Play Off Lottery Love-in

1993 Celebrations

The sound of the ‘Maskell clunk’ at Wembley in 1993 still gives Nick Judd an erection… and some other Play Off memories…

I absolutely love the play-offs. Incredible things. Hats off to Trevor Playoff for inventing them, cracking idea. Of course, they’ve given us our fair share of ball-crushing disappointment.

Most of us pulled the curtains and hid for about four days post-Millwall, which was quite frankly horrendous. Before that, Brighton had been a brilliant match over two legs but ultimately ended in disappointment. Brentford? Well that stung.

Those a bit longer in the tooth will recall the Crystal Palace disappointment of ’89, of course, but let’s not forget that the play-offs have also given us some of the best feelings a football fan can experience.

For example, those same fans who curse the Eagles double header will likely go into a daze recalling the jubilant scenes against Blackburn Rovers and the win that followed against Sunderland at Wembley in 1990.

And then there’s ’93. It makes me sad that fans of a certain age weren’t there to share it with us. Imagine how you felt during the 5-5 draw last week… but at Wembley, and with a place in the Premier League at stake.

I was 15 and I remember feeling immense pride at seeing so many red scarfs and flags along the M4, even more so when, once inside the ground, there were more Swindon fans than I had ever seen before in my life. And all in one place! Who were these people? I loved them all.

Even the sea of blue at the other end looked impressive. Red v Blue. Classic. The twin towers. Blue skies. Balloons everywhere. Big expectations. Incredible.

There was Hoddle – with his sock ties and short shorts – passing the ball around like he was playing on his own and already knew the outcome… then stroking the ball home as if he was playing in his garden.

The sound of the ‘Maskell clunk, which still gives me an erection. Taylor putting his facial features on the line like few players have done since to make it 3-0.

That elation was followed by the most abject horror and disbelief: 3-1. 3-2. 3-3. FFS. Tears. Rage. Poor mum, having to deal with this when we got hom… PENALTY!

It was never a penalty by the way, but who cares.

Paul Bodin: a man so reliable you’d choose him over a Volkswagon Golf. Goal! Relief. Elation. Oh my days.

Still doesn’t seem real.

Brighton in 2004 was, of course, ultimately disappointing [though I have fond memories]. In the second leg it rained, we lost and we were so far away from the pitch we might have well of stayed in Wiltshire.

Town bossed the home leg but were robbed by a deflection. “Swindon have every right to feel hard done by,” said Albion boss Mark McGhee afterwards. You don’t say.

We won the away leg, of course, but it wasn’t enough. However, I will never forget the three scintillating minutes towards the end. Parkin had given us hope, that’s just what he did, then Fallon, with three minutes to go, scored a goal we all thought would see take us to Cardiff and a date with Bristol City.

Those three minutes were simply majestic. It’s minutes like those that help you through every takeover, every poor new signing, every poor managerial decision or hopeless performance.

Then Adam Virgo happened with virtually the last kick of the game.

There was no depression this time, more a case of ‘you have to laugh’. Friends were forged that night, friendships that still survive (and flourish).

The Valley in 2010 is one of my favourite nights of all time but let’s be clear; we were very poor in the second leg. Town had limped into the play-offs with automatic promotion a real possibility and while we played well at home, winning 2-1, Charlton had been decent on home soil.

The writing seemed on the wall when David Lucas went off with injury after five minutes, and again when Gordon Greer following him down the tunnel later in the game, this time for a red card. Oh Greer oh Greer.

At half time we were two down and devoid of ideas. Few would have expected the scenes that followed. And that’s why it was so amazing. First Danny Ward’s strike, from absolutely nowhere, then Phil Smith and the crossbar taking us to penalties.

Hang on, we don’t do penalties…

Forget that, four in a row!! Even Amankwaah’s bagged!

Now Stephen Darby’s turn. He doesn’t even play for us…

There are no words for those scenes of celebration. I stood on my chair and looked into the sky, as a grown man, and shed a tear. Football does not get better than that. I hugged so many people it felt like some weird communion. We’d all seen so many turgid performances, so many awful players – and all of them were forgotten with one kick by a player we didn’t even own.

Forget Charlie’s bobble against Millwall, the game at Wembley was lost before it had even begun. Both fans and players were intimidated and subdued. None of us turned up and we got what we deserved.

And so to Brentford in 2013…

This one still hurts a little bit, like a persistent verruca that won’t go away and provides the occasional pinch.

Remember them celebrating their equalizer in the first leg like they’d already won the tie? ‘We’ll show them’ we all thought, but few of us believed it.

The Bees quickly went 2-0 up at Griffin Park. Adam ‘f*cking’ Rooney with an own goal, then Clayton Donaldson… celebrating in front of us. Joy. Then a bit of hope thanks to… Rooney! What a hero (always told you he was awesome). Donaldson again ** holds head in hands **.

Devera offering a bit of hope…. then Flint!!!!!

You might dislike him now, you might even have disliked him then, but we should all be forever grateful for that moment of sheer – and let’s face it, totally underserved – ecstasy. It led to absolute carnage everywhere. You know it’s been a pivotal moment when you check your seat and your several rows from where you should be. Incredible.

It just goes to show that even in defeat, the play-offs can offer moments that live with you forever.

Of course, we can all remember how we felt when Miles missed his pen but for all the pain that entailed, those scenes of celebration when Flint found the net will never be forgotten. Magic.

So what of this year? Does it feel any different? No-one, with the exception of Lee Power and perhaps Mark Cooper, expected us to finish in the top six, let alone reach Wembley. However, such was our season that some of us were disappointed with our fourth-place finish.

