David Cameron Walker

Posts Tagged ‘Swindon Town’

Alex Pritchard: League One to Premier League, without League 3

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014


From League One debut to a Premier League appearance inside a single season: for 21-year-old Tottenham winger Alex Pritchard it couldn’t be more perfect. It also seems to be the perfect repost to Greg Dyke’s claims about the impediments blocking the ‘player pathway’ for English talent.

However, using exactly the same evident, his journey from Swindon’s first team to Spurs’ could equally be used as evidence in favour of the FA Commission’s Strategic Loan Partnership (SLP) – the Trojan horse for virtual feeder clubs.

Firstly Pritchard’s example isn’t quite the Boys’ Own stuff it might first appear. Prior to this season the Spurs midfielder had three England U20 caps and played six games on loan at Peterborough. So he again went on loan again, this time to Swindon, playing 43 games, scoring 8 goals and being nominated for the Football League Young Player of the Year and Sky Bet League One Player of the Year. When his youth loan expired on turned 21, he returned to White Hart Lane, joined first-team training and earned himself seven minutes against Aston Villa.

And as everyone knows, Pritchard’s loan to Swindon was just one of three season-long ones between Spurs and Swindon in 2013/14; one part in an on-going relationship between clubs. Every match was overseen by Tottenham staff, undertaken with two older players others from the same development team, and followed a path trod by two ex-Spurs who transferred to Wiltshire after a loan spell the season before.

But there was more comfort to be found than just in those familiar faces around Pritchard,  “There are so many players from Spurs here that it does feel like home”. Swindon’s playing style had been chosen to appeal to Premier League technical directors, and in particular Tim Sherwood – for Town’s chairman is Lee Power, former player, agent and former house-mate of Sherwood. Power told local radio that his friend expressed his concern about his charges slow development while on loan, “He [Sherwood] said would you babysit my lads for me, more or less”.

So is the relationship akin to Greg Dyke and Danny Mills’ proposed SLP? Could it be called a Partnership? Possibly. Could it be called Strategic? Perhaps for Spurs, but for Swindon it seems to have been born of the necessity of a changed boardroom and a halved playing budget. Power himself set out the limits of the arrangement in the same interview saying, “I don’t think we can ever lose the club’s identity. Don’t get me wrong if we can beg, steal or borrow to try to get there and that is all we are going to try to do and nothing else.”

There are further key differences between the SLP as outlined by the FA Commission and these informal loan – not least that Football League regulations 85.2.3 prohibit any club “to be involved in any capacity or administration or that club” or: (85.2.4) to have any power to influence the financial, commercial or business affairs or the management or administration of that club”.

Strategic Loan Partnerships would very much go against those regulations. Under the SLP, coaches, facilities and sports science support would be provided to the partner club from the senior one. In Swindon’s case, Tottenham simply observed their players at the County Ground and treated them in Enfield when injured, they didn’t pick the side, coach the team or choose the formation. Swindon’s style wasn’t set by White Hart Lane, it came from a desire to be attractive and to make the best of the smaller, technical nature of so many of the players. Although Swindon’s manager Mark Cooper has admitted one element of de facto influence – that to ensure good relations remained with Spurs, it was wise to include their player at every opportunity.

Significantly, though accidentally, all three of the Spurs’ loanees rarely appeared together: Injuries limited Ryan Mason to just 13 starts and Grant Hall to 26. Instead Swindon also blooded a number of teenagers or used short-term loans of single players from Wolves, Peterborough, Norwich, Southampton. This meant that seeing even three loanees on the pitch – two less than is permitted – was an exception rather than the rule. This in turn meant that there was still space in the Swindon team for their own youth team players to progress, allowing both Miles Storey and Nathan Thompson, among others, to progress their own careers.

Contrast that with an SLP club who would be also be permitted five borrowed bodies in the squad but would be able to have borrowed eight, making multiple appearances of loanees a regular occurrence. And such pressure would be felt more strongly under SLP, especially as the proposals include the possibility for the senior club to own up to 25% of the equity in the junior one, rather than the 10% current permitted.

In the difficult task of judging Swindon fans’ attitudes to the relationship with Spurs, reliable measures are obviously hard to come by – especially when fans are second only in their pragmatism to football managers and chairmen. Anecdotally support for the relations seems to have waned as the season wore on: Initial results and the quality of the football on offer persuaded many at first only for a cynicism to return as Town’s form slumped around Christmas. Notably the side’s late season rally was attributed not to the Spurs connection but largely to a Town’s own players and the signing of another loanee – Jack Stephens of Southampton – only a short-term deal. Similarly Pritchard, despite his performances that so impressed many outside the club, lagged behind the local lads in the various player-of-the-year polls. In fact, not one placed him in the top three, and with one fan-site he only achieved 4% of the vote.

Perhaps most importantly, the number and length of the loans were always seen as an austerity necessity, not a permanent change to the club’s nature. “Never” was Power’s comment as to if Swindon would becoming a feeder club, adding in a separate interview, “If I supported Swindon I wouldn’t want to be a B-team for anyone else, and I don’t think there is any need to be. I want to compete, but I appreciate that we might not be Manchester United.”

The next steps in the journey are likely to be worth observing – for both Pritchard and Swindon. With Tim Sherwood no longer at White Hart Lane there is a chance that both Pritchard’s career and Power’s connection with both wither in the seasons to come.

However, Pritchard has made a major breakthrough and Town’s chairman has spoken of two other Premier League teams discussing similar loan arrangements as well as talk circulating within football of a number of League One clubs looking to mirror Swindon’s model. It is certainly going to be an interesting path to tread for any parent and junior clubs and their players.

Written by Alex Cooke, We Are Going Up’s Swindon Town blogger

Alex tweets at @STFConly

Six sensible reasons why moderate improvement is possible at Swindon Town

Thursday, April 10th, 2014


We football fans are nothing if not a reflection of our society. Like everyone we mirror the current desire for melodrama, for scripted cruelty, for the fast fix – and those cheap site hits.

Football has incorporated it through manufactured ‘mind games’, managerial churn, the zombie-like lust of the transfer window. It can also be found in the adored click of you, the unique user, and in the shorter sentences without which other, lesser readers, would probably have started skimming a long time ago, scanning in horror towards the listicle further down the page.

It also goes some way to explain why this season at Swindon Town has resulted in a mixture of mumbled apathy, howls of self-harming rage, and, if you listen very closely the gentlest whisper of sensible, sober debate.

After all this is a club and a team, that required a messy intervention to stop it marching into glory and simultaneous oblivion. Despite that it has still maintained a credible play-off push although this much leaner team is now suffering with declining attendances, growing ambivalence and slow season ticket renewals

Cries of ‘boring’ and booing have both echoed around the increasingly empty County Ground as many Swindon fans have found other things to do on Saturdays, such as gripe on social media. Too many passes, they bleat. Too little arm waving from manager Mark Cooper, they whine, Then they hashtag it CooperOut, and even more bizarrely SherwoodIn. Inside the ground, their peers jeer a 19-year-old ‘keeper for daring to slice a back-pass on his home debut, or sarcastically applaud a striker who has scored six goals in 14 games.

It is tempting to say Swindon fans have been spoiled by what went before – the millions spent by Betfair’s Andrew Black and the near-millions signed by Paolo Di Canio. But ‘spoiled’ implies that they were innocents before, when we all know Swindon crowds had long been intolerant, particularly of youth-team players who fail to be the new Don Rogers within three touches of their debut. Yet, they did became hooked on the adrenal teat when gambling-pounds created an environment in which a League One club was prepared to promise one individual £15,000 a week (at least according to current chairman Lee Power).

Amid the cries of boo and meh this season, during which the club that has halved its playing budget and gone through two managers and two chairman, there are still many signs of progress, which even for those of a limited attention span might make up for the shortage of drama.

1 Swindon are reclaiming ‘tippy tappy’ football

Toss your accusations of hipsterdom now if you want, but some of the football at the County Ground has been fascinating. Prompted by the need to appeal to Premier League technical directors, Swindon have played a short-passing style. The ball hasn’t always been rotated quickly enough, but when it has the football has been beautiful and effectivve. Results haven’t been bad either – 8th place in League One and a Southern Final in the JPT.

2. Swindon are turning trialists into internationals

Last season Yaser Kasim left Brighton for loan spells with Macclesfield and Luton before being released. This season he has become a full Iraqi international, making a composed debut at the culmination of their qualification for the Asian Cup. Fellow midfielder Massimo Luongo’s path to becoming an Australian international might have been simpler, smoothed by his years at Tottenham, but the chance of a World Cup finals place certainly shows how he has also progressed while at Swindon.

