John of Wessex continues his recollections of the 2012-13 season that saw Swindon Town roller-coaster their way through embargoes, off-field shenanigans, superb cup victories, shock defeats to lower-league opposition, potential administration and new owners.
With Oldham on our minds it came as somewhat of a surprise (or not) to hear about another Paolo Di Canio rant from the rooftops. I don’t know if he was just letting off steam or hitting out at a number of factors surrounding the club, but the topics of discussion included his own future, Paul Caddis, Paul Bodin and the Youth set-up. These ‘hostile environments’ that Di Canio was apparently facing left most of us tutting and shaking our heads in disbelief. Clearly he was missing his good friend Jeremy Wray and there were some thoughts of how badly he’d been unsettled by recent events. However, the fan base were pretty much still behind the Italian although you’d have to say there were now one or two cracks beginning to show in the relationship. Sir William Patey was quick to come out and deny any boardroom unrest whilst trying to re-focus attention on the Oldham game.
Nearly 300 hardy souls made the trip up north. Oldham doesn’t have a railway station so they immediately lose points in my book. Thankfully they’ve a fairly big car park available so driving wasn’t really an issue. This was my third visit to Boundary Park and on the back of two disappointing defeats in recent times I had mixed feelings over what to expect this time around. The atmosphere was slightly muted – I think Paolo’s off field salvo and tirade had stunned one or two and as for the game itself…
Well, it was never going to be one for the purists. Luckily Oldham were terrible and I still find it hard to believe that in just over a month they would knock out Liverpool in an FA Cup 4th Round tie! Our performance was nothing to write home about although we had our moments. Two first half goals from Raffa De Vita were more than enough to see us pick up our 6th away win of the season. The last 15 minutes of the game saw Oldham down to 10-men. Not through a sending-off but having already made three substitutions an injury to goalkeeper Alex Cisak saw him hobble off and replaced by midfielder Robbie Simpson between the sticks. Lo and behold we barely tested him and one irate fan near me spent the last five minutes screaming “Get it in the net” over and over – a bit like those Americans at the Golf “Get in the hole!” Also, in a stirring turn of events, Chris Martin again failed to score for Swindon.
With Christmas looming our much anticipated clash with table-topping Tranmere Rovers was brought forward to Friday 21st December. The good news being that it seemed to annoy our forever whinging Birkenhead friends. I’d already made plans to spend three or four days in Swindon so I was well placed to take in the fixture anyway. Something went wrong. I have little recollection of what happened to me in Old Town over that period. I do know I missed the fixture and possibly our best performance of the season as we absolutely smashed them 5-0. I’ve still not seen any goals or highlights from this match which brings me on to another point: Are the club going to issue a DVD highlights package for 2012/13? Bearing in mind we had to drag them kicking and screaming to the editing suite last summer to produce a ‘Champions’ one, I suspect I’m going to be left disappointed.
As for the game, we were 2-up in ten minutes and four by half-time. I can only imagine the buzz emanating around the County Ground. Meanwhile, about a mile away up Victoria Road I’m reliably informed I was in a similar state of mind but under totally different circumstances. We soon added a fifth and even managed to miss another penalty. Was that the third one this season? Andy Williams was the guilty party this time. I don’t blame him, he was after his hat-trick but Paolo had wanted Chris Martin to take it and help get that monkey off his back. Oh dear. Tranmere manager Ronnie Moore when asked later who were the best team his side had faced this season commented: “Swindon Town when they beat us 5-0 at the County Ground in December. Without a word of a lie, it could’ve been 10, it was one of those games where you’re scratching your head to try and change it. We were 3-0 down after 20-odd minutes and they just kept coming.” The win propelled us up to 5th place and more importantly the gap to the top two was closing.
We had two away games scheduled over the Christmas period. Leyton Orient on Boxing Day and Colchester Utd on Saturday 29th. Sadly, both games fell foul to waterlogged pitches but I couldn’t have been the only one to notice that Colchester managed to play on the 26th, but not the 29th, whilst Orient’s miraculous pitch had recovered by the 29th to allow them to beat Walsall 2-1. Now, call me Mr fussy-pants here but anyone would think that both these tinpot outfits were doing their utmost to avoid playing the mighty reds?
Anyway, despite the lack of games, We turned in the new year in 6th place and were back at home to face Portsmouth. The visitors were on a wretched run of form. They hadn’t won since mid-October and, writing in hindsight, weren’t going to win another league game until early March. All signs pointed to a comfortable home win and I remained convinced this league was ours for the taking. What with it being New Years Day any attempt of mine to get to Swindon would’ve proven futile so I opted for a local United Counties League game involving the reformed AFC Rushden & Diamonds. Remember them? Yeah, they once beat us 2-0 back on Boxing Day 2003. How times have changed. These days Rushden groundshare at Wellingborough Town’s wonderfully titled Dog & Duck Ground which, by a strange quirk of fate, is the very same ground that Southern League Swindon Town FC visited & played on between 1902 and 1904! Oooh, nostalgia.
Back at the County Ground, we’d got to half-time without a goal. I’ll be honest, a few beads of sweat were dripping from me – I wasn’t expecting this much resistance from Pompey. I don’t know what good shaking my phone in frustration was doing but it felt right at the time. The second half introduction of James Collins proved the turning point and then some. Barely a minute on the pitch, he opened the scoring on the hour mark and within 20+ minutes had scored an unbelievable 4 (FOUR) goals! Danny Hollands had also netted as Portsmouth fell to pieces but credit to their 1500 fans whom I’m informed never once turned on their players and continued to back the team. It was a classic win and all talk of Duncan Shearer at Plymouth came flooding back. Had Collins netted a fifth I’d have had to start talking to you about Keith East and Mansfield Town in 1965! Also, it was our second 5-0 win in succession – Has this ever happened before? I was in heaven… in Wellingborough. As for AFC Rushden, they triumphed 2-1 over Northampton Spencer in front of a very healthy 500+ crowd. Give it a few years, I fully expect them to be knocking on the door of the Conference South and beyond.
