THIS was the day Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon Town finally came of age.
For all the glory of big league wins against high-flying opposition, cup triumphs as the underdog, ridiculous unbeaten runs and clean sheet after clean sheet, there hadn’t been a moment where everything was steeped against the Robins and they responded. Not until Saturday.
Against a Bournemouth side who were unbeaten in 17 matches and hadn’t conceded a goal in more than nine hours in the league, away from home, on a pitch better suited for mud wrestling and trailing with five minutes left, the odds were stacked against Town at Dean Court.
But in a Dorset monsoon Swindon showed all their fighting qualities and class at once, Andy Williams netted a late equaliser to cancel out Harry Arter’s opener and the Robins proved why their promotion challenge is one that must be taken seriously.
Frankly, the game should never have finished. Torrential rain from kick-off left the playing surface riddled with puddles, the bounce of the ball was erratic and any promise of fast-flowing, attractive football was instantly drowned.
The two most elegant teams in League One were therefore forced to deal in long balls and, where usually they might have chosen to maximise risk, both sides’ gameplans revolved around minimising errors.
That in patches both Town and Bournemouth managed to put together passages of pass-and-move football was testament to the quality the two teams possess. It was a shame the spectacle, from a purist’s point of view, was ruined by the weather.
Nevertheless, with the help of a noisy crowd, it was still an engaging occasion. Town had Wes Foderingham to thanks for a brilliant save from Lewis Grabban to keep the deficit to just one goal, but the visitors could quite easily have gone on to win it.
James Collins, Chris Martin and Matt Ritchie all squandered gilt-edged chances, as Swindon consolidated fifth place in the table.
The Robins enjoyed the first major opening of the game in the fifth minute. Gary Roberts sent a low cross in from the left which Ritchie controlled into the path of Tommy Miller, who saw his drive saved by David James.
In the 18th minute James was called into action again, this time holding onto Williams’ header from Ritchie’s cross as Swindon toiled well without finding a killer touch in front of goal.
Moments later, James committed himself outside the area, leaving Roberts with the opportunity to shoot at an unmanned goal, but the winger chose instead to try to find Collins and the move broke down – and that error of judgement cost Town dear in the 26th minute.
A looping cross was only half-cleared by Darren Ward, allowing Arter to pick up possession on the edge of the box, wriggle free of Miller and produce a sizzling left-footed strike into the bottom left-hand corner.
It was the Cherries’ first shot on target, and put Swindon behind in a game for the first time since Alan Judge fired home for Notts County at Meadow Lane on November 24.
Previously, in horrendous conditions, Town might have struggled to find their way back into the game. But this is now a team built of sterner stuff.
The away side should have been level in the 35th minute. Roberts, dodging puddles down the left, slid in a low cross and Collins showed great composure to take the ball into his stride and turn James. However, with the goal gaping the striker opted for power rather than precision and missed the target. The rain got heavier.
Grabban fired wide from an acute angle as Bournemouth finished the first half the stronger.
During the interval referee Phil Gibbs, the match assessor and head groundsman conducted an impromptu pitch inspection on the surface, which was rapidly coming to resemble the battleground of the Somme.
Gibbs decided it was fit for purpose, however, much to the surprise of Simon Ferry who spent most of the break throwing a ball into the mud around halfway.
Nevertheless, Town had a job to do to get back into the game and do it they did – but only after Foderingham kept them in the game.
Three minutes after half-time the stopper was on hand to save from Arter following the midfielder’s weaving run into the box before the former Crystal Palace man made two brilliant saves – from Brett Pitman’s long-range drive and Grabban’s point-blank header – as the rain got yet heavier.
Raffa De Vita’s introduction in the 65th minute almost cued a Town equaliser. The Italian’s quick feet down the left enabled him to find the space to tee up Ritchie, who saw James produce a sensational save with his feet. Ritchie turned provide a minute later, as he crossed for Martin to head at James, as Swindon huffed and puffed without blowing down the Bournemouth house.
It all seemed a lost cause until five minutes from the end. James’ poor clearance was headed back by Williams, Martin chased down the loose ball and collided with the goalkeeper, possession landed at Williams’ feet and the striker calmly stroked home from 25 yards.
Cue delirium in the stands and on the Town bench, where the importance of a point was recognised with gusto.
Martin almost won the game for Swindon with the last kick of the match, but his deflected free kick skidded just wide to leave both sides with a share of the spoils.
Di Canio was impressed by Williams’ composure in scoring his goal, saying: “It’s difficult because you feel the pressure. He had all the time to realise that he had a great opportunity with James out from the box.
“To deliver the ball straight away, to reach the goal and then deliver the ball in the net, with pressure and men on the goalline is not easy. Credit goes to him but I want to remind people that there was an action before that caused this goal.
“Chris Martin pressed, didn’t give up and challenged the ball with David James. Credit goes to Andy but we have to say that the man who came on later – and also the other two, Raffa and Simon – determined something.
“They went inside very well and they were crucial. That makes me even more satisfied because it confirms that this is a real group now.”