3. Swindon’s reserves are becoming regulars

While much has been made of the informal link with Spurs, the integration of home-grown talent has also grown apace. Youth teamers such as Miles Storey and Louis Thompson have been gradually integrated into the side, while Louis’ (slightly) bigger brother Nathan has taken over the captaincy. Ben Gladwin, signed from Marlow Town mid-season, also offers an intriguing proposition -  he’s a powerful dribbler and creative passer but with the bulk of a central defender.

4. Swindon are taking a different approach

Swindon’s informal relationship with Spurs has attracted column inches and criticism from many around the Football League. Some see inequity, some see the slippery slope to feeder status, and some see an experiment they might like to repeat at their club. So far, success has been partial with midfielder Alex Pritchard earning numerous nominations, if not awards, while defender Gareth Hall has received little more than abuse. However, the chairman Lee Power has revealed that two other clubs are interested in letting Swindon “babysit” more of their bright young things next season.

5. Swindon have Nile Ranger

Having been found innocent of all charges earlier in this year Ranger is still a Swindon player, and with an option to extend his contract into the new season there is a good chance that he might remain one. If he does he will keep everyone on their toes, and he might even play some football. The fact that that Swindon actually got 19 league starts out of him – more than any other club in his career- so far is undeniably an achievement.

6. Swindon are growing up

As one local reporter noted in the recent win over Preston, Swindon’s team had less than 876 league appearances to their name – more than half of which came from one player, defender Jay McEverley. And yet Town won the game against a Preston eleven with over 2,538 under their belts, and on 12-match unbeaten run. Yaser Kasim chose to contrast the performance with the one seen at Deepdale, noting how he and the team now had the experience to have mastered the darker arts of ‘game management’.

With a little bit of patience and a bit more of time, Swindon’s project might yet reach a positive end, just as you did. Well done you! Even if you skimmed that boring bit.

Written by Alex Cooke, We Are Going Up’s Swindon Town blogger

Alex tweets at @STFConly

A quiet year

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014


It is fitting that the last post about Swindon on here is just over a year old. Because, for many the middle of February back in 2013 was the moment at which Swindon Town ceased to matter.

It certainly was for the national media whose interest died the moment they could no longer affix Paolo Di Canio to the club’s name (even Nile Ranger wasn’t enough for them). It was for many casual fans once drawn by the Italian’s end-of-the-pier showmanship (and his league and cup success). Most importantly, it was for owner Andrew Black who had tired of seeing his millions underwriting each of Di Canio’s expensively signed, and subsequently expensively bombed out, players. So, in that February, Black finally sold the club.

And it is his departure that has defined the last 12 months for Swindon Town. Certainly Di Canio’s flounce somewhat spoiled the end of last season, just as the resignation of his replacement, Kevin MacDonald, hit the start of this, but it is the boardroom not the boot-room which set the direction for this season.

The club’s protracted sale to Jed McCrory’s patchwork consortium of unseen investors and unwashed-looking businessmen made it clear that the era of excess was over. Swindon could clearly no longer afford the vast and expensive squad, which the Italian had brought in, paid up and paid off. So wages was immediately halved, from around £4.5 million to £2.4 million – even if Swindon continue to pay a good chunk of other clubs’ bills for taking on their offcuts.

As the McCrory board shuffled and re-shuffled, the selling off of commercial rights on long-term deals, subsidising failed concerts and short-term loans from those unseen seemed to be the only financial plan. That was until, from out of those same shadows, stepped Lee Power as the primary source of funding and football knowledge.

The former Norwich striker, and one-time agent, first became Swindon’s director of football operations then seized the position of chairman as an unseemly struggle played out through premature press releases and the semi-literate tweetings of out-going chairman McCrory. Now, the publicity-shy Swiss-exile runs the club almost solo, supposedly within its limited means, and the 90-day limit of his tax status.

Stability has been similarly hard to find on the pitch too. While Mark Cooper’s installation as manager was met with grudging acceptance by most fans, striker Nile Ranger signing, lifestyle and current court appointment, has kept the situation somewhat fluid. After all, planning an attacking strategy can’t be easy if your main threat, and probably most talented player – frequently fails to appear for training.

The rest of the team has somewhat of an ad-hoc quality, largely begged and borrowed from others’ development squads. Not only has Power famously used his friendship with Spurs boss, Tim Sherwood, to add three Tottenham loanees, a further trio have come from White Hart Lane. This effect has been magnified as four more have also arrived via coach Luke William’s old position running Brighton’s reserves.

But that is the way that Swindon are developing. Power calls it his “a young energetic team” but the reality is more of a football donut – at one end are those just starting their careers, at the other are a few just ending theirs. In the middle, there is nothing. Nothing in that 24 to 29 age bracket when peak performance are delivered and peak prices are paid.

Despite this, the team are fascinating. The zesty passing football they play fits their age with an interchange of position and formation as 352 morphs into 433 and, even a probably unseen in League One, 460 – all to accommodate a succession of gifted technician and passers: Alex Pritchard, Yaser Kasim, Massimo Luongo and Ryan Mason. Consistency has been an issue – as you might expect from a XI whose average age has on occasion dropped as low as 23.18 and with just 1,000 league starts between an entire team (versus Leyton Orient 22/2/14). Injury, suspensions and a court case have also taken their toll, forcing further line up and formation changes on Cooper.

However, the team has been, at times, very good and that is what gives Swindon fans some hope. Despite missing out on the JPT final on penalties and currently watching the play-offs slip away, Swindon Town have performed beyond on what most expected at the start of the season.

If we can get beyond these boardroom struggles, the local press ban, and whatever is going on in Nile Ranger’s head today, then, and only then, Swindon Town will once again start to matter.

Written by Alex Cooke, We Are Going Up’s Swindon Town blogger

Alex tweets at @STFConly

And now the end is here…

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Confucius once wrote (and then David Brent made it more famous for my generation) our greatest achievement is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall. Swindon Town have fallen further than most clubs and bounced back higher than many others. The national media will flick through their cliché thesaurus this week until they reach the page entitled “managerial departures” – cue headlines lavished with “CRISIS” and “TURMOIL” and “DISARRAY”. Welcome to SN1, the land of Swindon Town – if the Olympics live off a motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius then Swindon live off a motto of Crisis, Turmoil, Disarray. This is nothing new; this is expected.

That being said, it doesn’t make the shock of a manager walking out on the club any easier to comprehend or accept at first glance. Swindon have had managers far bigger than Paolo Di Canio before – this wasn’t a show pony that brought with him a history and media circus this humble Wiltshire club had never experienced. Glenn Hoddle, Lou Macari, Ossie Ardiles – all have called the Robins their managerial home and all had a greater playing career than Paolo Di Canio ever had.

It could be argued that players of the standard of Matt Ritchie have been rarer than the standard of big-name managers since Swindon’s Premier League debut, and only, season of 1993/94. When he departed to Bournemouth for a fee which was just a proportion of an offer for the same player from the same club in a previous transfer window, the offending straw had been slapped on to the camel’s back to break it into several places. Paolo’s letter of resignation was already in the post. The club’s exposure due to a live Sky Sports game against Crawley Town brought the issue to a somewhat unexpected public and was exaggerated for the purposes of selling a third-tier football game to a watching public unaware of ESPN’s Premier League offering. For the previous twenty months, the rest of the Football League had seen Paolo just as many saw him as a player – a mercurial talent as well as playing the pantomime villain simultaneously. Many didn’t take him seriously, some were angered by his touchline antics and post-match comments, and those in the Town End saw him at his passionate best – cheering on a club he may not have known even existed a few years ago with such passion it was as if he was John Trollope re-incarnated. (granted, Mr Trollope Snr is still alive and well!)

Sky Sports talked of a Di Canio bidding farewell to a travelling band of faithful Town fans. But no departure came. No commitment from the Italian arrived either. The minutes became hours and the hours became days. Suddenly Swindon were back on the field of play and Di Canio was still in charge. What happened? Were the differences between him and the board settled? Evidently not.

