50 Years Ago: 1964/65 April – Shafted by Pompey and the Cobblers…
Mike Minihane finishes his look back 50 years to events at the County Ground during Town’s first season in the ‘big time’ Division Two during 1963/64…
Top of the Charts: The Last Time – The Rolling Stones
The last month of the season and the crunch had finally come. In 16th place Swindon Town were four points off the relegation places but all the teams around us had games in hand. With home games against Middlesbrough, Rotherham United and Preston North End and visits to Newcastle United, Rotherham and Southampton it was going to be a tough month but there were grounds for optimism. In the second half of our last home game against Northampton we had played our best football of the season. If we could continue in that vein we’d be fine…
First up was a home game against Middlesbrough who were also in the mire in 18th place, two points below us. It was a real four pointer. Twenty minutes in Boro’s left back Gordon Jones took a speculative swing at the ball about 30-yards out and was probably the most surprised person in the ground as it looped into the far top corner giving keeper Tony Hicks no chance. Not surprisingly ‘Boro decided to defend what they had and superbly marshalled by their Welsh international Mel Nurse effectively shut us out to give themselves a precious two points. Not the start to the month we had been looking for; with other results going against us we were down to 20th.
No one expected us to get anything from the next game, away to league leaders Newcastle United at St James Park, and although we gave a good account of ourselves a single goal from Dave Hilley was enough to give Newcastle the points.
Easter weekend loomed, with home and away games against mid-table Rotherham and a home game against Preston; three games in four days that would surely determine our fate.
The Good Friday home game against Rotherham was a nail-biter. No sooner had Ernie Hunt raised our hopes with a 5th minute goal than Albert Bennett equalised a minute later. Roger Smart then scored to give us a 2-1 half time lead and when Mike Summerbee scored in the second half it all looked comfortable. Despite a late Rotherham goal which made us all very nervous we held out for a 3-2 win and two very precious points.
The next day it was the turn of Preston North End who had reached the FA Cup Final the previous year, losing narrowly to West Ham Utd. Their centre forward, Alex Dawson, had scored on that day and with his robust style was always a threat and it was no surprise when he gave them a half time lead. A spirited Town revival in the second half saw goals from Don Rogers and Mike Summerbee put Town 2-1 in front but any hopes a of a vital win were dashed when Dawson got his second ten minutes from time to give his team a 2-2 draw and we remained in 20th position.
Easter Monday saw us travel to Millmoor for the return fixture with Rotherham but our poor away form which had been our undoing all season continued and an early goal from Frank Casper (who would later join Burnley and play, and score, against us in the League Cup semi-finals in 1969) was enough to give Rotherham the points.
And so to the final game of the season, away to Southampton. We started the day in 20th place on 33 points; in 21st were Portsmouth also with 33 points but an inferior goal average. In 22nd were Swansea Town with 32 points. A win at Southampton would keep us up and a draw might be enough.
Various theories circulated about Southampton’s likely attitude to the game. They certainly had nothing to play for. If we stayed up their bitter rivals Portsmouth would go down, so some optimists predicted that they would roll over for us. The realists took the view that the derby with Pompey provided them with their best gate of the season and this commercial fact would be far more compelling to them.
Half the Town seemed to have made the trip down to the Dell and the atmosphere on that bright sunny Saturday afternoon was electric. There was a genuine belief among the Town faithful that we could do it.
The start however could not have been worse when after only two minutes Southampton’s midfielder Cliff Huxford swung at a loose ball about 35-yards out to score with an unstoppable shot. With a career record of four goals in 278 games he was an unlikely scorer and why he had to save his best ever goal for this occasion was a mystery. To their credit Town came back well and dominated the rest of the first half with Dennis Brown getting a deserved equaliser shortly before half time. This was certainly a game Town deserved to take something from but late on a Terry Paine shot deflected off John Trollope to give the Saints a very flattering victory.
But the drama was not yet over. In a ridiculous situation which certainly would not be allowed in the present era Portsmouth’s last game, away to already promoted Northampton, was scheduled to kick off that evening at 7.30pm. Whether Town’s management had taken issue with the Football League about this situation was never known. Thus Pompey knew exactly what they needed to do to stay up. Whatever the result Northampton were guaranteed second place and a first ever promotion to the First Division. The outcome was obviously inevitable; Northampton took an early lead but a Pompey fightback saw them get a late equaliser and the point they need for survival. We were down in the most galling of circumstances.
So our brief adventure in the Second Division was over. We had played some decent and entertaining football at home but on our travels we had been abysmal, and that’s why we had been relegated. Bert Head was sacked and replaced by Danny Williams who built one of the best teams the Town has ever seen. Some might say the best. Mel Nurse who had played so well for Middlesbrough against us became one of his first signings and became a huge favourite with Town fans.
If someone had said that four years later not only would we have regained our place in the Second Division but also won a major Cup Final at Wembley against First Division opposition they would probably have been sectioned. But that’s what happened of course…