More good news was forthcoming before Saturday’s visit of Carlisle Utd. Darren Ward signed permanently after being released from Millwall. After a slow start to his Town career, Ward had established himself as a first-choice centre-back. His age and experience meant we had Devera, Flint, McCormack and Archibald-Henville battling to partner him at the back. The visit of the Cumbrians was our third home game in a row. Unfortunately I was unavailable for duty as I’d previously agreed to accompany my workmate Liam to the Aston Villa v Ipswich Town FA Cup 3rd Round tie at Villa Park. I’d organised everything including train travel and tickets. Ipswich Town in their infinite wisdom had agreed to only 3000 tickets despite the fact there’d obviously be 5000-6000 Suffolk folk clambering for one. This left me having to order tickets in the home end. I opted for seats as close to the away fans as possible. You see, Liam is an Ipswich fan so I thought I was doing him a favour. As long as he behaved himself there shouldn’t be a problem.
Back in Swindon, Paolo had given James Collins a start (he had to) against lowly Carlisle. Collins duly obliged with another goal 10 minutes before half-time as Town led by 2 at the break. At Villa Park two lads on my left had mysteriously disappeared (obvious Ipswich fans in the home end) and soon it was to be my turn. Two old bill and a steward escorted me towards the exit before interrogation. I was on my phone at the time just checking the latest score from the County Ground. When questioned my immediate response was: “I support Swindon” which seemed to throw the accusers into a state of shock. It was basically a ‘Get out of Jail’ free card so if anyone ever finds themselves in a spot of bother or a tricky situation, remember those three magic words. After a brief interlude and discussion I was allowed back to my seat. Huzzah! As for the game, Ipswich took a first half lead but concerted second half pressure saw Aston Villa triumph 2-1. Meanwhile, Swindon triumphed 4-0 as our rise to the summit continued unabated.
In the build up towards the massive showdown with big-spending AFC Bournemouth the headlines hitting Town were with regards to the finances required to keep the likes of Martin (really?), Bostock and Hollands at the County Ground. With owner Andrew Black reticent to commit even more funds to the cause, it took a lone Town fan to bring the Red Army Fund back into the public eye via the internet. Di Canio had claimed that he’d fork out the 30k himself necessary to secure the players as off-field shenanigans went from amber alert to red. Myself, personally, had contributed to the R.A.F many moons ago and to be fair this ‘call to arms’ had confirmed that all was not well.
Our measly allocation for Dean Court soon sold out – such was the demand for tickets, which also meant as a non-season ticket holder any chance I had was a non-starter. I opted for the next best thing – a trip to the famous Corinthian Casuals in South West London. On the South coast, the wet weather was going to play a big part in proceedings and, so much so, there was a lot of talk of the game being abandoned at half-time as puddles of water were beginning to form on the pitch. By this stage Town were 1-down and in a need of a lift. However, the game did restart and Town battled hard to earn a point with Andy Williams netting an 85th minute leveller leaving me ecstatic. I was happy with that. AFCB had been motoring up the league under Eddie Howe and were well within spitting distance of the top six.
The next seven days were a rather turbulent and explosive episode in Town’s season. With the crazy weather (this time snow) we were having, Saturday’s game against Shrewsbury was already in doubt but more importantly the worst kept secret regarding Andrew Black’s future at the club hit the headlines with the announcement that the club were now openly looking for new owners/investors. We’d known Black was no longer prepared to fund the club but this really hit home and the fact he wanted out asap saw the wheels come off spectacularly. What didn’t help was the possible use and interpretation of the word ‘administration’ from Sir William Patey that lit a thousand fuses in the media and public eye. We had Talk Sport suddenly calling us ‘cheats’ and we were pretty much getting it from all angles. It was like pissing into the wind trying to point out that any ‘debt’ was solely owed to Black himself – but none of these media outlets had the intelligence to comprehend.
I tried to focus on the football. I’d already booked train tickets and was left praying for some good weather. The club issued a proclamation for volunteers to help shift snow from the County Ground pitch and on Friday evening a hundred or so patriots duly obliged. Everybody wanted this game on if only to divert attention back towards the football side of things. Amazingly, all the hard work paid dividends – even Di Canio and his staff had turned up to lend a hand and he ordered Pizza for all the helpers!
With an early pitch inspection due on Saturday I had everything crossed. I was already on the train from Paddington hoping my journey wasn’t in vain. The ground staff seemed confident and when the news filtered through that referee R.Clark had passed the pitch as playable I insisted on having a celebratory drink. It was 8.30am.
As for the game, we dominated a goalless first half but within ten second half minutes we were 2-up. The first was a rather fortuitous penalty but at least it gave Chris Martin the chance to open his Town account. Hallelujah. Shortly afterwards Andy Williams timed his run perfectly to head home a second and it was game over. A memorable day made possible only by those who worked their socks off the previous 24 hours. Fair play, I salute you all.
Next Time: The Football League Paper, Tranmere Bottle Job, New Owners, Matt Ritchie, End of an Era, Top of the league and I throw my toys out of the pram versus Bury.