Going Up! 1968/69 – League and cup success
As we continue to look back over previous Swindon Town promotions, Mike Minihane recalls the Division Three promotion that was added to the League Cup in 1968/69.
I doubt that any fan who can remember it would say anything other than this was our finest season.
It’s best remembered for our lifting the League Cup at Wembley on March 15th 1969; the achievement of promotion in the same season was all the more commendable in this context. We played 61 games; 46 in the League, 3 in the FA Cup and 12 in the League Cup. In the second half of the season we were playing two games almost every week yet the team was largely the same for each game.
Our fitness level was truly amazing and if ever a Swindon team played for each other than this was it. Peter Downsborough, Stan Harland, and Peter Noble played every league game, Don Rogers played 45, Frank Burrows 44, Rod Thomas 44, Joe Butler 42, Roger Smart 40, John Smith 38 and Don Heath 34. John Trollope missed half of the season due to a broken arm sustained at Hartlepool in the second game of the season but had returned by the beginning of February.
I don’t remember having any particular high expectations at the start of the season. After Danny Williams had replaced Bert Head as Manager in 1965 we’d finished 7th, 8th and 10th respectively in the previous three seasons. The team in 1968 was much the same as the previous season, but with the additions of Frank Burrows from Scunthorpe United as centre half to replace Mel Nurse who’d moved back to Swansea Town and the experienced John Smith signed from Torquay United. Both turned out to be critical signings, Burrows forming a formidable central defensive partnership with Stan Harland and Smith combining guile, creativity and not a little brutality in midfield.
A crowd of over 13,000 turned up for our first game, home to Stockport County, a tough game which looked to be heading for a 0-0 draw until a late goal by Peter Noble. It was a close offside call and the referee had a long hard look before giving the goal. A winning start and three points on the board was the start of a six game unbeaten run with two wins and three draws in the next five games.
Two successive away defeats to Bournemouth and Bristol Rovers took the wind out of our sails a little but then a run of seven consecutive wins, with 18 goals scored against only 5 conceded saw us make headway up the league. The last of these was a 5-1 demolition of Southport with Don Rogers scoring four, one of which was one of the best goals I ever saw him score, beating a succession of defenders in the penalty area with the most amazing control before rolling the ball past the keeper.
We were starting to look like a team that was both defensively sound and that could also score goals. In November we destroyed Northampton 6-2 away with Don running through almost their entire defence to score a typical solo goal.
At the half way stage in the season three teams were setting the pace for the two promotion places at stake, Swindon, Watford and Luton Town. Our home game against Luton was featured on Match of the Day on January 18th, before a crowd of almost 19,000. This was back in the days of one televised game in grainy black and white on a small screen, commentated by David Coleman. The normal MoTD curse applied of course, Luton defended well, their only noteworthy shot in 90 minutes courtesy of their promising young player Bruce Rioch. Their keeper had a blinder and in the end we murdered them 0-0. We got over this however and in the next two games beat Tranmere Rovers 5-3 away before beating Oldham Athletic 5-1 at home. Oldham’s goal was only the 3rd conceded at home since the start of the season. This was our fourth unbeaten game in a run that was to extend to eleven games.
By the end of February we had accumulated a lot of games in hand due to our League Cup success. We faced four consecutive homes games in two weeks against Tranmere, Rotherham, Gillingham and Northampton. If we could take maximum points from these we’d be consolidate our position before our ‘day out’ at Wembley on March 15th.
It was a tall order. This was a nervy time. On a cold Tuesday night we had to wait until the 86th minute for a Peter Noble goal to see off Tranmere 1-0. The following Saturday it was Rotherham at home. The pitch seemed waterlogged when I arrived at the ground, with various pumps going full blast and an army of ground staff with forks trying desperately to make an impression. I could see no way that the game could go ahead. Amazingly it kicked off. It was a mud bath from the start, impossible to play football on. Again a Peter Noble goal sent the home fans – over 23,000 – into raptures. Another 1-0 win; another three points. How it was never abandoned I’ll never know!
The next Tuesday evening it was Gillingham. This was before the ill-feeling of the 1980s but we’d never liked their negative and defensive approach. They defended well and to be fair deserved a point. They looked like they’d got it as the game went into injury time. It must have been at least the 96th minute when Peter Noble scored with a superb overhead kick. The ref blew for time as soon as they kicked off and the Gillingham players, understandably, were incensed and went ballistic. In contrast we were euphoric! The following Saturday the script was similar against Northampton but this time our nerves were spared as Don scored the only goal of the game as early as the 62nd minute. Four games, maximum points and a Cup Final coming up. Life was good!
It was just as well that we picked up those eight points because, perhaps with an eye on Wembley, we lost the next two away games at Gillingham and Stockport before the final and then the one immediately after at Plymouth Argyle. Not a good preparation for our home crunch game against Watford, the leaders. Almost 29,000 of us were shoe-horned into the ground. Watford had done their homework and put Terry Garbutt to man-mark Don – he literally played the game in Don’s shorts. Their striker Barry Endean rightly incurred the crowd’s wrath by hammering the ball into the crowd after a decision had gone against him and felling a young Town supporter which made it all the more galling when he scored the only goal of the game. The crowing of the Watford supporters after the game was hard to take but the truth was that they’d done a very effective job on us.
One feature of this Town team was the way they’d bounce back from adversity. The Watford defeat was the last of the season and the next nine games yielded six wins and three draws. Promotion was confirmed in the penultimate game at Rotherham, Danny Williams, previous club, with a 1-1 draw, Chris Jones getting our equaliser in the 89th minute. We finished the season on 64 points, the same as Watford who were champions courtesy of a superior goal average of 0.15, a narrow margin to say the least. This was of course in the era of 2 points for a win and goal average rather than goal difference. In today’s terms we would have achieved 91 points (Luton in 3rd place would have achieved 86) and a goal difference of +36.
There are clear parallels between the 1968/69 season and the current one: A superb home record; 18 wins, 4 draws and only 1 defeat compared with 19 wins, 3 draws and 1 defeat this season. Thirty-eight goals scored against 7 conceded compared with 49 scored and 8 conceded this season. Both the 1968/69 and 2011/12 teams having a high level of fitness and playing for each other, driven by their manager. Both teams managed success in a cup competition while still performing in the League. And finally, both sides had the ability to bounce back after a disappointing result.
For me the 1968/69 season will always be magical and I suppose that’s why I can remember it so well. We were no longer a Third Division team and had the respect of the football world. It was a great time to be a Town supporter.