And yet here we are and, contrary to our sieve-like defending, deservedly so. Part of me feels elated to be heading to Wembley for a third time in five years. A bigger part of me suggests this time we need to mean business. No Green Man or talk of ‘a good day out’, but instead a shit load of streamers, noise and everything crossed we can keep the division’s most prolific strike force at bay and play to our potential.

Buckle up. Whatever happens, memories will be made on Sunday. And win or lose, you can bet we’ll have done it the hard way.

Is there any other?

Behind Enemy Lines: Operation Newcastle & Sunderland

Roker Park

Back in the 1992/93 season Brendan Hobbs made two road trips to the North East to support Swindon Town at Newcastle United and Sunderland, which cannot be repeated for what we’ve all lost…

The scene: It’s a wonderfully fresh spring afternoon, the low sun peers inquisitively beneath the main stand bathing two friends in seasonal tepid warmth but failing to touch the boggy and winter bruised football pitch. The two are huddled together awaiting a good afternoon of football, they sit amongst thousands of home fans all eager as late-night drunks focusing on a kebab shop menu board.

Some random facts: A new manager is in place, one friend has a moustache, the other has a massive hangover, it’s 1993, the guy sat to the right of the two is wearing an impressive deer stalker hat, Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” is STILL enchanting us all at number one.

Some context: Today is the newly installed manager’s first game – the home fans are expectant of a turnaround in the once proud club’s flagging fortunes. The celebrated ex-England international is introduced to the crowd by the enthusiastic match-day host, the noise swells, the level of anticipation also. There’s lots of traditional scarf waving, clenched fist shaking – all of which fuels the home crowd’s soaring optimism.

Time fast forward: 90mins is showing on the stadium clock and the same two friends are nervously awaiting the conversion of an injury time penalty. One which will gift the home team an undeserved point, drawing the proverbial get out of jail free card if you will, whilst the away side have definitely landed on a hotel-maxed Mayfair.

The action: The taker looks nervous having already seen an earlier penalty missed by a team-mate. One friend can barely watch, the home crowd that surrounds them are struggling as well. The midfielder quietly places the ball, an ethereal hush gathers as thousands of onlookers hold their breath. He strides forward and in the drawn out second between two heartbeats he calmly strokes it wide and into the advertising hoardings. The incongruent sharp bang of faux leather against polycarbonate resin echoes loudly, shocking everyone.

The atmosphere: Disconsolate, the home fans stare, lacking comprehension, howls of derision can be heard, abuse welling in their throats. One friend hangs their head and buries it in the shoulder of his moustached friend. To the casual onlooker his buried face and staccato shoulder jerks gives the distinct impression that he’s sobbing with disappointment. Only Mr Moustache knows the truth, he can feel the rumbling laughter through his shoulder, across his chest and down into his ribcage.

The scene: The whistle goes, boos ring out and home fans pour haphazardly out of every exit like blood streaming from a freshly hung animal corpse, everyone is disgruntled, their wondrous new dawn has suddenly dissipated into familiar rain and thunder. Deer Stalker lets a resigned ‘f*ck it’ slip from his thin mouth, he nods at the two friends and slides out of his seat. The two go to move as well, oddly detached smiles hang from their faces as they push through the remaining clogging gore and viscera of the dripping masses. They look distant, out of place, like two guys who’ve just dropped acid before being dragged Christmas shopping by their wives. Amazingly high, but in WHSmiths, a back-to-school stationery pack away from a freak-out.

Time fast forward: Silently our two friends merge onto a crowded football special which thins with every stop, regularly puking its contents out onto the cold streets like some sort of a Haribo-overdosed toddler. Eventually they’re the last two passengers. Only then do they actually talk about the game, the game that still remains, for one of them, their most memorable away game.

The detail: I was one of the friends, the staccato shouldered one actually, Mr Moustache was the other, a Newcastle United loving, Allied Dunbar-employed Geordie. He loved his football and he would often go to watch Swindon as it was his local team, but his main love was the Magpies.

He asked me if I wanted to visit his homeland, go out on the beer, stay with friends and take in the Newcastle -Swindon game, it sounded a hoot so I agreed. Unfortunately things didn’t quite turn out as expected. My ticket was in the Newcastle end, a packed terrace full of boisterous locals expecting nothing but a home win. When I asked him about his wisdom of us being in the Newcastle end, he said that he’d stick out more in the Swindon end, than I would in the Newcastle end.

I was not sure about this logic, but I took my place, hoping that I would not be noticed. My friend then calmly announced to everyone that I was a Swindon fan, who was ‘handy with his fists’ and therefore not to be messed with. I almost soiled myself.

Thankfully Swindon held the Keegan inspired Magpies to a 0-0 draw. Not everyone was happy, one local commented to me at the end that he was ‘relieved’ that Newcastle didn’t beat us, as he probably would’ve suffered a beating from my ‘handy fists’. It was all very amicable.

It was a great road trip, one that we decided to repeat for Town’s game against Sunderland the following February. We travelled up the Friday, popped into see his parents in Annfield Plain before travelling north to Alnwick, where we and his friends embarked on a pub crawl of Keith Moon proportions. The next day was difficult, traveling back down to Newcastle was tough, sunlight was endured, food contemplated and walking a struggle.

We caught a bus to Roker Park and my friend repeated his ‘home end’ trick once more – a Newcastle fan and Swindon fan sitting among thousands of Mackems in Roker Park’s Clock Stand – what’s the worst that could happen? What was wrong with the Swindon end this time I asked him? He bought the tickets in person at the ground the previous week, and obviously couldn’t buy for the away end. Genius.