Despite having been at the club for less than two years, Paolo’s history at the Robins could fill a biography far more significant and entertaining than that of any reality TV contestant who has released their memoirs as a last sign of desperation two years after finding temporary fame. In May 2012 he signed a new contract at the club after guiding them to the League Two title; an indication that he was still committed to a project that the then chairman Jeremy Wray admitted wouldn’t happened overnight. But then in November, Wray was replaced by Sir William Patey – a man more akin to the struggling democracies of Afghanistan and Iraq than the football pitch. Things then started to become clear that all was not well off the field – the new year brought with it the announcement that the club needed to find new investors with immediate effect or face administration – a state of disarray not unfamiliar with Swindon Town.

Thankfully owners were found, but what gives with one hand often takes with the other – Matt Ritchie was sold immediately. Di Canio released a statement saying he was considering his position as manager after suffering broken promises. Things had just got real. Di Canio had threatened making a bolt for the exit before, most noticeably when he said he felt the board had changed their ambitions for promotion. But the language Di Canio had used was never as forthright as this.

After valiant efforts during the Hartlepool United game on the 9th February from fans consistently chanting Paolo Di Canio’s name, he still wouldn’t commit his future. The history books will tell us he technically resigned on the 12th February 2013, but agreed to stay as long as the takeover of the club was fully approved by the Football League by 5 o’clock on the 18th February. The 5pm deadline passed and approval hadn’t arrived. Di Canio was gone. Approval was scheduled to be given on the 19th February. Di Canio was reportedly seen leaving the County Ground with “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” by Dinah Washington blaring out of his car speakers. That last sentence may be fabricated.

He leaves behind not a club in turmoil however. New ownership approval is just hours away as I type this – leaving more questions over the timing of Di Canio’s departure – the Italian will have known full well the date of approval was the 19th, not the 18th when his deadline was. The team he leaves behind may have lost their talent catalyst Matt Ritchie but oozes talent elsewhere on the pitch in the form of Wes Foderingham, Alan McCormack, Aden Flint, Simon Ferry and James Collins – all individuals who any club in League One, and many in the Championship, would snap your hand off to take on board.

And what of Paolo? Ask Leon Clarke, Mehdi Kerrouche and Paul Caddis for a job reference and he’ll be lucky to find employment again. Look at the list of failed signings who he predominantly plucked from across Europe as if he’d used a map of the continent as a dartboard. Alberto Comazzi, Lukas Magera and Lander Gabilondo are just three examples of so-called “footballers” from three different countries who Paolo thought would cut it in the fourth tier of English football. How wrong he was. To say he can cut it at a higher level than League One is a massive risk. Perhaps he’ll return to Italy or take up a coaching role – his enthusiastic yet strict coaching regime will unsettle some players but will ensure naive youngsters and those who want to achieve rather than just earn an affluent pay cheque will take on board what he was to say. Despite his penchant for the extravagant whilst a player, Swindon’s incredible defensive record will be arguably Di Canio’s longest lasting memory for a club who hold the unwanted record of conceeding 100 goals in a single Premier League season (42 games).

Paolo Di Canio’s tenure in charge of Swindon Town is now consigned to the past tense. Swindon Town and Paolo Di Canio as individual entities aren’t. Fans will have to get used to living life a little further out of the spotlight now he’s gone, like most other League One clubs do. The media circus will pack away and only return should Swindon maintain a play-off push or resume their fight next season. Whoever his replacement is they will seem like caffeine-free Diet Coke to Paolo Di Canio’s Coca Cola-style leadership and personality. It may be the unnerving sense of not being noticed for the first time in nearly two years that will stand Swindon in good stead for the rest of their league campaign…

We hope.

Written by Carl McQueen – We Are Going Up! Podcast member and Swindon Town Blogger

Carl tweets at @mrcarlmcqueen


Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

On May 23rd 2011, the new Swindon Town manager Paolo Di Canio said he “was close to signed Lionel Messi”. In hindsight, he’s had the kind of season you can’t help but be impressed by – lighting up every game he’s been part of, appearing to be several steps ahead of the opposition and gained even more admirers than he already had.

And Lionel Messi has had quite a good season too.

Paolo Di Canio’s first season, not only as Swindon manager, but also as a manager full stop, has been little short of perfect. Many ‘experts’ wrote him off instantly and declared he would be out of the door at the first sign of trouble. Understandable, yet humorous with hindsight. What has transpired is a title-winning season, FA Cup giant-killings, a trip to Wembley and the bottom line of Di Canio still in charge of the club he joined a year ago.

The stats are the simplest way of describing the Robins’ path to glory – the best home record in the league, the most victories in the league, the best defensive record in the league. Cogito ergo sum; they’ve ended up as the best placed team. Curiously, they’ve lost ten away games, whereas a team like Crawley have lost just four. Yet, amazingly, in twenty-three home league games they’ve conceded just eight goals – seven of which came in three matches. Yes, that’s nineteen clean sheets at home, let alone including away games, all season.

Yet, when they lost at home to bitter rivals Oxford United on the 21st August, and then lost away at Shrewsbury Town, Swindon sat 21st in the league having lost four of their first five games. Doubt poured through the minds of Robins fans like cheap Italian wine at high-streets restaurants across Wiltshire. Had we paid untold fortunes to this man to see him leave before the first leaf fall of Autumn?

Arguably, the turning point came with Swindon’s televised victory over the team then top of the table, Rotherham United, but defeats still found themselves sown into the team’s form. The fact the team found themselves either winning or losing, and not dropping points in the form of draws proved vital as the season progressed (a stat they’ve maintained all season, drawing only one game throughout 2012). Yet as Paolo finally settled and players began to warm to his style of management, things back to bloom at the County Ground. But that’s not to say he’s always known who his best players are…

Before the season started, I wrote of the early flames of what would be Di Canio’s roaring season. Yet, the list of players he collected, and latterly disposed of is quite staggering for a level of football where money is tight. Alberto Comazzi and Ibrahim Atiku left the club after cancelling their contracts, Mehdi Kerrouche fell out with Di Canio and was shipped out on loan to of all clubs, Oxford United, and Mattia Lanzano’s contract was cancelled by the club, but curiously he later changed his mind and made his way back to the County Ground. These are just players who he had already bought in by mid-July, let alone other car-crash signings such as Leon Clarke and Lukas Magera. While he has freely acquired players left, right and centre, at a higher level where wages increase and the financial risks of failure are greater, this is something which cannot be risked from now onwards. His mistakes must be learnt with immediate effect.

That’s not to say there aren’t methods to his madness. Take Wes Foderingham in goal – pinched on loan from Crystal Palace and latterly signed permanently, he has been an incredible find and proved a constant rock, albeit a very agile one, in between the posts and surely not coincidental that Swindon have not only broken their club record for clean sheets during this season, but the fourth tier record has been rewritten.

Of course, far be it from me to reminisce just of the good times – thirty thousand Swindon fans rocked up at the Venue of Legends in March and were odds on favourites against Chesterfield in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final. They promptly walked away empty handed with a performance devoid of anything which had been witnessed by fans in the recent months before the day at Wembley. At least the heavens didn’t open, which had magnified most supporters irritation when the club last appeared in HA9 back in May 2010 against Millwall in the League One play-off final. Big days out appear to be Di Canio’s Achilles heel, if indeed he does possess such a mythological weakness – Oxford fans will continue to remind Robins fans of both derby victories this season. However, I’m sure collecting the league trophy will numb the pain over knowing their rivals up the A420 will be spending another year behind Swindon in the standings.

The past twelve months have actually been the most tumultuous and upsetting of Di Canio’s life with his father, Ignazio, and his mother, Pierina, passing away within months of one another during his time at the club. His father’s illness was actually something that stopped Di Canio becoming Newport County manager in March 2011, yet when the Swindon job arose, his father insisted on him pursuing his dream of becoming a football manager. Somewhere they’ve looked down on him and guided him through a period of his life when lesser men would have understandably walked away. The ability to separate such personal hardship and continue your fledging professional career can only stand him in good stead wherever the next few years take him.

Chairman Jeremy Wray has justifiably said that Di Canio was a “risk” – the biggest risk now however is keeping hold of the man. Di Canio has provided a catalyst of hope for Swindon Town the whole way through the club – from the Chairman to the fans – which many worried may not arrive with immediate effect after Paul Hart’s atrocious spell at the club which saw them consigned to relegation last season. Yes, they were early season favourites to bounce straight back, but so were Bristol Rovers, who have ended in mid-table, and Cheltenham Town were favourites for relegation yet ended up in the play-offs – nothing is certain in football, regardless of what level its played at.

