Swindon FanZoner Christopher Panks experienced a mixture of nostalgia and nerves on Tuesday night.
Back to the future at the County Ground
A feeling of nostalgia whirled around the County Ground before kick off on Tuesday as opposing manager, Martin Ling, and his number two, Shaun Taylor were inducted into the Swindon Town hall of fame. Both former players during the glory days of the club, each were greatly respected even after the kick off and the dated chant of "ooh, Shaun Taylor" which has not been heard since his move to Bristol City in 1996, rang out.
It was perhaps fitting that these two former players paid a visit as their era mirrors where Town are at present, namely, vying for promotion with a date at Wembley booked. While their promotion scrap was at the other end of the football league pyramid, it felt apt that those men, forever remembered for what was achieved as part of Hoddle's team, Taylor even unsullied by a four-year stint at Ashton Gate, were rewarded at this juncture -a point where so many parallels exist with the current squad.
At one point, after Ling had successfully claimed a throw in for his side, a youngster sat a row behind was advised by his father "you can't say anything against their manager, he's a Town legend," concluding, "his number two's an even bigger Town legend." This made me think of the future and consider which of the current crop may turn up in future years wearing another club's crest, can expect the same fair treatment. Much of this will be decided over the next few weeks.
For the second time in as many weeks Swindon hosted their closest championship rival, but following a shuffle of the deck below them, Torquay had replaced Cheltenham in second position thanks, in no small part, to Swindon's narrow victory over the Robins. A worrying trend is developing whereby Swindon play with apparent nerves until something disturbs the equilibrium, either a reaction to conceding as against Shrewsbury, or taking the lead, as against Crawley - Tuesday was no different.
Misplaced passes and a failure to get the ball down, led to a very disjointed first half and the makeshift back four, encompassing centre back Joe Devera on the right, his place taken by midfielder Oliver Risser, allowed a number of chances to the visitors - Wes Foderingham was called into action on a few occasions, but generally the Gulls were wasteful with their openings.
Swindon opened the scoring just over half an hour in, Alan Connell glancing Matt Ritchie's fizzing corner goalwards and, while the goal was attributed to the leading scorer, replays seem to show the final touch coming from Risser, six yards out. Regardless of who applied the clinical touch, Torquay goalkeeper Robert Olejnik was rooted to his goal line and would not have stopped the ball from settling in the net.
True to the formula of the recent promotion clashes, Swindon's performance improved as a result of the goal and making it to half-time with their lead intact, despite having to defend a number of consecutive corners, was an important task.
When they emerged for the second half, almost immediately it was clear that the break had done them good and that the wind was firmly in the player's sails; the momentum had irreversibly shifted and Swindon doubled their lead just before the hour mark. Another Ritchie in-swinging corner was met by the head of Risser who made sure there was no debate over the scorer this time, as his powerful effort flew past Olejnik from twelve yards.
It was a just reward for an excellent performance which also earned him the man of the match award, a significant feat for a player filling an unfamiliar role. Personally, I thought that the gong should have gone to Simon Ferry who has developed, this term, into a fantastically technical midfield general - an influence which is often overlooked but would be all to conspicuous if absent.
One absentee, whose injury has forced the selection of an unfamiliar back four, is captain Paul Caddis and Swindon seem to miss him, not only for his surging runs forward but also, as Di Canio's disciple, to pep the players up (read shout at them) during the game. Quite how has the lung capacity to cover that distance, while spending half the game bellowing at this team mates like a particularly strict Catholic School headteacher is beyond me.
Early in the game, Devera, whose movement was good and almost replicated Caddis' route step-for-step to provide an overlap for Ritchie, was often ignored by the winger who went alone in situations where he'd ordinarily offload - perhaps unsure of Devera's crossing credentials. Incidentally, if that was his thought process, he was proven wrong as just before half time Devera got to the by line and put a great ball across which was taken off Connell's head by an alert Olejnik.
There was some good news however, as Alessandro Cibocchi felt his ankle, Aden Flint was his replacement and took the pitch for the first time since injuring himself in training in January - a knock which was expected to put an end to his season. The severity appears to have been misjudged and it was positive to see his imposing figure, back in the heart of central defence, his height has been missed, especially at set pieces.
Swindon's campaign to be champions takes a short break as the Robins travel to Wembley, facing league one's bottom club, Chesterfield, in the Football League trophy final. The allocation of 29,000 tickets has been sold out and it promises to be a good day regardless of the result, particularly if you happen to be a burglar operating in North Wiltshire. It represents Paolo Di Canio's first opportunity to collect some silverware as a manager and Swindon will hope to add a trophy to the underemployed shelving of their cabinet, for the first time since Steve McMahon's side won the second division in 1995-6.
As things stand, Swindon have restated their seven point cushion over Torquay, who remain second despite their defeat, with a game in hand. Shrewsbury complete the automatic promotion places, a further point behind and for my money, as the current top three have been the best sides in the league this year, it seems appropriate that they should gain promotion. Despite a dip in form, Crawley will still have a lot to say in the outcome as, if they win their two games in hand they could climb to second - it's far from over.