The whole afternoon was totally surreal. Sunderland, struggling near the bottom of the second tier had the newly installed Terry Butcher as player-manager; I was sat there, clapping the bloodied stereotype along with everyone else. Deer Stalker said to me, those c*nts have Keegan, and these f*cking bumpkins have Hoddle, but we’ve got a proper manager, the real McCoy.

I nodded enthusiastically in agreement, saying something derogatory about f*cking bumpkins, because in truth I was fearing a prison shower block style shivving.

Sunderland were hopeless, I mean really bad and Town tore them a new one from start to finish. The slick, quick passing was too much for the Rokerites and the wave of optimism that everyone was previously happy to surf suddenly hollowed and crashed onto utter contempt beach. Seriously, some of the ‘home team’ abuse I hear at the County Ground these days has nothing on stuff these boys were ladling out – nothing short of steaming bowlfuls of pure hate.

Despite their shapeless ineptitude, Sunderland were given the first clear cut chance to open the scoring via the penalty spot, a clumsy handball by Shaun Taylor brought Peter Davenport face-to-face with Diggers. He saved, pushing the effort onto the post – the temperature went up a notch and the soup kitchen of hate called for fresh supplies of berating broth.

Things only got worse when Town finally took the lead they deserved after a typical sweeping move which saw the red-hot Paul Bodin scythe into the penalty area before cracking the ball past a despairing keeper

Jubilation, not from me, but from the small pocket of Town fans opposite that I so desperately longed to be a part of. Inside I was woohoo-ing away, such was my joy that I allowed myself to say a mock-angry f*ckin c*nting bumpkins to Deer Stalker, he nodded approvingly.

Town were coasting, the home fans were cursing, I was laughing inside whilst launching abuse at the home team. “Sort ’em f*cking out Butcher etc. etc.” It was quite liberating.

I was loving it, right up to the 93rd minute, when an unseen hand from David Mitchell got in the way of an in-swinging corner.

Penalty, the fans around me went mental, I died a little inside. Kevin Ball volunteered for penalty duties and stepped forward to duplicate the earlier effort from his colleague and miss. An outpouring of hate and anger ensued, I buried my head into my friends shoulder and laughed and laughed and laughed, he even stroked my hair and whispered something like ‘there, there’. I’m convinced to this day that a total stranger put a conciliatory arm briefly on my back. Bonkers.

The whistle went, and the boos that accompanied Butchers exit down the tunnel where considerably louder than the cheers that greeted him.

So raw was the surrounding emotion that we didn’t dare discuss the game until we were well clear of any possible lynch mobs.

Two things from that weekend are no longer with us, the first, Roker Park, an Archie Leech classic. Old school, large, creaking and charming.  Every time the ball was belted into the roof or any supporting strut we were greeted by a shower of rust, like bitter, post-apocalyptic confetti.

The second is my friend, sadly killed a year later in a car accident on the A346 between Swindon and Marlborough. A tragedy that I reflect on often, especially when I think of those two weekends lost in a post-alcoholic haze. Hopefully he still remembers the time as fondly as I do – wherever he is; maybe he is looking down and reading this. If that’s the case – dude, I still have your Total Recall video that you lent me before you went, I hope you don’t mind.

At Home with the Bodins: Does Billy Bodin still wear dresses?

Billy Bodin 2

In our first dip into the weird and wonderful world of the Swindon Town Matchday Programme, this article from August 1994 raises a few questions about former Town player Billy Bodin and does he still wear dresses? Aww isn’t the two-year old Bodin cute…

At Home with the Bodins

Click image to open

Twenty Years Since Wembley ’93: Pitchside at Swindon vs Leicester

1993 Play Off Final - I Was There 2

BBC Devon’s Vic Morgan recalls his experience of the 1993 Play Off Final, having the fortune of reporting on Town from the Wembley pitchside…

What a game. There’s no question, Swindon versus Leicester City in the Division One Play Off Final was one of the best matches played at the old and shabby Wembley Stadium.

Having watched the two semi-finals against Tranmere from the stands and terraces, I was asked to be pitchside reporter for the final. This was a year after I’d moved to Devon to work. So I gratefully accepted the opportunity to work alongside Nigel Turner and Jed Pitman.

The semi’s were tremendous and full of incident. None more so than Craig Maskell’s slow motion goal at Prenton Park. Seemingly, nipping out for a takeaway after rounding the goalkeeper and then finally rolling the ball into the net. An agonizing few seconds.

The Monday of the game arrived and a morning of collecting broadcast gear and passes followed before a moment I’ll NEVER forget.

You see one of my jobs was to follow the two teams out of the tunnel. John Gorman led the Town out because, of course, Glenn Hoddle was playing. John gave me a quick nod as he made his way to the head of the Swindon team. I waited for the Robins and Foxes to march out and then emerged behind them to hear the most incredible noise. My legs turned to jelly.

I’ve no idea what it would do to you if you were a player. They’re used to coming out to play on football grounds every week. This though was amazing. The only thing I’ve ever compared it too is waiting for Concorde to take off. Your whole body shakes and your legs give way. Astounding.

The game itself ? Well you know the story.

I was behind the goal that the Town were attacking in the first half.

Hoddle’s beautiful opener. Curled effortlessly into the corner of the net. Further goals from Maskill and OO Shaun Taylor seemed to make it safe.

Oh no. Swindon v Leicester matches are never straightforward. Behind me the fans from the East Midlands went crazy as their team fought back to make it level. It was breathtaking, if not heartbreaking, stuff. Swindon so close, yet so far.

Then the penalty. “Chalky” ahem brought down and “Zippy” scoring. Swindon, yes Swindon, were in the Premier League. It was three years since their phantom promotion in the same stadium against Sunderland. Strange how that team has so many links with the Town.

