Steve Hall’s remembers his first game watch Swindon Town 50 years ago and wonders whether the upcoming visit of Chelsea will similarly inspire a new generation of Town supporters?
As I write, in seven hours and one minute’s time it will be 50 years ago on the dot that my first Swindon Town game started. At midnight Sydney time, 3pm UK time on Saturday 21st September 2013, Swindon will kick off at home to Bristol City, just as they did exactly 50 years earlier at home to Sunderland.
Thus started my first and longest running love affair, with football as a game and with Swindon as my team – but on that day I was there to watch Sunderland.
Eighteen days earlier I’d been dragged kicking and screaming as a from the cosmopolitan flesh pots of Hartlepool to face the wilds of Wantage, along with my five year old brother, by my obviously uncaring parents.
It was surely some feeble attempt of consolation that prompted my rugby-loving father to ask if I wanted to see Sunderland, our closest “big” club in t’North, play that day.
My previous experience of watching football had been limited to mucking around behind the stands of the Victoria Ground as Hartlepool finished bottom of the fourth division yet again, so I was unprepared for the heaving crowds, the noise, the passion and the atmosphere of that game.
Arriving late, we climbed the stairs that led in those days to the stand that stood (as stands do) where the Don Rogers stand now stands, only just gaining entrance to stand in the packed County Ground.
As a rather short almost twelve year old the only way I could see the action was to spend the game clinging to a beam at the back of the stand, glimpsing the action between the roof above and the crowds in front of me – but what glimpses.
Even though Sunderland lost to a Jack Smith goal (of which I have no memory) I left enraptured and returned for the next game just to savour the atmosphere. And fell in love, with the team, with the ground and with the game.
For the next 16 years I enjoyed the highs of giant killing, cup wins, promotion, European football and Don Rogers and the lows of relegation and Dave Mackay.
Even living 20 miles away in Wantage, then 40 miles away at Bristol University, (which I chose because of its proximity to Swindon) I only ever missed a home game for two reasons – in my schoolboy days, on the occasions when my father banned me from games as a punishment for unruly behaviour, until I took to going anyway, then later when playing for the mighty Clifton Rockets in the Bristol Downs League.
They were heady days – my first away game, the 3-3 draw at West Ham; trips to Coventry, Derby, West Brom (vs Burnley) and of course Wembley in ’69, wins over Roma, Juventus, Liverpool, narrow cup losses to Leeds, the packed house against Arsenal, Don scoring from 30 metres in the last minutes of his last game before being transferred and many, many more memorable games.
Up to the age of sixteen my transport option from Wantage was limited to the Chandlers bus, with no option at all for away games, but subsequently my thumb took me to many away games and as far afield as Hartlepool, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Cardiff and Walsall.
Then in 1979 came my last home game for, as I thought then, an entire season, the 3-1 win over Gillingham that kept our promotion dream alive (and at which I received a parking fine that I haven’t got around to paying yet) followed by the 2-0 win at Brentford that kept up the momentum.
But my final game before leaving for Sydney was a black day. Not only did we lose 2-1 at Sheffield Wednesday to destroy our promotion hopes but after the game my friend and I got back to Coventry, where he lived, too late to go to the pub. I’m still mentally scarred.
But, I thought, there’s always next season – but for me there wasn’t. What was planned as a year in the colonies turned into 34 years living in Sydney, and although I’ve been back many times and seen dozens of games I’ve never returned to live and I’ve never been able to buy the season ticket I’d always coveted.
But I’ve loved Swindon from afar and followed the results avidly, by newspaper at the British consulate, by telephone results service, via the internet, on Town Player and occasionally on TV.
And I’m sure that on that day I saw my first game there was a 60ish guy at the game that remembered Harold Fleming helping Swindon win the Southern League 50 years earlier back in 1913. And I hope that, as I watch the Chelsea game at 4.45am on Wednesday, there’ll be an 11 year old there seeing Swindon for the first time who will fall in love like I did and who will look back fondly to that game 50 years from now.
Players, managers and owners come and go, the ground changes, the shirts change, and even the fans grow old and are renewed. But the team goes on – and long may it do so.