Friday, 1 April 2016

#22 County Ground, Swindon Town

Swindon Town 1 Wigan Athletic 4
League One, Friday 25th March 2016

It was the Easter bank holiday and the sun had finally decided to make an appearance in 2016. Rovers had recently moved into third in league two on goal difference, an automatic promotion spot, after thumping Newport County 4-1 away. The stage was set and a sold-out crowd was to descend upon the Memorial Stadium for a crucial game against Cambridge United. However my friend Josh the Bristolian Wigan fan had asked me earlier in the week if I'd like to join him on this excursion, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to tick off another local league ground before I became commited to Rovers for the rest of the run-in.

At this point Wigan were flying high in second place in their efforts to rejoin the Championship at the first time of asking. Swindon (considered one of Rovers' local rivals) were sitting in 14th but had turned around a pretty dire season that saw them in the relegation zone in late October, leading to sensible and proportionate reactions from their fans. I was anticipating a non-flashy, professional win from Wigan and set my prediction at 2-0.

Swindon is notable for having a massive confusing roundabout. In fact the government heard Swindon liked roundabouts so they put some roundabouts in it's roundabout so it could give way while it gave way. It was also once made a twin town to Disney Land. It's a weird place basically.

It's also laid out pretty weirdly, so it took us the best part of an hour to find a cash point after we'd brought our tickets (£19 on the gate, rather than the advertised £21, cheers Swindon!) This could of course be more down to geographic incompetence than anything else. With little over an hour remaining before kick-off, we settled into The Tap & Barrel for a beer that was more out of a sense of having earned it than actually wanting one.

I actually really liked the County Ground. Sure it was quite run down in places; thick layers of brown grime had amassed on the windshields and weeds poke through the cracks in the stands but it has a lot of old-school character. It's an original stadium so it's right in the middle of the actual town rather than one of those in-the-middle-of-nowhere retail park jobbies. As such the surrounding area is coloured by it, every pub has a Swindon flag and the walls are filled with murals to legendary squads of times past. The turnstiles look like they could be museum pieces and the crown jewel is County Hotel pub that stands just yards from the ground and was thick with home supporters and décor. You can't buy this kind of backdrop.

Wigan had laid on free coaches for this match so the away team boasted a bumper crowd of 1,309 which was enough for us pay-on-the-day folk to be situated on the Stratton Bank, a large roofless ex-terrace which now holds 2,000 in very shallow seated rows. It's one of those where it's so shallow and wide that you can't possibly block anyone's view by standing and no one was asked to sit by stewards during the entire 90, again fair play Swindon. This part of the ground has the strange honour of housing the only Rolex clock in a football stadium in the world. Educational this blog.

Aside from this there are two large stands to the sides of the pitch: the Don Rogers stand which was built in 1994 to replace a decaying two-tier one and looks to be the newest part of the stadium. The Arkell stand which is more traditional stands opposite this, it holds 5,800 which includes the majority of the away allocation. Opposite where we were stands the tiny Town End, the choice of the more vocal Swindon fan. It holds 2,000 and is notable for having the ground's floodlight pylons actually pierce through it's roof. The floodlights themselves look awesome and old as the dirt. So all-in-all even though I'm not supposed to I really liked the County Ground. Moving on.

The match began and it was Swindon who looked the more likely in the opening moments of the game. Nathan Thompson went on a heroic run taking the ball from the Swindon half and beating two men only to steer his shot from distance just wide of the post. However it was Wigan that drew first blood in the 15th minute when Chris McCann controlled a long ball from the Wigan end with his chest and delivered a scuffed low cross into the box for William Grigg to sweep into the net.

From then on Swindon were on the back foot. For me they non-committal in a lot of their challenges, seeming to pull out of a lot of decent chances to intercept passes. However they did manage three more shots on goal that half and forced a save from grand old Finn Jussi Jääskeläinen in the 27th minute. It was during this time that Josh started spotting some of the bizarre Swindon sponsors. Aside from their unfortunately named shirt sponsors Imagine Cruising, there was also a large advert in the stands for a company called Divorce Online, perhaps aimed at those who have come to the mid-match conclusion that their marriage is only getting in the way of their love of Swindon Town.

Half time rolled around and I excused myself to the burger hatch in search of a hot bevvy and some meaty sustenance. The queue was unusually large and the second half had started by the time I'd got half way down it but considering myself safe due to the relatively slow first half, I decided to wait it out. Luckily I had a decent line of sight to watch amazingly named midfielder Max Power find himself in acres of space outside the Swindon box and launch an absolute screamer into the side of the net, leaving young Tyrell Belford with zero chance to make a save.

A measly two minutes later Wigan were in again. Taking advantage of Swindon making a series of dodgy passes in their own box, Morsy was able to dispossess a defender and the ball rolled into the path of William Grigg, who's shot deflected off a Swindon player and into the bottom corner. After this it only took Morsy another minute to plough one in himself from a distance. It should be noted that I witnessed this streak of Wigan dominance whilst still waiting in line with actual away supporters. They were great fun though, with one burly bloke jokingly saying to the cashier "this better be the best fucking burger ever".

Swindon regained a little pride towards the end, first by forcing a masterful top-corner save from a free kick and second by finally scoring a consolation goal in the 79th minute when Nicky Ajose slotted a sumptuous through-ball from Michael Doughty past Jääskeläinen. Then something happened that will probably go down as my moment of the season. At 4-1 down Swindon's announcer thought it fit to blast Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five over the PA system. This was met with rapturous dancing and singing by the entire Wigan entourage, who were now in full party mode, followed by the announcer unenthusiastically mumbling "and the goal scorer is number 10, Nicky Ajoseeeeeeeee." I must admit the Swindon fans were decent. They celebrated their goal heartily (almost as heartily as the Wigan fans) and I heard the Town End singing in patches throughout the game despite it being on the opposite end of the pitch. Fair play for knowing how to take a drubbing. A day to forget for the home side was complete when immediately after being named man of the match, captain Nathan Thompson was shown a straight red for a dangerous tackle.

All in all I enjoyed this ground. I look forward to coming here next season (please Darrell).

Since I'm quite happy with the pictures I took today but I've run out of things to say, I'm just gonna post the leftovers. Happy Easter one and all.

Hi Mum!
Only the 2nd most bizarre advertisement I've seen at a football ground.  

Just about worth the trouble

No percussion for you

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