At last we were to see out beloved Swindon in among the elite.

After the game, a frenzy of interviews. Nicky Summerbee, resplendent in a natty straw hat, relaxing on a bench in the famous Wembley dressing rooms. Nicky, a player I’d first interviewed when he was a raw youth player. Now a part of Swindon folklore. The gaffer Glenn Hoddle in a state of undress just taking the whole day in. Just a few days before leaving for Stamford Bridge. Wonderful moments.

Then the journey home and the motorway bridges full of Swindon supporters seemingly unable to believe what had happened.

“It was twenty years ago today, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. Glenn Hoddle our own Sgt Pepper taking over what the magician Ossie Ardiles had started. Revolutionising Swindon’s play, after Lou Macari’s glory years.

What a day, what a period of the clubs history. Twenty years ? Doesn’t seem like twenty minutes.


Twenty Years Since Wembley ’93: Swindon 352 v Leicester City 442

John Moncur Swindon.jpg

Alex Cooke takes a look back at the pattern of play in one of the most fascinating games played at the old Wembley – Swindon Town v Leicester City.

One theme written throughout this bout nostalgia has been the comment that ‘it doesn’t feel like 20 years’ since Swindon won at Wembley. Not to me it doesn’t.

Watching Swindon 4, Leicester 3 again it seems as if more than just two decades have passed. Not because of the cast of milk-skinned, sallow youths, nor the surprising physicality of a match which in my memory was played by a Town team of rake-thin foundlings in velvet slippers.

The real surprise was in the systems on show – an orthodox 442 as British as cream teas, warm beer and casual racism versus an almost continental 352. For this wasn’t the defensive five-at-the-back system since used by Steve McMahon, nor the version once deployed at Milmoor with Stefan Miglioranzi as sweeper. This was Glen Hoddle as a libero; Glen Hoddle, one of the most naturally talented English footballers of all time, sometimes in front, sometimes behind and mostly betwixt centre backs. Just beautiful.

Leicester, by contrast, were English orthodoxy personified: big man/little man up top, two wingers and one attacking full-back, one defensive one. Their defensive line was far higher than Town’s own, probably safe in the knowledge that Swindon lacked pace and relied on possession to build attacks.

Watching now – as I couldn’t then – at least partly freed from choking emotion, Town’s football is the stuff of a fevered dream – yes, a 352 but with one forward who drops off, a screening midfielder allowing two wing-backs to attack, two man-markers and Hoddle the spare man at the back.

In the middle, Martin Ling and John Moncur were intricate and inventive as the ball carriers, while Ross MacLaren was what Eric Cantona termed the ‘water carrier’ shielding the central defence but rarely allowed his cloven hooves to touch the precious, precious ball.

Wide of them was Nicky Summerbee who played as a true wing-back, galloping forward, dribbling and crossing, while also falling back to defend as a full-back. On the other flank Paul Bodin was more tentative. He needed to be played in, to arrive late, attacking space.

In this game, Summerbee was key as his ability to make what those much vaunted ‘third-man runs’, essentially charging forward as Moncur and Ling played vertical passes to ensure the forwards could lay the ball off. The way he joined the attack was also vital in holding back Leicester’s stronger left flank. Each time Town went forward, Summerbee took both the winger and full-back with him, so in effect five were marking three – Summerbee, Craig Maskell and Dave Mitchell.

This created even greater space in the middle for Town’s trio to dominated Leicester’s two. It even indirectly led to the first Town goal as although Steve Agnew diligently followed Hoddle on a rare dart forward, when the ball was switched to Summerbee, Agnew switched off. He didn’t see Hoddle drift out then in, for he had turned his back. Instead Agnew was drawn to Maskell, before Hoddle broke from behind him to end a beautiful move with a beautiful goal.

Leicester Final 1st Goal Hoddle

Hoddle was, of course, a delight throughout. For much of the game, he stayed close to Shaun Taylor: beauty and the beast. Taylor man-marked, and dominated, totemic target man Steve Walsh. And Walsh was main Leicester’s outlet – target for some very good crosses, some poor hoofs and general focal point for their 442. Hoddle’s defensive job was to ensure that whatever flicked from the Neanderthal slopes of Walsh or Taylor’s brows, he would collect and distribute simply.

Taylor and Colin Calderwood took the function of ‘toe-treaders’, playing as dedicated markers to Walsh and Julian Joachim. Interesting they followed this brief precisely, never handing over their man, instead adjusting their position to make sure strength stayed with strength while pace followed pace. And it worked, for despite the final score line Leicester created very few chances.

A further reminder of how the game has changed in the past two decades came in how Town dropped off into their own half, rather than pressure possession. So the defence was deep too, mostly likely to stop the lithe Joachim being able to accelerate into space behind them.

Now, post Klopp’s Dortmund and Bielsa’s Chile, we are used to teams trying to win the ball back high up the field and make quick vertical transitions, but not here. Despite all the goals, this was a patient game, controlled by Town completely.

At the heart of it all Moncur and Ling were revelations to my fading memory. Both carried the ball fearlessly and with remarkable intelligence of when to dribble and dart or when to pass and pause. It was their talent, not tactics which made Town’s second goal though, Moncur’s driving dribble wasn’t stopped by the Foxes’ sloppy midfield but when the defence did, he had the vision to offload and Maskell had the incision to stay wide and onside and chime in with a delightful finish.