The close season will now, inevitably, link Di Canio with various managerial positions as they become untenable and available. The enormous elephant in the room still remains West Ham United, although with Sam Allardyce on the verge of guiding them back to the Premier League via the play-offs, it could mean he receives a deserved stay of execution. Would Di Canio really want to go elsewhere other than West Ham? Although managers will come and go over the next three months, no job will arise that will honestly have Paolo bolting for the County Ground door – no Premier League team will risk going for him, and why would he leave for a Championship or League One club when his intention all along with Swindon was to get them back to the second tier of English football?

His commitment and professional to the Wiltshire club has surprised many at times, myself included. Although money inevitably talks louder than most things in these situations, he doesn’t appear swayed by moving on after one season at Swindon. He appears to have committed himself to launching Swindon onwards and upwards – not something that is a god-given right as Chesterfield have proven this season after walking away with League Two last season, but something that isn’t beyond the realms of possibility either if Di Canio stays at the club.

Players will come and go between now and the middle of August – players such as Matt Ritchie, Paul Caddis & Wes Foderingham must remain, and a proven striker must arrive. Season tickets will be sold, new fans will be found, and hype will be built. But as long as Jeremy Wray keeps hold of his Italian gaffer, Swindon Town have every hope of being the latest team to become part of the “double-bounce” phenomenon which the likes of Southampton, Norwich, Stevenage and Crawley have all enjoyed in recent years.

All together now – Paolo Di Caniooooo! Paolo Di Caniooooo!

Written by Carl McQueen – We Are Going Up! Podcast member and Swindon Town Blogger

Carl tweets at @mrcarlmcqueen

U’s ready to take on the Robins

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

At 12 noon on Saturday, Oxford United will face Swindon Town at the Kassam Stadium in the imaginatively named “A420 derby.” The derby between the two sides has been fierce since the early 1980′s and intensified due to the regularity of meeting between the sides, plus their geographical proximity throughout the decade.

Swindon fans’ vandalism of Oxford’s stadium means there is absolutely no love lost between the two sides. They covered the bronze Ox which stands outside the Kassam pink – Oxford then used it to help raise money for a Breast Cancer charity – as well as burning the club’s initials ‘STFC’ into the pitch before last August’s meeting.

The league history is overwhelmingly in favour in terms of Swindon Town with 23 wins and 81 goals scored to Oxford’s 11 wins and 57 goals scored. There have also been 20 draws between the sides over the years.

Oxford have never faced Swindon in the league at the Kassam Stadium. The only time they have played each other at the Kassam was in the second Round of the FA Cup in December 2002. The game ended 1-0 as controversial striker Jefferson Louis scored the winning goal that day to send The U’s faithful into utter delirium. The goal, in truth, was a fluke. Louis’ flick on went straight in after Steve Basham’s run bamboozled Bart Griemink in front of the Oxford Mail Stand. Louis’ celebrations post-match have to be seen to be believed as he ran round the home changing room naked after Oxford were drawn against Arsenal at Highbury in the next round.

That was then, this is now. I, as an Oxford fan, am not confident going into Saturday’s game. Oxford’s current form has been sketchy of late with nine points from a possible fifteen in their last five games and the disappointing 1-1 draw with Macclesfield at home last weekend leaving them seventh in the table. Macclesfield had lost eight consecutive matches on the road before that.

Swindon on the other hand, have won nine games on the trot and the Wiltshire club have jumped from seventh to first since Christmas. Paolo Di Canio, who has divided opinion, appears to be working his magic with the side after spending big in January, signing Paul Benson, Luke Rooney and Lee Cox as well as Ronan Murray and Derek Boating on loan from Ipswich and Arsenal respectively.

They also failed in signing Oxford’s top goalscorer, James Constable. Known to Oxford fans as “Beano” – a nickname given to him in his younger years due to his alleged likeness to the famous Heinz product. Oxford accepted a bid, but Constable decided against even travelling up, re-affirming his legend status at the club. The Yellows’ number nine decided the last meeting with Swindon in August, netting a brace as Oxford won 2-1 at the County Ground.

This followed comments from Di Canio claiming Constable was a Swindon fan. Constable does in fact support Tottenham and after the embarrassing error, Di Canio backtracked in the post-match press conference claiming he had “wrong information.”

Oxford’s key man for the game this Saturday would have been Peter Leven. He’s scored a halfway line winner against Port Vale, a brilliant free-kick against Cheltenham from 30-odd yards as well as a curling effort against Plymouth from the corner of the 18 yard box to name a few. If the Oxford faithful are to be believed, Peter Leven does what he wants. But Peter Leven cannot guard against injury. He’ll miss the game with a shoulder injury which is a massive blow. Simon Heslop is fighting to be fit, but if he doesn’t recover in time, manager Chris Wilder will have to choose between Mark Wilson, Asa Hall and Adam Chapman to partner the tireless Andy Whing and Lee Holmes in a midfield three.

The possible inclusion of Chapman is an interesting one. He was man of the match in the Conference play-off final in 2010, but the midfielder’s promising career was thrown into turmoil after he was jailed for causing the death of 77-year old Tom Bryan by dangerous driving. Since his release in September, he has had an injury plagued six months. Earlier this week, Chapman was recalled from an impressive monthly loan spell at Newport and now he has match sharpness back, he could be Oxford’s secret weapon against Swindon. Oxford lack a free-kick taker in Leven’s absence and Chapman looks the perfect replacement.

For a side that went 22 games without a clean sheet last season, Oxford have had 11 shutouts this term which puts them fifth in the clean sheet table, while opponents Swindon are first with 15. This is a marked improvement, based upon up by astute signings from Wilder during pre-season.

Former Chelsea and Leeds centre-back Michael Duberry divided fans’ opinion when he arrived in the summer from St. Johnstone. His apparent lack of pace worried some fans, but his commanding presence has given the Oxford back line confidence this season. When he was injured in November, Oxford lost every game which further proved his importance to the side. He has hit a purple patch with four goals in his last four games, the only problem is that three of them have been in his own goal! That includes what he dubbed on Twitter as the “imperfect Hat-trick.” A left-foot own goal, a headed own goal followed by a right-foot finish in the correct net. Despite this, Duberry remains a cult hero at the Kassam. I doubt many other players could get away with scoring so many own goals in a debut season and still be loved by the fans of a club.

Oxford usually play a 4-3-3 but switched to a 4-4-2 for periods against Macclesfield. The weakness of 4-3-3 is that the system is susceptible to attacks down the wings, which could prove crucial as  Swindon’s key man will be left winger Matt Ritchie. The former Portsmouth player moved to Swindon in the summer and has scored 10 goals as well as adding 10 assists, staking his claim to be League Two′s player of the season. Oxford will need to change to a 4-5-1 when not in possession with the wingers tracking the Swindon full backs. It is extremely important for the home side to have a midfielder move across and help cover the full back to help nullify Ritchie’s threat.

As an Oxford fan, a loss would be devastating for the fans. The fact of the matter is, Swindon are the better side and there is a reason they are sat at the top of the league. On paper Swindon should win, but derby games never stick to the script. 1973 was the last time Oxford won at the County Ground and the only season they’ve beaten the Robins twice in the same campaign. Oxford ended their 38-year wait for victory in Wiltshire earlier this season, can they achieve a famous double?

Written by Youcef El Barhdadi, We Are Going Up’s Oxford United blogger

Youcef tweets at @yelbarhdadi

Is all that glitters really silver?

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Premier League and Championship supporters, look away now. For the next few paragraphs this article shall describe a competition so alien to you it may as well be written in French. C’est la Ligue de Football Trophée. And Swindon Town have reached the final of it, so allow me to milk it for all it’s worth…

Shrouded in satire and ridicule, the competition that pits the wits of the 48 clubs in the third and fourth tiers of English football, ultimately provides two teams with a day at Wembley Stadium. Two sets of fans with the chance to cheer on their team at the ‘home’ of English football. Not the England team, not a Premier League team, but THEIR team. How many of you reading this who support a Football League team can actually say that?

You can take your mid-table mediocrity, your run of the mill ‘I’d rather stay up than win the cup’ excuses. But you’re wrong. You’re so wrong that you’re insulting the very essence and purpose of the beautiful game – to enjoy it. In ten years, five years, even seven months on, how many more people will remember the team who won the League Cup in 2011 compared to the team who finished 17th in the Premier League last season? I can tell you without thinking who won the League Cup. I had to Google the Premier League table of 2010/11 to discover Wolverhampton Wanderers were the team I shouldn’t care about.

