IN RECENT years football ticket prices have gone under the microscope. They’re inflated, excessive and rarely reflect the quality of the show on offer.
Over the past two-and-a-bit weeks at the County Ground, however, patrons can have no complaints. As if 5-0 drubbings of Tranmere and Portsmouth weren’t satisfaction enough, Swindon Town turned in another performance that blended class with utter disdain to leave Carlisle limping back to Cumbria humiliated and totally baffled.
That’s 14 goals in three matches in SN1 over the Christmas and new year period, absurd value for money. It’s like strolling into McDonald’s, ordering a Happy Meal and discovering Heston Blumenthal is slapping you up a three-star tasting menu. And it’s just as delicious to watch.
Carlisle simply did not know what to do to combat Swindon’s pace, movement and quick-thinking as two goals from Andy Williams and one apiece from James Collins and Raffa De Vita propelled the Robins to within two points of third-placed Sheffield United in the League One table.
It was at times mesmerising and quite honesty it could and should have been a real hiding. Tommy Miller hit the crossbar and Gary Roberts squandered a couple of good chances as the visitors were spared the embarrassment of a seven or eight-goal massacre.
Up front, Collins and Williams produced the sort of strike partnership display that they have threatened to offer since the beginning of the season. With Collins’ strength in possession and natural goalscoring instinct in the box and Williams’ accomplished skill on the ball and blistering speed, Carlisle’s back four were on the back foot from the off.
Out wide Matt Ritchie’s delivery was of the highest order, while Gary Roberts enjoyed a productive afternoon on the left. Nathan Thompson was excellent both going forwards and in his defensive role, while Joe Devera’s distribution was as impressive as his total dominance of the Carlisle forwards.
It was a complete performance. By the end the Swindon faithful were chanting “we want five”. The Town players did their best to grant that wish but, though it never came, the scoreline was already emphatic enough.
As has become the norm of late, Swindon started at a canter. When Collins saw his effort blocked, the rebound fell to Simon Ferry who produced an excellent save out of Mark Gillespie from 12 yards.
Roberts came within inches of opening the scoring in the 10th minute. Collins’ lofted ball to the back post picked out the former Huddersfield man but, from a narrow angle, he could not direct the ball goalwards.
Such was Town’s dominance, however, it was never going to be long until the home crowd had something to cheer, and the opener came in the 16th minute. Alan McCormack’s long throw picked out Williams, who had the audacity and foresight to lift the bouncing ball over his marker with his first touch and, from a narrow angle, fire a first-time volley past Gillespie with his second.
It was Bergkamp and Gascoigne moulded into one, and it set the tone for the remainder of the game.
Carlisle were reduced to last-ditch defending as they tried to hold back the Swindon flood until half-time. Collins and Williams were confident enough to take aim every time they picked up possession within 25 yards, and Danny Livesey was fortunate not to be penalised when the latter’s effort in the 24th minute struck his arm en route to goal.
Town should have gone further ahead on the half-hour. Following a Carlisle corner Collins and Roberts broke quickly but, when the winger pulled the ball back for his teammate, Collins was only able to fire a meek shot which beat Gillespie but was cleared off the line by Matty Robson.
The second goal did arrive shortly afterwards, however. Ritchie picked up possession on the right, cut inside onto his left foot and delivered a tasty cross which picked out the forehead of Collins. Gillespie stood no chance. Town led by two goals at the interval and there was no looking back.
Ten minutes after the break, Swindon were out of sight. Collins found Ritchie on halfway and the winger sprayed a brilliant, low 40-yard cross over to Williams on the left of the penalty area. Bursting with confidence, the striker didn’t even require a controlling touch, as he blasted beyond Gillespie.
Wes Foderingham, a passenger on the Town cruise liner for the first two-thirds of the contest, was finally called into action with 23 minutes remaining as he got down well at his near post to turn Lee Miller’s long-range effort out for a corner. It was a momentary lapse by the Swindon backline that allowed Miller to pull the trigger – the only such lapse over the entire 90 minutes.
In the 72nd minute Carlisle had Gillespie to thank once again as the Cumbrians stopper produced a sensational point-blank save to deny Danny Hollands’ header, before Thompson was denied an incredible solo goal by Livesey’s last-second tackle.
Still the chances kept coming for the Robins. Chris Martin weaved his way into the area only to fire into the side-netting and the lunging Roberts could not direct McCormack’s neat cross home as Carlisle were fortunate not to be on the end of a pasting.
De Vita tapped home Swindon’s fourth in the 80th minute, after Roberts’ shot was beaten away by Gillespie only to strike Livesey and fall to the winger a yard out, and Town could have been forgiven for sitting back and taking a four-goal victory.
Spurred on by a County Ground crowd baying for Carlisle blood, however, the Robins illustrated just how ruthless they have become as they pushed hard for number five.
Miller was so close to capping another remarkable afternoon with the fifth but saw his volley cannon back off the bar in the 83rd minute, while Roberts headed narrowly wide in time added on, but in the end Town had to settle for four.
Settle for four. What a ludicrous notion. What a ludicrous run of results. What value for money.
“Today was the best performance of the season because it came after two 5-0s in a row, against a side that should put us in a mental situation where we could fall down in a trap. It was a typical banana skin,” said Di Canio after the game.
“We didn’t fall in a trap and this is why I am very happy. Until the last second of the game my players tried to push to score a goal, to maintain discipline and they didn’t concede any little chance – not one chance for the opponents.
“I am very happy for the way we played today and the result is a consequence of the way we did things today. There is not one player that upset. In the last few games there were fantastic team performances but maybe there were one or two individuals who didn’t play at the top. Today every single one did a fantastic job.
“We have to keep going and we have to tell people we brought in a good habit in the last few weeks but we want to receive the same support in the future when we will be 0-0 or 1-0 down with 10 minutes to go. Otherwise we lose sense of reality.”