Leicester Final 2nd Goal

Leicester Final 2nd Goal - Maskell

In spite of a small stature of so much of the side, it had some heft too. Ross MacLaren shielding the central defence (although the closely cropped shots of TV coverage make his contribution hard to judge properly) and Dave Mitchell – well, Mitchell was a monster. For all the beauty around him, Mitchell’s endeavour was vital. He might have had the beard of a geography teacher but if he wanted to show you an oxbow lake, you would have agreed. When Town tired or were trapped, he gave an outlet and retained possession, or when Bodin or Summerbee couldn’t find a simple ball he could be hit with an early cross from deep.

The combination of Town’s formation and personnel did create a problem though as the game went on. As Summerbee faded, the width evaporated. As Maskell slumped, possession higher up the field became harder to regain or retain. Also without pace anywhere in the team, the quick counter attack wasn’t an option, despite the balls that Hoddle could drop behind the Foxes’ defence. That is until Steve White came on to work the channels because even with his limited pace and Kevin Poole’s lack of judgement,

When Town slumped, part physically but seemingly mostly psychologically, Leicester were finally able to spread their wings – and their full-backs and get into the game. It might have been tiredness or shock at taking a 3-0 lead but Town’s midfield flagged. As a result Hoddle stepped forward and eventually calmed things but his side lost their shape for a while and the Foxes came back, and back, and back again to level the score.

Swindon v Leicester City – Full Match footage from ITV’s ‘The Match’

As that fight back began Leicester’s Steve Thompson seemed to have greater time on the ball just in front of his own back four. Was it a cause or just a contributory factor? It is hard to tell from the limited and low angles of much of the TV coverage but the qualities of a very good Leicester side suddenly became apparent. Finally Agnew and David Oldfield were both bold enough to get closer to Walsh, turning the striker’s headers into chances as Hoddle needed to mark one of the runners. No longer having the ‘spare’ man, Town’s became cautious of leaving gaps at the back and the wing-backs became flatter and no longer supported those in front of them as Hoddle stepped up.

While Leicester’s 442 was based largely on wing play and support from the full-backs, they also had some very good players, particularly in central midfield. However, looking back Brian Little’s tactics did little to help them. Instead of using the nippy Joachim wide and leaving Town over-manned in the middle of defence with a trio against just Walsh, he played the two centrally. Where as Joachim could have been used to keep Bodin or Summerbee back, they were allowed free, knowing that Town’s trio at the back could cover.

Little could have even switched to a full 433 using just three attackers to pin back Town’s five, evening up the midfield miss-match, pressuring the relatively limited MacLaren on the ball and forcing Town to change their game. After all, lone strikers were pretty much what sent the 352 formation into hibernation for a decade or so until sides such as Napoli reshaped and revived it.

But Little’s failings shouldn’t mask Town’s excellence. This was a superb game between two very good sides, and one whose see-sawing momentum represented the qualities of both teams: a wonderful Town side showed how possession and technique can be used not just as an attacking tactic but also a defensive one, while Leicester’s comeback showed their slightly more earthy blend of virtues but still remained thrilling to watch.

And despite the wonderful ability of this Swindon side, and of Hoddle, Ling and Moncur in particular, it is clear that they remain just like all the other Town teams before and since – it can’t be done the easy way. And that certainly hasn’t changed, even during the last 20 years.

Twenty Years Since Wembley ’93: Tranmere Rovers 3 Swindon 2 (4-5 agg)

Tranmere 2nd Leg - Final Score 5

Phil Allen made the trip to the Wirral on 19th May 1993. Here are his thoughts on that Division One Play Off Semi-Final 2nd Leg against Tranmere Rovers as we continue our celebration of twenty years since Wembley ’93 and promotion to the Premier League…

So, it’s really 20 years since the Tranmere Playoff games? I can’t believe it’s been so long and what on earth have I done with my adult life since then? Some of the memories of the 92/93 season are still as clear as the day the ball was kicked: the 6-4 thriller at St Andrews, 4 nil at Vicarage Road, beating West Ham at Upton Park, great home wins against Sunderland and Newcastle, plus taking four points off both Brizzle clubs and Oxford  – for the younger Town fans, I’m not making this stuff up, it really did happen in one season. And all of this in what is now grandly referred to as “The Championship” (League Division One in those days of course).

So after a successful season and playing some great football along the way, May brought the play-offs. At the time I was at Uni in Portsmouth (ok, so I’d joined Portsmouth Poly a year before after a spectacular but less than academically successful six-form career in Swindon, but it was now a proper University, honestly – just go with me on this one).

So the first priorities were tickets and transport. Being down in Pompey, with no car and no money posed a bit of a problem on both fronts – luckily I’m from a family of Town supporters, so big brother was on hand to queue for tickets and an offer of a free trip to Prenton Park. The next issue was bunking off Uni for two days and getting back to Swindon – not so difficult you might think, but bear in mind I’d come back for the home leg a few days beforehand, and by a combination of bad timing and one extra pint too many, had managed to get myself stranded at Bath Spa station after the last train home on Saturday night. I remember it was a balmy night and the cunning plan was to kip down on the platform and get the first train out at 6am – queue knife fight between two hobo’s on Platform 2 and suddenly it didn’t seem such a great idea…..

Tranmere 2nd Leg - Match Lineups

Anyway, I’ve been trying to remember what lectures I missed that Wednesday and Thursday back in ’93 – I think it was definitely Law on Wednesdays but no idea what Thursday would have brought. Law I was ok at, so no great loss – the problem was everyone on my course knew I was a big Town fan, so the chances are my lecturers would have known where I’d disappeared off to –but I honestly don’t remember thinking twice about cutting class for two days to see a football match, even with less than two weeks before all of my end of year exams.