Crystal Palace, Fulham, Hull City, Oldham Athletic, Reading, Swansea City, Watford and Wigan Athletic have all played in the Premier League but never won a major trophy. Would fans swap, what for some of those teams, was just a fleeting moment in the big time for a moment of immortality when their club’s name is etched into the history books for lifting major silverware over saying they’ve dined with kings for just a year or two? Many would say no, they would take a Premier League appearance of just a season over winning a cup competition. But if that’s the case, what exactly do football fans really want? And why on earth do we not just scrap all cup tournaments?

The media has fed us the belief that the FA Cup has lost it’s “magic” and the League Cup is just a competition for clubs to play their reserves. Yet millions still watch it. The sheer joy on the faces on the fans, players and management who win it is not faked for the cameras. It’s the unbridled delight that football can bring you if you’re lucky enough to experience it. The same can be said of play-off finals. One game which will tear the hearts out of half the stadium and give the other half the hope, optimistic dreams, and monetary support for the next twelve months.

Perhaps that’s the simple answer? Money? Teams want to be the 17th placed team in the Premier League because the enormous gulf in financial reward through sponsorship and televisions rights will destroy a club should they lose their footing as much as it will secure them for the next decade if they stay afloat in the top flight. The growing list of teams to crash and burn their way through the Football League system in the past decade is a worrying observation. Granted, it is not a new phenomenon, but thanks to rolling news coverage and the Internet, the death of a football club becomes a slow, voyeuristic past time for the general public to feast on, voice their opinion, and then becoming generically upset when that club finally calls it a day.

But all that’s for another discussion altogether on the wider problem of money in football. This is to do with the ambitions of supporters and clubs. As much as it’s ridiculed, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy will give either Swindon Town or Chesterfield fans the hope and optimistic dreams I’ve already spoken of. Whereas one side, the Robins, fights for promotion into League One, the other side, the Spireites, are fighting to stay in it – at exact role reversal of twelve months ago. Both will want to win their battles in their respective leagues, but the opportunity for glory at Wembley must be taken with both hands.

Whereas it may not give the exposure an FA Cup run will achieve – even Swindon fans can vouch that one win against Wigan Athletic this season has produced more media coverage than even winning this entire competition will ever do – it will still produce silverware to add to the cabinet. Something that can never be taken away from the club should Swindon be successful. Unless of course it’s the Second Division play-off trophy of 1990…

Swindon fans have already been lucky enough to experience the new Wembley – many Football League teams have not even come close – in the form of the League One play-off final of 2010. A shambolic appearance on the pitch was marred even further by ‘loyal’ fans being angered at the ‘plastic’ fans that made up the numbers. This works both ways; either you take along, say, 12,000 supporters and make your half of the stadium look pitiful yet an echo of Town End season ticket holders can still be heard from the other end of the stadium, or you allow 30,000 fans to come along and make your team look like a well-followed and supported club in an appearance at the biggest stadium in the country which may not happen again for a generation. Having read the fan forums the day afternoon the play-off defeat to Millwall, the irritation of some die-hard fans was so clear it made you wonder if their judgement had been clouded by ignominious defeat, and had Swindon won then the exact opposite would have been documented about the turnout. I know for a fact this paragraph alone will fuel discussion with most Robins’ fans, and the rest of what I write and have written will be mere filler to the debate of that fateful day in May 2010.

But it does leave a worthy question – should this game even be played at Wembley? Swindon have been handed just over 30,000 tickets, and Chesterfield nearly 10,000 fewer than that on the basis of each club estimating their allocation. Should they both sell out, you still leave yourself with over 30,000 empty seats for a game that many are still unsure of it’s significance – do we want to win this game, or gain promotion/stave off relegation? Would games like this, and others such as the FA Trophy, not be better off at stadiums such as Old Trafford where the ratio of empty seats to filled ones looks more respectable? Or would that destroy another element of the magic of football – regardless of the English cup competition, you earn yourself a day at Wembley, in spite of the ‘experience’ during your few hours in HA9?

Perhaps then all that glitters really isn’t a silver trophy collected by the winning captain. Perhaps it’s mid-table mediocrity and the confusing belief that you’ll push on next season. Perhaps it’s gaining promotion by coming second or third, not actually winning the league, and then hoping you’ll avoid relegation on the last day of the following season. Or perhaps it is the chance to win a competition, which your team is invited to compete in, regardless of financial reward and newspaper column inches it receives.

League One and League Two fans should take the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy as a genuine opportunity to succeed, and not as a cannon fodder to the rest of your season. It may not be the Champions League, but should my team lift the trophy at Wembley on March 25th, for just a few days at least, I’ll feel a bigger man than any team that finishes 17th in the Premier League this season.

Written by Carl McQueen – We Are Going Up! Podcast member and Swindon Town Blogger

Carl tweets at @mrcarlmcqueen


Toppo’s Top Tens – Moments of 2011

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

As we are a few days into 2012, there’s no better time to reflect on the previous year in the Football League. 2011 served up some memorable moments, with unexpected promotions, great relegation escapes, controversies and goals aplenty.

A resurgent East Anglian outfit upset the odds to claim their second promotion in two seasons and top flight football returned to South Wales for the first time in nearly 30 years. A Premier League legend turned up in Wiltshire to begin his managerial career while two former England managers were hired and fired in the East Midlands.

Plenty more took place in 2011 and this week Toppo’s Top Ten takes a look back at some of the most memorable events of the past twelve months in the Football League.

10: Stevenage are promoted again

Stevenage were promoted to the Football League for the first time in their history in 2010 and made a decent start to life in League Two, hovering around mid-table for the first six months of the campaign. In January the club were sat in 18th place but went on a remarkable run of form in February and March, winning nine out of eleven games to propel themselves into the play-off spots. They may have come to the attention of many for their ‘timewasting’ tactics and the hard work put in by the team on the training field, but Graham Westley’s side were on the up.

They finished sixth and defeated Accrington Stanley 3-0 in the play-off semi-finals, to set up a meeting with Torquay United at Old Trafford in the final. Stevenage had the better of the first-half and made their dominance count four minutes from the break as John Mousinho rifled in a shot from the edge of the area after a fine run from midfield. The goal would prove to be the decider and Stevenage saw out the match to secure a famous double promotion into League One, emulating Exeter’s back-to-back promotions from the Conference into the third tier in 2008 and 2009.

9: Crystal Palace shock Manchester United

Having struggled at the wrong end of the Championship table early in 2011, Crystal Palace made a much better start to the 2011-12 season under manager Dougie Freedman, challenging for the play-offs and having a good run in the Carling Cup.

In the quarter-finals on November 30 they travelled to Old Trafford to face Manchester United, with the home side considered big favourites, despite Sir Alex Ferguson fielding some fringe players. After a dull first half, the game sparked into life when Palace midfielder Darren Ambrose thumped a brilliant 35-yard strike into the top corner at the Stretford End. United equalised thanks to Federico Macheda’s penalty but they could not find another goal, so the match went into extra-time.

Eight minutes into extra-time Palace won a free-kick which Ambrose swung into the penalty area, Glenn Murray escaped the attentions of his marker and nodded the ball into the back of Ben Amos’ net to restore Palace’s lead. The Londoners came under pressure in the closing stages of the game but defended resolutely to seal a last-four spot for the first time in ten years.

8: That Clarke-Di Canio bust-up

Former Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham United striker Paolo Di Canio was appointed manager of Swindon Town in May, not long after the club’s relegation into League Two had been confirmed. The Robins got off to an inconsistent start under the Italian, who was known for his short temper and hot-headed moments as a player. At the end of August we saw this side of Di Canio return as he had a furious bust-up with striker Leon Clarke on the touchline at the County Ground after losing to Southampton in the Carling Cup.

Clarke had an argument with one of the club’s fitness coaches before manager Di Canio stepped in. He asked the striker to leave the field but Clarke refused, Di Canio tugged at his shirt which seemed to wind the striker up more. Eventually the pair headed down the tunnel where the confrontation continued and became more heated with the two having to be pulled apart. Clarke had only joined Swindon from QPR 11 days later, and he was soon heading for the exit – farmed out to Chesterfield on loan.

7: Darren Ferguson returns to Peterborough

In January 2011, fourteen months after leaving the club by mutual consent, Darren Ferguson strolled back into London Road to become Peterborough United boss for a second time. He had just been sacked by Preston North End, who were bottom of the Championship – which was where Ferguson took Peterborough from League Two thanks to successive promotions in 2008 and 2009 during his first stint as manager.

