sat up perfectly for the former Huddersfield man and he lashed home to the delight of every one connected to Swindon in Prenton Park but especially Roberts. He celebrated wildly… little did he know what was to come!
The introduction of Abdulai Bell-Baggie on Tranmere’s right-wing sparked life into the Rovers effort though, much to the despair of McEveley who had a torrid time against him after dealing so well with the previous incumbent, David Amoo. A Bell-Baggie won free kick from the right was flicked on by Taylor and Donervon Daniels coolly slotted home to make it a nervy last 12 minutes for Town after looking comfortable for nearly the whole game. Like the Hartlepool equaliser on the 9th February, it was uncharacteristic of the Town defence to allow a side back into the game after leading.
The remainder of the game was edge of the seat stuff as each side swung from end to end searching for the crucial fourth goal of the match. The three minutes of stoppage time (which actually played out more like 5 or 6) brought chaos. Twice Fon Williams surged forward to take part in attacking set-pieces for the hosts and this reckless abandon nearly produced the best own-goal in football. The Tranmere defender who stayed back on the half way line received the Swindon clearance and proceeded to pass back to a keeper who wasn’t there. Cue mad scenes as Roberts chased the ball down and another Rovers defender on the line got in a tangle, allowing the ball to strike the base of the post before back-heeling the ball out for a corner.
Straight up the other end, Wes Foderingham then earned his money in the Swindon goal, saving well from an Ash Taylor header to keep Town in the lead. Several clearances later, the ball landed at the feat of Roberts and he audaciously netted from near on 70 yards despite the desperate tracking back of Fon Williams who could only scoop the ball into the side-netting inside the goal. Enjoy this goal again and again by following the link below;
Full time brought mutually joyous scenes between fans and players in front of the away end. Most notably, none of the backroom staff made their way over to applaud the supporters. This quickly became clear why in the post-match interviews.
So what of the Di Canio legacy at the CountyGround? He inherited a club at a low ebb, with seven registered players and a realistic chance of promotion from League Two. A glorious 18 months or so has followed and a very determined and highly skilled squad sit a top of League One, laughing in the face of every slice of adversity the world can chuck at them. I wish Paolo had stayed to finish the job but the show must go on. I will always remember him as the man who put the passion and pride back into SwindonTown. The first manager I’ve seen actually enforce a ‘my way or the highway’ ideology to create a squad without a single slacker. A supporter’s dream.
And so to the man who will step into Paolo’s shoes. He (or she, Hope Powell fans!) will inherit a mightily fine side on the cusp of promotion to the Championship. I hope the new board is as ambitious as Jeremy Wray was back in the summer of 2011. Think back to the transition from Macari to Ardiles, this is a legacy to build upon, not just to maintain or settle for.
Now get back to waiting religiously for updates on the takeover/new manager!
Follow Daniel Hunt on Twitter – @dphunt88