So, having made a note of the times for changing trains at Bath, I headed out of Fratton Station early on the 19th to rendezvous with Rob back in Swindon, before heading north to Merseyside. It’s a strange comment on my life, but in my 41 years on this earth I’ve been to the tropics of Queensland, travelled around New Zealand, as well as being a frequent visitor to many parts of the UK, but that night in May ’93 remains my only ever visit to Liverpool (ok, not really Liverpool, but close enough for my liking). When your first visit to a city was as good as mine, perhaps any return trip would always have been a major disappointment – safe to say, I’m still not planning on finding out if it actually would be.

Match highlights

So to the match: After the great start at the County Ground on the Sunday, the mood amongst the travelling Town fans was high – some had a few niggling doubts after the 3-1 defeat a month earlier but I remember my biggest worry was meeting the team from my adopted new home town at Wembley, who had finished third and looked strongest of the four playoff contenders – also one of my house-mates was a big Pompey fan, so it would have made for an “interesting time” at home.

Sure enough, the first goal from John Moncur confirmed my pre-match confidence and the Red and White Army were in full voice.  Looking back now it’s odd – I have no recollection of John Aldridge being in the Tranmere line-up at all that day – a great striker, but I don’t remember him being a threat across either of the two games. The man who was starting to make the Town faithful sweat was Pat Nevin – he’d set up Tranmere’s first before half time and was on hand to slot home their second – at times he was running the show in the second half and every Tranmere attack was looking dangerous. Just to think, a Tranmere Swindon game included the footballing greats of Nevin and Hoddle, as well as Aldridge and my favourite Town player of the era, Mickey Hazard – heady days indeed (Hazard on the subs bench, for the statto’s amongst you).

Between the two Tranmere goals, there was the “goal” that never was – a big shout but Digby pulled it back off the line – I never did have a clear view of it from the terrace and not living in the HTV region, I don’t think I ever saw a replay of it until the dawn of the YouTube age – having watched it again recently I still can’t be sure, but anyway, all’s well that ends well!

Tranmere 2nd Leg - Digby Save

Maskell came off the bench to combine with Mitchell for the town equaliser –and the Town fans were going crazy – Wembley looked secure again and I remember that old-fashioned surge down the terracing as we mobbed the goalscorer . What a great season both strikers had up front – another oddity for me – neither managed that same level of performance before or since the 92/93 term – if only one of them had been able slot home as regularly for us the following season.

But the drama wasn’t over (it never is with the Town, is it?) – a poor trip just inside the box by that footballing great Hoddle and Tranmere were now only one behind again on aggregate. Town had no more than ten minutes to hang on but it was nail biting stuff. I seem to remember a lengthy injury time but I might have imagined that – it certainly felt like it. So finally the ref blows for full time and the feeling of relief and jubilation was fantastic as Town won 5-4 on aggregate.

Although for me, there were a couple of moments of real concern: Firstly, the rumour went across our part of the terrace that Portsmouth had destroyed Leicester 5 nil, confirming my worst fears that Pompey were on the march. Back in ’93 a smart phone with BBC Sport App was about as unlikely as travel beyond the Sun, so you had to make do with one bloke with a radio – I’m pretty sure it was before the days of Five Live too – it wasn’t until the following morning that I had the relief of knowing we’d be meeting the Foxes at Wembley.

Secondly, the Tranmere fans poured onto the pitch and after the initial commiserations with their players they made their way to the Swindon end. 1993 was before the modern age of all-seater stadiums and wall-to-wall Sky had really kicked in and for a minute it seemed touch and go to whether some of the disappointed Merseysiders would be looking to take out their frustrations as wouldn’t have been that unusual in the era – having started going to matches in the early 80’s, I’d seen a few “unsavoury” incidents over the years and you still never quite knew when things might get ugly. But to their great credit, the Tranmere faithful were gracious in defeat, even after having got so close. Both sets of supporters applauded each other with genuine mutual respect – to be fair, I’ve not seen a response like that before or since .

More highlights and news clips

On the way out of the ground, a couple of Tranmere lads were keen to swap hats with me but it was not to be – I was as keen as the next man to enter into the spirit of the evening but you need to know it was my lucky hat that had got us through that season, so there was no way I was going to let it go before a Wembley final. Also, it was a STFC beanny hat, which back in the day of the Stone Roses et al, was the thing to have as an indie kid – it remains my favourite ever bit of Swindon clothing, although now, strangely, it seems much too small.

So the long journey home – eventually rolling back into Portsmouth the following lunch-time (no doubt having emptied the cupboards of all the tins of beans) to find after Pompey had been knocked out there was no fans love-in at Fratton Park: it had kicked off big style (as we used to say) and living only 100 yards from the ground there was still broken glass being swept up and at the other end of the ground was a burnt-out car. My housemate couldn’t have had a more different night to me. Well the rest is history – the residents of Portsmouth never seemed to worry about me walking around their city in my Town top, or the Wembley flag in the front window for the next month or so – I think they must have been more than happy with our victory over Leicester.

We had our one season in the top flight and Tranmere had another couple of pops at the Premier League but never quite made it.  20 years later, we both find ourselves in League One. Have things changed being a Town fan? Well maybe the quality isn’t quite what it was in the second tier and perhaps we now, at least in the short term, haven’t got so much to look forward to. But come May 2013 I’ve found myself travelling to a tense play-off semi-final again with my brother. Another close run thing right to the last kick of the game – maybe thing don’t change that much after all. Perhaps we had the rub of the green in ’93 which we didn’t this year: with Vickers’ gifts in the first leg, the disallowed “goal”at Prenton Park and Chalkie White’s penalty hero scenario at Wembley. Over both semi’s with Brentford this term we didn’t seem to get anything out of the officials or the opposition and managed to provide a couple of gifts of our own along the way. Come to think of it now, I guess the strongest team just came out on top then and now.