Posh were in the play-off mix when he arrived and he eventually guided them into the end-of-season shootout for a place in the Championship. After overcoming MK Dons in the semi-finals they would face Huddersfield Town at Old Trafford on May 29, where Ferguson began his playing career and where his father Sir Alex, is a club legend. Huddersfield were considered favourites having just been pipped to automatic promotion by Southampton but the game was a tight affair until the late stages.

In the 78th minute Peterborough broke the deadlock when Tommy Rowe headed Grant McCann’s free-kick into the back of the net, before striker Craig Mackail-Smith’s 35th goal of a memorable season made it 2-0. Posh sealed the victory five minutes from the end thanks to a great free-kick from McCann to seal promotion back to the Championship and a remarkable comeback for manager Ferguson.

6: Huddersfield’s unbeaten run

In 2011 Huddersfield Town came close to securing a place in the Championship, being beaten to an automatic promotion spot in League One to Southampton, before losing the play-off final to Peterborough United. Lee Clark’s side were tipped to go one better in the 2011-12 season and pushed for the play-offs again from the start as they carried on a long unbeaten run from the previous season.

After losing in the league to Southampton on December 28th 2010, Huddersfield picked up 24 wins and 18 draws from their next 42 league games to equal Nottingham Forest’s Football League unbeaten streak of 42 matches. In their next game at home to Notts County on the 19th of November, Town would make history as they ran out 2-1 winners thanks to a brace from Jordan Rhodes and make it 43 unbeaten.

In this time they had lost matches in the FA Cup, Carling Cup and most notably, in the League One play-offs, so some felt the record should have been ended much sooner, however it was an impressive feat from the Terriers which came to an end with a 2-0 loss away to leaders Charlton Athletic in their next game.

5: Brighton move to their new home

Fourteen long years after leaving the Goldstone Ground and playing at the Withdean Stadium since 1999, Brighton and Hove Albion finally moved to a new stadium of their own, the impressive Falmer Stadium (named the AMEX Stadium due to sponsorship) which was in construction since 2008.

The move coincided with Gus Poyet’s side winning the League One title last season to be promoted to the Championship and the feel good factor was back amongst the Seagulls and their supporters. Their first competitive match at their new ground was a home league fixture against Doncaster Rovers and it would be a memorable afternoon for the home side. The teams took to the field amid a great atmosphere and the sell-out 20.219 crowd waving flags, but it was Doncaster who threatened to spoil Brighton’s afternoon as they took the lead through Billy Sharp.

Brighton tried to find a goal and finally equalised on 83 minutes as Will Buckley, a summer signing from Watford, hit a shot from the egde of the penalty area after Doncaster had failed to clear a free-kick. Injuries meant there were eight minutes of injury time and in the final minute, Buckley converted an excellent pass from Craig Noone to complete a brilliant turnaround and send the home fans into wild celebration.

4: Fans Reunited

Plymouth Argyle began the season in financial turmoil and had just suffered back-to-back relegations from the Championship into League Two. The club were £13 million in debt and placed in Administration. On the pitch the club’s fortunes continued to slide as the Pilgrims sat bottom of the whole Football League after nine games and manager Peter Reid was sacked.

A ‘fans reunited’ day was organised for Plymouth’s home match against Macclesfield Town on September 24th, led by Brighton and Hove Albion fans, hundreds of well-wishers pledged to descend on Home Park in their own teams’ shirts to support Plymouth’s plight. Albion themselves went through a similar situation in 1997 when they were evicted from the Goldstone Ground, docked points and nearly dropped out of the Football League.

Over 6,000 people attended Plymouth’s match with Macclesfield, with fans from clubs all over the country making the long trip South to be at the game. Argyle’s players responded and ran out 2-0 winners to pick up their first win of a difficult season. Two weeks later a second ‘fans reunited’ day was staged on an International weekend to encourage even more fans to support Plymouth, and the Home Park attendance swelled to over 8,000 as the Pilgrims drew 2-2 with Accrington Stanley.

3: Norwich City reach the Premier League

Norwich City’s rise into the Premier League is remarkable. Defeated 7-1 at Carrow Road by Paul Lambert’s Colchester United on the first day of the League One season in 2009, the club dismissed manager Bryan Gunn and appointed Lambert as the new boss. The Scot galvanised the team as they regained their form and went on to win the League One title later that season, immediately bouncing back into the Championship.

Norwich carried on their winning momentum into the second tier and the club were in and around the play-off spots for most of the season. Thanks to the goals of striker Grant Holt the Canaries were very much in the promotion shake-up and moved into the top two, maintaining consistent form in the process – not losing back-to-back matches all season.

On May 2nd the club went into their penultimate match of the campaign away at Portsmouth needing a win to guarantee promotion. The game was a scrappy affair with neither side fashioning many chances, however in the 50th minute they did find the net. David Fox curled a free-kick into the penalty area and Simeon Jackson met it with a close-range header to give the Canaries a priceless lead.

Norwich held on to secure the win and with it a second consecutive promotion into the Premier League as the players ran towards the travelling supporters to celebrate a remarkable triumph. The club became the first since Manchester City in 2000 to win back-to-back promotions into the top flight.

2: Brendan Rodgers takes Swansea City up

Having narrowly missed out on a Championship play-off place the season before, Swansea City appointed former Watford and Reading boss Brendan Rodgers as manager in the wake of Paolo Sousa’s departure for Leicester City. The Swans developed a reputation for playing attractive, attacking football and this would continue under Rodgers. He moved to bring Scott Sinclair to South Wales for £500,000 from former club Chelsea before the season began and he would be one of the club’s key players throughout the campaign.

After a slow start, Swansea picked up form and were soon in the play-off places, moving into the top two on occasion before falling away to allow Norwich to finish second. They eventually finished third to secure a play-off spot and face Nottingham Forest in the semi-finals. After a goalless first leg at the City Ground, Swansea won the return at the Liberty Stadium 3-1 to reach the Wembley final, where they would face Reading for a place in the Premier League.

On May 30 the two sets of fans descended on Wembley to witness what would be a pulsating encounter. Swansea took control of the first half as two goals from Scott Sinclair and a strike from Stephen Dobbie saw the Swans go into the half-time break 3-0 ahead. Reading looked out of it but they pulled a goal back when Joe Allen deflected a header into his own net four minutes after the restart, and eight minutes later the Royals got another when Matt Mills headed home from a corner to put Brian McDermott’s side right back in the contest.

Swansea had to see out Reading pressure as they pressed for an equaliser, being denied by the post and some last-ditch defending from Garry Monk, before they were awarded a penalty with ten minutes to go when Fabio Borini was brought down in the Reading penalty area. Sinclair stepped up and converted the spot-kick to complete his hat-trick and send Swansea on their way to promotion. At the final whistle they returned to the top flight after a 28 year absence and became the first Welsh team to reach the Premier League – quite a feat considering the club won promotion from League Two six years before.

1: Barnet’s great escape

On the final day of the 2010-11 League Two season Barnet and Lincoln City were locked in a battle to remain in the Football League. Lincoln were two points ahead of the Londoners with a home game against Aldershot, while Barnet faced Port Vale at Underhill. Barnet began the season with Mark Stimson as manager but he left with the club bottom at New Year and they turned to former boss Paul Fairclough as caretaker manager.

However after 15 points from a possible 48 the club were staring the Conference in the face and Fairclough left, with another former manager, Martin Allen returning as Bees’ manager on an eight game deal. He gave the side the lift they needed as they won two and drew one of his first three matches in charge, before he shocked everyone by agreeing to join managerless Notts County, just 19 days after his return to Underhill.

Giuliano Grazioli, a Barnet legend and assistant manager to Allen was placed in charge until the end of the season. After a win, a draw and two defeats from his first four games as boss, Barnet went into the final day of the season needing a victory whilst hoping Lincoln lost. Three minutes into the second half, Izale McLeod scored from the penalty spot to give Barnet the lead, but it would be meaningless unless Lincoln conceded against Aldershot.

Midway through the second-half at Sincil Bank Aldershot themselves won and converted a penalty to take the lead, with the news gradually filtering through at Underhill amid chants of “We are staying up!” from the Bees’ supporters. Fifteen minutes later Aldershot doubled their lead and the Barnet fans began cheering once more. Aldershot made it 3-0 with five minutes left, while at Underhill there were six minutes of injury time which only added to the tension, but Barnet held on to survive in the Football League, climb up to 22nd place in the table and condemn Lincoln to non-league football.

