#20 The Play-Off Final: The Fledglings Did Not Fly


4th May 2015 was a grey, grey day (at least from 17:30 onwards). Pragmatism and conservatism triumphed.

Before departing for Wembley I had spent the day wallowing in nostalgia, watching the 92/93 play-off final highlights and blasting out ‘Up Where We Belong’ (which strangely gets better with age)

not troubling myself with the fact that Swindon, on a financial footing, are not really up way they belong: that’s the bottom half of League One. It had also been spent engaging in superstition – more so than usual  including avoiding the number six in all forms, saluting magpies, circumventing three drains on the pavements and electing not to wear my Swindon Town ‘Imagine Cruising’ Shirt, which I like very much, because there was an outside chance that my non-supporting Swindon friends who gave me the shirt for my birthday, one of whom is a Reading fan, might have put a hex on it. 

Alighting at Wembley Park, and walking down Wembley Way, I tried to gloss over the stadium’s shortcomings – a structure of compromise rendering it akin to a giant Cineworld  and the incongruous, rather feeble, Bobby Moore statue. On entering the stadium I realised I was mistaken; it was not a cinema, but an airport terminal. Still, I suppose it’s in keeping with much of football today: hyped, vacuous and overpriced.

Three minutes into the game my stomach lurched and doom descended. Swindon’s defensive shortcomings had been exposed and Nathan Thompson, club captain, was being taken off on a stretcher. It was almost tragicomic. The tragicomedy was accentuated by a chap in the row below me, with his two embarrassed teenage daughters who were gently tugging his jacket imploring him to take his seat, pointing at a Preston fan bellowing ‘YOU’ while simultaneously clenching his fist and banging it against his head in a furious masturbatory motion. 2-0 down after 13 minutes I thought that it was probably over and so did four ‘Swindon fans’ to my right who decided that they’d seen enough and that it was time to go. Riled, I couldn’t help castigating them, uttering 'that’s pathetic'. Five minutes later they were back, which might have been because they weren’t allowed to leave; they had a change of heart; or perhaps they had simply all needed the lavatory at the same time. I didn’t enquire. Beckford’s sumptuous goal just before half-time ended the game as a contest and my half-time was spent cogitating on Swindon’s line-up for next season: Belford, Branco, N.Thompson……………… Hylton, Obika……. 

The second-half was also a fairly painful experience not helped by a group of idiotic 16-18 year olds sat behind me, of which only one was a (nominal) Swindon fan, opining that Swindon should be more direct and that Wes Foderingham was 'crap'. They also, on occasions, sarcastically applauded Swindon’s mishaps. The only pleasant aspect of the half were the cashew nuts supplied by my fiancée’s Dad, which went back and forth between him, me, my fiancée and Mike. It was undoubtedly Mike’s favourite part of the day; he ate half the bag. 

Mercifully, the full-time whistle did not result in a vast outpouring of anger, dismay or tears with most Swindon fans quietly scuttling home. Had I been on my own I might have remained in the stadium waiting for the darkness to envelop me, pondering on what might have been and that the minor miracle of Swindon’s 14/15 campaign – perhaps the most interesting, innovative and odds defying campaign of any English football club in 14/15, and worthy of at least a chapter in Soccernomics 2 – would not receive the wider acclaim it deserved. 

But then I looked at Nathan Thompson hobbling around the Swindon half of the ground on crutches, broken and defeated, applauding the Swindon fans and realised that winning, while important, particularly as it would have kept Swindon’s special group together, isn’t everything. Would I have swapped Swindon’s season for Preston’s? Nope. I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed the evolution of the first sweeper/keeper in League One; the tiki-taka passing triangles; the Iraqi Pirlo; the 1-0 victory against Bristol City that irked Steve Cotterill so; the four goals against Walsall with the snow descending; Australia’s MVP; a technical level that, at times, surpassed many Championship sides; the 5-5 draw; and witnessing the development and progression of Swindon’s apprentices, and the bond forged between them. To be trite, and (very) cheesy, I remembered the exchange in the first Mighty Ducks film – a childhood favourite  between Gordon Bombay and a chap called Hans (Gordon’s mentor, father figure – a wise, detached, Gandalf type).

Gordon: [on coach Riley – the baddy  who reminds me of Alex Ferguson] 'the guy wins'.

Hans: 'it’s not about winning, Gordon, it never was. Just show them how to play, show them how to have fun; teach them to fly!'

Over the course of the 14/15 season the Swindon fledglings flew; at times they soared.

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