Here’s to another 20 years!

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Follow Phil Allen on Twitter @chisieweirdo

Twenty Years Since Wembley ’93: Swindon 3 Tranmere Rovers 1

Tranmere 1st Leg - Final Score 4

Brendan Hobbs recalls the 1993 Division One Play Off Semi-Final 1st Leg against Tranmere Rovers which took place on 16th May 1993, as we continue our celebration of twenty years since Wembley ’93 and promotion to the Premier League…

With all the disappointment surrounding Swindon’s recent play-off defeat – our third attempt to leave this division in ten years, it puts into perspective our achievements twenty years ago – especially when you consider it all happened in a higher division. So to all those younger fans out there its worth reading on, because back in May 1993 we really showed how to win the play-offs – with exciting, edge-of-your-seat football and classic rollercoaster matches.

At the end of the 1992/93 season after a particular gruelling campaign Town finished up 5th in Barclays League Division One, which is the Coca Cola Championship in old money. Swindon’s form was not good going into the play-offs (sound familiar?). Without a win in the last five games of the regular season it was anybody’s guess as to whom Swindon would end up facing. When the dust finally settled a date was set with Tranmere Rovers – by virtue of the Wirral team finishing one place and three points better off than Swindon.

As soon as the two-legged fixture was arranged I remember looking up the aggregate score for the two regular season games. Omens were good, Swindon won the home game 2-0 and lost in the away 3-1, which would’ve made an aggregate score of 3-3 and a Town advance on the away goal rule.

The 2-0 home win was particularly fortuitous as it came in a re-arranged fixture – terminal floodlight failure put paid to the original game, a match in which Swindon were losing 2-1 at the time.

With Tranmere finishing higher in the league than Swindon they had home advantage for the second leg, which left Swindon hosting them on Sunday 16th May 1993.

16th May, twenty years, and without sounding too clichéd, how time has flown. But surely nothing’s changed that much? I was a mere slip of a lad aged 19, I had flowing luxuriant shoulder-length hair (what was I thinking?), I wore Doc Martins, was a total indie kid and went to Level 3 on a Saturday night. Good times.

Talking of music, Ace of Base were topping the charts with their parental based conundrum “All That She Wants” and at the cinema we were all yelling “Fuck it, take the money” to Woody Harrelson in his adultery based conundrum “Indecent Proposal”. The population of Ireland were still out getting drunk after celebrating their latest Eurovision Song contest win – and before you ask it was this wailing, damp-eyed sub-ballad that clinched the title.

Anyone remember watching it? I wonder if a heavily pregnant Mrs Oxlade-Chamberlain decided to put her feet up and sit through the whole bloated three hour suck-o-rama, lovingly stroking her growing bump which was due to flop out a wailing Alex in three months’ time.

Strangely, his Dad Mark netted against Town in a 3-1 win earlier in the campaign – I wonder how he celebrated when he got home? Am I suggesting a dismal Swindon display was the indirect catalyst for the production of one of England’s brightest stars… well, yes, yes I am. Give it another twenty years and a young Dave Donaldson (son of Clayton) will be scoring a hatrick in the World Cup final, you heard it here first.

In football, the second tier was crammed full of soon to be non-league teams with Cambridge, Luton, Oxford and Grimsby (who finished a creditable 9th) playing alongside Swindon that season. Rubbing shoulders with soon to be Premier Leaguers Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland, funny old game etc. Oh, and Bristol Rovers finished bottom.

Manchester United wrapped up their 8th Premier League crown and Fergie’s first, fending off late challenges from current top tier relegation fodder, Aston Villa and Norwich. Every manager in the top flight bar one, (Wimbledon’s pseudo-paddy Joe Kinnear) were British, 16 out of 22 were English – now who said nothing much has changed in twenty years?

Anyway, back to Sunday 16th May, after spending eternity deciding whether to wear my hair up or down (Christ almighty, *weeps quietly*) I donned my ‘potato print’ green away top and left the house early so I could safely secure my regular spot on the Shrivenham Road terrace, none of this reserved seating nonsense back in those days.

Tranmere 1st Leg - Match Lineups

Hoddle shuffled his pack from the final league outing of the season, a 1-0 defeat away at Barnsley. Paul Bodin replaced the teenage Kevin Horlock at left back, John Moncur returned for Micky Hazard and David Mitchell once again teamed with his regular striking foil Craig Maskell. The Aussie replacing Channel Islander Chris Hamon – cosmopolitan times at the County Ground. Hoddle played despite a long standing groin strain injury as did Ross MacLaren who was doubtful with an existing hernia problem.

The return of Bodin to the defensive line was going to be key to any success Swindon could dare to enjoy, despite all the free flowing football and attacking vigour, Towns defence was our strongest area.

This was highlighted when on the day of the first leg The People newspaper released their ‘First Division Clubcall (remember that?) Merit Marks Winners 92-93’:

Tranmere 1st Leg - Clubcall

Town were fired up for this match, Micky Hazard had already been quoted in the national media stating that Swindon ‘will explode’ in both play-off games and he was certainly right in the first encounter.

On an overcast day, with occasional showers Town went at Tranmere from the first whistle, and with the game only 1 minute and 43 seconds old the ball was in the back of the Tranmere net. A typical chaos inducing cross from Nicky Summerbee was met by Steve Vickers, normally Tranmere’s Mr Dependable at the back, yet in a state of total panic bought on by the burly presence of David Mitchell, he misread the bounce of the ball and headed into his own net, 1 nil.