At the final whistle the Bees fans poured onto the pitch to celebrate with the players and coaching staff. Barnet had saved themselves by the skin of their teeth.

Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and blogger

Tweet Steven at @steven_toplis with your suggestions for Toppo’s Top Tens

Toppo’s Top Tens – League Cup upsets

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

The League Cup has, in recent years, been written off by some observers as a second rate competition which creates unwanted congestion on an already hectic fixture calendar. However many Football League clubs have enjoyed successful runs in the competition, with some reaching the semi-finals, the final or even winning the cup itself on occasion.

It is no secret that many of the country’s biggest clubs use the League Cup as an opportunity to play the reserves or field their youngsters, which can lead to some unexpected results and allow lower ranked sides to reach the latter stages of the tournament.

Last week Dougie Freedman’s Crystal Palace upset the odds by defeating Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford to reach the semi-finals – where they will meet fellow Championship side Cardiff City after they beat Premier League Blackburn Rovers in the last eight. Since the League Cup’s inception in the 1960/61 season there have been plenty of other upsets and this week Toppo’s Top Ten looks at some of the most memorable….

10: Sheffield Wednesday 1 Manchester United 0 1991

Wembley has seen its fair share of cup final upsets down the years and the 1991 League Cup Final was no different. Manchester United went into the game as FA Cup holders and huge favourites as they faced Sheffield Wednesday, who would go on to win promotion from the Second Division that season.

Former United manager Ron Atkinson was the Owls’ manager, pitted against Alex Ferguson, the man who replaced him in the Old Trafford hotseat five years before. It would be Big Ron who would be smiling by the end of 90 minutes as a ferocious volley from midfielder John Sheridan settled the game. The second tier outfit pulled off a shock by beating United to claim the League Cup for the first time in their history.

9: Norwich City 0 Milton Keynes Dons 4 2011

Premier League new boys Norwich City crashed out of this season’s Carling Cup in the first round with a humiliating 4-0 home defeat to an MK Dons side two divisions below them. Canaries manager Paul Lambert made eleven changes for this match and his side fell behind on 21 minutes to a goal from former Norwich player Luke Chadwick. Striker Sam Baldock, in one of his final Dons appearances before his transfer to West Ham United,  doubled the lead seven minutes later with a powerful strike having been played in by Stephen Gleeson.

In the second half Karl Robinson’s side extended their lead further as Chadwick combined with Dean Bowditch before netting his second of the game and substitute Daniel Powell capitalised on some poor home defending to make it four on 67 minutes. A memorable win at Carrow Road for MK Dons which is Lambert’s heaviest defeat during his two year tenure as Norwich boss.

8: Queens Park Rangers 3 West Bromwich Abion 2 1967

By 1967 the League Cup had been running for seven years but this year’s final was the first to be played at Wembley – up until then the final consisted of a two-legged affair with a match played at the home ground of each team. The first final underneath the Twin Towers proved to be a cracker, as First Division side West Bromwich Albion met Third Division Queens Park Rangers, playing at Wembley for the first time.

The favourites lived up to their pre-match billing as as they took a 2-0 lead into half-time thanks to former QPR winger Clive Clark’s brace. However the Hoops fought back in twenty second half minutes as Roger Morgan scored with a header to make it 2-1, then a great individual run and strike from Rodney Marsh equalised. Rangers eventually won 3-2 thanks to Mark Lazarus’ late goal and in doing so they became the first club from the third tier to win a major trophy.

7: Southend United 1 Manchester United 0 2006

Manchester United won the Carling Cup in the 2005/06 season and were looking to reach the quarter-finals the following campaign. In their way were Championship side Southend United and a capacity crowd packed into Roots Hall to witness this fourth round encounter.

Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a United side including ten internationals in the hope of avoiding an upset with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney on the field for the whole 90 minutes, but they would end the night humbled. On 27 minutes Southend frontman Freddy Eastwood lined up a free-kick some distance from goal before running up and unleashing an unstoppable, bending drive which beat Tomas Kuszczak in the United goal to put Southend a goal up.

Despite United pouring forward in search of an equaliser, Southend goalkeeper Darryl Flahavan kept them at bay with a string of great saves while Eastwood threatened on the break at the other end. However the Premier League outfit could not find a way through and it was Southend who knocked out the holders, progressing to the last eight of the competition.

6: Chelsea 1 Burnley 1 (Burnley win 5-4 on penalties) 2008

In the 2008/09 season Championship side Burnley reached the semi-finals of the Carling Cup, where they were knocked out by top-flight Tottenham Hotspur over two legs. On their way to the last four, Burnley beat Premier League leaders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Fourth Round in a dramatic penalty shootout.

Didier Drogba looked to set Chelsea on their way to the next round as expected when he finished expertly having been played in by Frank Lampard in the first half. However after the break Burnley fought their way back into the game and equalised through Ade Akinbiyi – sending the 6,000 travelling Clarets fans mad.

The game went into extra-time where Chelsea had a goal disallowed and missed several opportunities to win, but with no goal forthcoming the tie would be settled on penalties. After five-spot kicks each, both sides missed one and scored four before Michael Duff converted Burnley’s sixth. Jon Obi Mikel stepped up next for Chelsea and Clarets goalkeeper Brian Jensen made himself a hero, diving full length to his right to palm the effort away and send the second tier club into the next round.

5: Liverpool 1 Grimsby Town 2 2001

In the 2001/02 season, Division One side Grimsby Town pulled off a famous result at Anfield, knocking Worthington Cup holders Liverpool out of the competition in the third round. After a goalless 90 minutes, the match headed into extra-time and a David Beharall handball gave the hosts the chance to go in front from the penalty spot eleven minutes in. Gary McAllister slotted home the spot-kick, but in the second period of extra-time Grimsby hit back.

Centre-back Marlon Broomes volleyed a 113th minute equaliser in front of the travelling Grimsby support and, in amazing fashion it was the visitors who would take the lead late on. Liverpool were pushing for the winner but Town went up the other end where, from 35 yards out, Phil Jevons unleashed a piledriver which flew into the top corner of Chris Kirkland’s net. Jevons, a boyhood Liverpool fan, had joined the Mariners from Everton in pre-season and instantly became a hero at Blundell Park with an incredible  120th minute strike.

4: Arsenal 1 Walsall 2 1983

Fifty years before this 1983 Milk Cup fourth round tie, Walsall stunned Arsenal by beating them in the FA Cup and they would go on to do something similar at Highbury. At the time Arsenal were in trouble both on and off the pitch, with fans calling for manager Terry Neill to be sacked, however a home cup tie against Third Division Walsall should have provided some respite.

Things looked to be going to plan as Stewart Robson put the Gunners ahead just after the half hour, although Walsall were enjoying most of the play. The Saddlers got their reward fifteen minutes into the second half as Mark Rees netted after Ally Brown’s shot came out to him for the equaliser. Then with five minutes to go, the underdogs took the lead as David Preece’s left-wing cross was not dealt with by the Arsenal defence and the ball fell to Brown who slammed it high into the net to win the tie.

A great result for Walsall and their player-manager Alan Buckley as his side progressed to the quarter-finals. This result spelled the end of Neill’s tenure as Arsenal boss, paving the way for George Graham to take charge.

3: Liverpool 2 Northampton Town 2 (Northampton win 4-2 on penalties) 2010

In the third round of last season’s Carling Cup, Northampton Town pulled off arguably the shock of the tournament by knocking out Premier League Liverpool at Anfield. Reds boss Roy Hodgson made many changes to his side, picking mainly fringe players but they got off to a good start as Milan Jovanovic gave them the lead on nine minutes.

In the second half a Cobblers free-kick was knocked down to Billy McKay who rifled it into the roof of the net as the Town fans behind the goal celebrated wildly and that was how the scores remained after 90 minutes. Northampton, 17th in League Two and three divisions below their opponents, took the lead in extra-time when the ball broke to Michael Jacobs who stuck it into the top corner in front of the Kop. As the visitors sensed a famous victory, David Ngog equalised for Liverpool with four minutes left, to the relief of Hodgson and the Reds fans inside Anfield.

The match went to penalties and in the teaming rain, Town striker Stephen Guinan and Ngog missed their penalties before Nathan Eccleston hit Liverpool’s fifth against the crossbar to hand Northampton a chance of victory. Under great pressure, Abdul Osman stepped forward and sent Brad Jones the wrong way to clinch Town’s place in the fourth round – a great achievement from Ian Sampson’s side.

