Preston North End 4 – 0 Swindon Town – I Just Couldn’t Help Falling In Love With You
Joe Young steels himself to relive the day when Town’s great season went up in smoke
I’m going to be honest with you from the start; it’s the best policy and cornerstone of any successful relationship after all. This isn’t really a match report. In all likelihood most of you went to the game, watched it on television, listened to it on radio, or followed it on social media. If you want a detailed account there are plenty of alternatives available. To produce another one here, detailing those 87 minutes of despondency and despair would just be too painful (plus it would also depress me even more writing about our moronic fans fighting each other). If you are a glutton for punishment, I’m sorry to let you down.
Instead I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a tale of love at first sight, of a relationship quickly escalating into something special, of a liaison that overtook everything else and came to dominate everyday life, of a fling that whilst glorious and all-encompassing was doomed to failure from the start. It is, of course, the tale of Swindon Town FC 2014-15…
Expectations were low, nobody believed what was being said. Nobody, not even the most sycophantically optimistic of followers truly believed we could be destined for greatness – well, except perhaps for London Red from the Adver Forums.
But that changed, a trip to Kent for the derby of non-derbies and something flicked on inside. What I saw was special, what I saw gripped me, what I saw was a game where we fluked a point at the end. But what I saw was the start. The realisation that we could play, that we could produce beautiful possession-based football, that we could really do something extraordinary.
More games followed, I had to see this young team play such a wonderful style. I was too young to appreciate Hoddle and Ardiles properly, I was damned if I was going to make the same mistake again.
But this was a relationship of extremes. For all the highs, there were the lows. For every Notts County there was a Scunthorpe. For all the beauty of possession there was the pain of ridiculous risks at the back. But it was such a ride that I came to even love the pain. In my darker, more secluded moments, I started to wonder why I couldn’t just admire somebody a little less beautiful, a little plainer, and a little less extravagant. It would be safer, less risky, less involved.
But where’s the fun in that? I had also started to enjoy and thrive upon the furtive glances from the opposition fans and the generous comments with begrudging acceptance – the football fan equivalent of, “Blimey what are they doing together? He’s done well for himself”.
Everywhere we went people looked at us and couldn’t work out how we fitted together and were generous with their praise – everywhere other than Sheffield United. Living under the shadow of their more successful bigger brother may well have affected their psyche. Three matches, three different results and only one common factor – the referee. Always his fault in Sheffield, always against them, even when they win and the opposition feel hard done to. In the end, having failed to sack the entire officiating body of the Football League, they took the more logical step, and removed “Negative” Nigel instead.
We found new places to socialise, new places to drink and new company to keep. We congregated in the Duke of Wellington in Belgravia, with Mike its Town fan landlord and made new friends from Swindon, London, Warminster, Argentina and beyond.
As the blossoming of the relationship continued amongst trips to Fleetwood, Crewe and Port Vale, the furtive glances were becoming less furtive. The envious looks were becoming more threatening. Performances on the world stage got us noticed. Other people looked at us and realised that with their glitz and glamour (in this instance synonyms for cash) they could pull us apart.
Despite the rejection of overtures from world-class footballing centres such as Turkey, Wales and Qatar it was apparent that the affair was going to end in May, that players were going to move on to bigger and better things. There was nothing that could be done, bar the possible saviour of promotion, and everyone knew it. Thoughts began to turn away from normal life, thoughts turned to railway timetables, Google Maps and fixture lists.
The extremes in the relationship became more exaggerated. The highs and lows became a rollercoaster of delight and despair. Doncaster brought moments of ecstasy, quickly followed by morose reflection after disappointing encounters with Franchise and Bristol City.
I then committed the most heinous of crimes. Adultery! I chose another event over Rochdale. I declined a further trip across the Pennines on a cold Tuesday night. Fate was ready for me, fate was angry with me, fate punished me. Goals galore rained in and I was glad. But would forgiveness come?
As the end was rapidly approaching, my callous behaviour and the tension of the eventual split began to darken what had been a beautiful romp through the season. The polemic mood swings struck to excess as Bramall Lane and the County Ground brought attention, delight, ecstasy and despair. Aston Villa, and even Burton, began to brazenly pursue our stars under the glare of Rupert Murdoch’s finest.
Yet somehow, seemingly against all the odds, we had made it to our swansong. Promotion, glory, redemption were all there for the taking. But even if they were grasped, the essence of the team was already ready to split.
For three glorious minutes, the day was ripe with opportunity and songs were being sung. Yet romanticism had enveloped our souls and age-old adages were proved. Sentiment in sport was allowed to raise its ugly head. One of our finest, through well-meant sincerity and respect, was allowed to lead us out, allowed to lead our charge and allowed to collapse in a heap, cementing Modern Wembley Episode III as his worst memory yet. It was romantic, it was fitting, it was a noble, it was foolhardy, and sadly it was tragic and self-defeating.
With the beautiful relationship falling away in despair a simpler, plainer, less risky alternative was seen to our approach. While never outright ugly, it was ruthless, efficient and in the end too much.
It was over. It was done. As my claps of appreciation morphed in to dejected waves of goodbye, I couldn’t help but glance across at our vanquishers. Whilst sad, dejected and jealous, something clicked in my mind. Despite it all, despite everything, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t swap with them. I’d be bored if we played like that. I wouldn’t want to watch it. I wish them well I really do. I just hope, for their sakes, that it was a ruthless exposure of our flaws, rather than a true reflection of their style.
For all our disappointment, I’ll always have the Welly, I’ll always have the Keepmoat and I’ll always have Bramall Lane. Yet these momentary thoughts did not diminish the pain, a pain heightened when they started to sing our song. Despite it all, despite everything, in years to come I’ll remember this glorious triumph of a failed season. All I’ll have left is a box of the few mementoes I’ve kept.
Periodically I’ll look at them, remember and reflect, because 2014/15 truly was the year of style over substance, when, despite everything, I just couldn’t help falling in love with you.
Opening picture credit: Naomi Youd for Total Swindon Sport