Roared on by a delirious home crowd and barely a minute later Summerbee found himself in an almost identical position on the right and delivered another cross, this time there seemed no danger as it deflected off the full back and looked comfortable for our friend Vickers to deal with. But no, whether the centre back was still reeling from his own goal or the sight of David Mitchells Grizzly Adams beard honing into view he inexplicably fed the ball into Ross MacLarens path.

If you were ever going to accidently lay on a long range opportunity for someone in the Town team, then Mr Blobby would’ve been the worst choice. With a right foot like a traction engine/howitzer (insert Partridge-ism here) Blobs fired a low fizzing drive at Eric Nixon, who belied his second place in the Clubcall best goalkeeping stakes by allowing the ball to squirm away; it was almost as if the leather sphere had been temporarily transformed into a bunch of eels. The ball fell kindly to Mitchell who despite great pressure from Dave Higgins guided the ball into the empty net, three minutes played 2 nil.  What could go wrong?

Well, Tranmere got straight back into the game via a fourth minute John Aldridge header, only for referee Allan Gunn to disallow the effort for a non-existent push on Summerbee. A huge let off for Town, but not for ITV officials who fell foul of profanity watchdogs as they broadcast live Aldridge’s ‘disappointed’ reaction to the decision.

Swindon vs Tranmere Rovers Highlights and News Clips

With Tranmere slumped on the ropes Swindon continued to push – looking for a third which would certainly put them in the driving seat, they didn’t have to wait long as it came just before the half hour. That man Steve Vickers miscued an attempted clearance straight to Craig Maskell who showed great control before releasing Mitchell with a delicious through ball. The entire Tranmere backline mechanically stuck their hands in the air for an offside decision they felt sure would come, with a certain Pat Nevin particularly incensed by the non-flag.

But instead of getting his head down and chasing down the ball he runs full pelt with one arm aloft, Mitchell advances towards goal, pulling Nixon off his line before unselfishly squaring the ball to Maskell who coolly slotted home his 22nd goal of the season, 3 nil.

Nevin appealed even harder when Mitchell crossed the ball to Maskell. Now, presumably as a respected pundit these days he surely knows that you cannot be offside if you’re actually behind the passer? Well, when this perceived misdemeanour goes unpunished, Nevin wheels away and sprints towards the linesman with such determination you’d have thought he was off celebrating a winner in the World Cup final. Watch it on the video, it’s quite amusing.

I met a Tranmere fan about ten years after this game and the first thing he mentioned to me was our ‘offside’ third goal, well Rob Parrett if you’re reading this:

Tranmere 1st Leg - Offisde

The second half started as breathlessly as the first with Glenn Hoddle swinging in a peach of a freekick, David Mitchell rose brilliantly to head the ball goalwards only for the effort to cannon back off the crossbar. Mitchell was having a storming game, underlining his massive importance to the team. There was still a chance that if Swindon made it to the final Mitchell wouldn’t be there because the Australian national team wanted him for a crucial World Cup qualifier against New Zealand – which was on the same day as the final.

Town continued to pressure, with both Ross MacLaren and Martin Ling going close in quick succession, Tranmere were wobbling and it looked as if their legs would buckle at any moment and concede a vital, tie-ending fourth. But quickly the tide turned and it was Swindon who looked nervous and took their foot off the accelerator.

In The Times newspaper the next day reporter Rob Hughes quoted a snippet from John King’s (the Tranmere manager) inspirational half time team talk “This is a whole season’s work, you can’t pack in now, get after them!” And get after Swindon they did, the whole mood of the ground changed as Tranmere started to look more and more dangerous.

This new-found attacking spirit eventually led to a lifeline, courtesy of a truly wonderful strike by John Morrissey. Always a source of attacking trickery and pace, Morrissey turned Bodin inside out, creating enough room to fizz a curling effort beyond the clutches of an outstretched Digby. So good was the strike that I bet even now he still wishes that every day is like Sunday (16th May)….. baddum tish.

He then squandered a far easier chance ten minutes later before allowing his apparent frustration get the better of him by launching a horrific hacking challenge on Martin Ling which drew a yellow card from Gunn. If the same tackle happened today he would’ve received a straight red, no mistake.

The game finished perfectly poised at 3-1, (Man of the Match – Steve Vickers) the away goal making a huge difference to my mood. At 3 nil I would’ve been confident, but the door was left open and guaranteed a tense second leg.

Tranmere 1st Leg - Final Score

John King mirrored my thoughts by saying “We are confident we can get to Wembley. We’re in the same position as Portsmouth. They need to win 2-0 to go through against Leicester, and everyone’s calling them the favourites.”

Most of the post-match interviews with Hoddle however didn’t concentrate on the match result, but instead focussed on where Hoddle would be plying his trade next year. “I’m just concentrating all my energies on getting Swindon Town to Wembley” he said on a self-repeating mantra to a particularly tigerish Daily Mirror reporter who constantly found a different way to ask the same question.

Second half sub Micky Hazard was confident on both finely balanced subjects, firstly saying that based on the first leg result: ”We have the tremendous incentive of knowing that if we make it Glenn will stay. He has been linked with Chelsea for weeks but he is incredibly important to Swindon.” And when pressed on whether he was relishing the prospect of potentially playing his former club Portsmouth in a final “I am afraid they will be disappointed because I am 100 per cent convinced it will be Swindon who are in the Premier next season.”

So onto Prenton Park for the second leg, where all will be decided and knowing Swindon, it certainly wouldn’t be easy…

And there you have it, the story of the first leg – all this happened twenty short years ago and on reflection perhaps a lot has changed. My long hair is gone, it’s now short and slightly grey, I’ve got a wife and two kids, I’m still an indie kid at heart but tragically Level 3 has closed down, but life as they say, still rolls on.

Swindon vs Tranmere Rovers Full Match

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