2: Manchester United 0 York City 3 1995

It is a great achievement for many sides to come away from Old Trafford with a win – for a fourth tier side to do it is quite remarkable, especially by the margin York City defeated Manchester United in the second round of the League Cup in 1995.

Alex Ferguson brought in some of his fringe players – including David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville – alongside proven players like Ryan Giggs and Gary Pallister but they could not stop their visitors crusing to victory. Alan Little’s York took the lead through Paul Barnes’ deflected strike and in the second half Barnes doubled it from the penalty spot, before Tony Barras made it three from a header in front of a stunned Old Trafford crowd.

In the return leg United fielded a stronger lineup and levelled the tie – but conceded one goal to be knocked out 4-3 on aggregate in one of York’s greatest ever victories.

1: Swindon Town 3 Arsenal 1 1969

One of the greatest upsets in any English cup competition. The 1969 League Cup final pitted Third Division Swindon Town against First Division Arsenal, under the stewardship of Bertie Mee, who would lead them to the League and FA Cup double two years later. However Danny Williams’ Swindon were out to cause an upset in the showpiece match at Wembley.

It was the Robins who took a shock lead through Roger Smart after a mix-up in the Arsenal defence left goalkeeper Bob Wilson stranded, presenting Smart with an easy finish. Swindon held on until the 86th minute when goalkeeper Peter Downsborough failed to clear the ball and Bobby Gould punced to head home the equaliser and seemingly dash the underdog’s hopes of an upset. However in extra-time Swindon had the better of the play and regained the lead as Don Rogers netted after a corner was not cleared by the Gunners.

In the second period of extra-time Arsenal went forward in search of another equaliser but lost the ball and Swindon broke on the counter-attack. The ball was played through to Rogers who, in acres of space, carried the ball towards goal before cooly rounding Wilson to score and make it 3-1. Arsenal could not find a way back and it was Swindon who pulled off a famous victory, lifting major silverware for the first time in their history.

Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and blogger

Tweet Steven at @steven_toplis with your suggestions for Toppo’s Top Tens

When you can’t trust anyone, trust yourself, Paolo

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

The American actor and composer Oscar Levant once quipped, “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.” Paolo Di Canio has this famous adage hung aloft in his office at the County Ground…and if he doesn’t, he should. A career strewn with controversy and brilliance – yes he’s pushed the odd referee, yes he’s saluted the odd fascist regime, but now he’s set up shop in Wiltshire, and will not be doing things quietly.

Many of you will have read this article at the start of the week on Paolo’s adventure in the Swindon half marathon – having lost his bearings on the shorter fun-run section, he ended up putting in a time just 36 minutes short of the winner of the race and ultimately told BBC Radio Wiltshire, “I couldn’t stop, there was a challenge.” This man laughs in the face of adversity. He encapsulates Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ poem as if the wordsmith had instead written his immortal piece of work in March 2000 having seen Di Canio score that goal against Wimbledon rather than in 1910. But yet, despite that memory being over 11 years ago, and the Italian now at the age of 43, every Swindon fan holds a particular yearning…what if he was to put on a Swindon shirt just once. What if he took to the hallowed turf and dazzled Robins fans the way he once did West Ham fans. What if he scored in front of the Town End. Just think about it Paolo – which is more, you’ll be a man, my son.

The idea may equate to mere blue-sky thinking or any number of workplace-based idioms, but when you sit in League Two with a manager who once called the Premier League and Serie A his home just a few years ago, the idea borders on genius and insanity. Go on, admit it, you’re edging towards the side of genius…

There was a time when the term ‘player-manager’ was not something sneered at or seen as a sign of a club desperate to avoid the drop with a minimal number of games left having just kicked their manager unceremoniously into the job centre, but instead was an in vogue scheme which chairmen up and down the land (although, predominantly just Ken Bates) thought could steer the club onwards and upwards – Chelsea encouraged Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Glenn Hoddle to take up the challis during the 1990s, regardless of how much poison it contained. The latter of those three did of course begin his managerial career as Swindon’s player-manager, culminating in the club winning promotion to the Premier League, with Hoddle himself scoring in their play-off final victory over Leicester City. Liverpool fans will recite Kenny Dalglish’s first managerial spell as an example of it working and him truly being crowned a King. Swansea City will utter John Toshack’s time as the prime example of fighting their way through the divisions. Crystal Palace will proclaim, err, Attilio Lombardo. Okay, sometimes these things just weren’t meant to be…

But at present all four teams relegated from League One last season sit in the bottom half of League Two – Swindon, Bristol Rovers, Dagenham & Redbridge and, perhaps inevitably, Plymouth Argyle all call the ‘doldrums’ their home at present. At the start of the season, Swindon’s odds for promotion were just 9/4, with 9/1 to win the league outright. There may still be nearly three-quarters of the season to go, but this is not the outcome supporters wanted, nor necessarily expected in August. Even Di Canio admitted the club must gain promotion back to League One this term; there was no ‘maybe’ in his outline for the season – his conviction led fans into a spell of mass hysteria that we could walk through this league without breaking a sweat. The reality is proving slightly more complicated.

Swindon Town has a knack of embracing risk and ambition. For a town with the cultural appeal of a wet dishcloth, its managerial roll call is heaped in history and glamour. The juxtaposition of a legendary footballer managing in a town with little more than a confusing roundabout as it’s modern day clamour for tourists is an odd one, but one which has always paid off. When inert creatures such as Paul Hart or Maurice Malpas take charge, only negative occurrences happen at the County Ground. Paolo Di Canio is the risk and ambition which fans desire, and expect.

Despite his short tenure at the club so far, turmoil has followed the Italian. Many would say this is a natural inevitability with the national media waiting for him to slip up in the same way they want him to succeed. The Leon Clarke incident was pure Di Canio. The vast majority of fans sided with the manager and Clarke was out – loaned to Chesterfield, and although many will admit they could do with him scoring for us now, his spell at the club was so inferior to make an impression, they’ll never know.

Quite simply, mess with Paolo and you’ll never play for the club again. Picture this scene from Scarface and imagine every single player being brought into his office, one-by-one, sitting down whilst he sips from a snifter glass having poured a precise gill measurement of his finest brandy from the Royal Doulton decanter he keeps hidden from view, and then, in his immaculate Italian-English simply echoes Sosa’s words. Haunting.

Strikers such as the once Czech Republic international Lukas Magera have failed miserably at the club at the time of writing – Algerian Mehdi Kerrouche and winger Matt Ritchie are seemingly single-handedly lifting the club above the parapet, which inevitably means one of them will be sold in January. Alan Connell is bouncing in and out of the starting line-up on more occasions than can be healthy, and therefore no form can be found. Di Canio’s fellow countryman Raffaele de Vita appears to have secured a starting birth but fans are often left scratching heads at his inclusion, especially when he’s regularly substituted after an hour. New loanee Jake Jervis reportedly has the potential to provide a beacon of goals but has minimal experience in professional football.

Quite simply, it appears Paolo has yet to find the strike partnership he’s fond of. He’s yet to find the strikers he trusts. There is a short-term solution, however. Play Paolo. His managerial style has naturally fused his flair and awareness of the beautiful game, which sometimes comes unstuck in League Two when meaty defenders blunder their way through the back of your midfielders legs when they’re performing intricate give-and-go play, added with the simple fact that players at this level are not going to be able to habitually execute the brilliance that Di Canio once fed the paying audience on a weekly basis. Instead Di Canio sees players skewing it straight out of play, slicing it for a throw-in, or punting it into row Z. He may be 43, but he wouldn’t do this. He’d be a modicum of talent, inventiveness and inspiration in a morale-sapping league. When you sit in the fourth tier of English football, no one enjoys staying there for long.

What harm could it do to Swindon’s already faltering season? Di Canio would obviously be required to register as a player rather than just strap on his boots at will while manager, but come on, don’t sap the fun out of this. The idea may be maniacal and purely something light-heartedly observational to fill the pages of a Football League website giving a soapbox to the opinions of fans, but everyone would want to see it. Everyone would love to witness Paolo Di Canio on the field of play one final time. People would come from far and wide to watch the ever growing soap opera of Swindon Town. He would become the player that the fans of the beautiful game always wanted to see return. His goals, assists and sheer motivational intensity will be a standard of which the fourth tier of our national game has never seen…

…And then we’ll sell him for an undisclosed fee in January.

Written by Carl McQueen – We Are Going Up! Podcast member and Swindon Town Blogger

Carl tweets at @mrcarlmcqueen