LET’S be honest, misfortune and circumstance have been ganging up on Swindon Town this season.
Transfer embargos, sick bugs, frosty manager-board relations, terrible pitches, strange postponements, threats of administration, lengthy injury lists, the sale of the team’s talisman or the sale of the club itself have all been like the playground bully, testing the Robins’ character and resolve.
Somehow, through it all Paolo Di Canio and his squad have reached third place in League One – a remarkable achievement given all that has happened. Yet on the day everything went their way, they couldn’t take advantage.
Almost 10,000 fans were inside the County Ground, despite the unpleasant weather and the lowly ranking of the opposition – Hartlepool sit bottom of the table, thanks to the club reducing prices by almost 50 per cent.
Flags provided free of charge by an anonymous donor were waved in the stands, the illness that has infected the squad over the past week had been cured, Di Canio was able to name six substitutes once again.
Crikey, even Swindon’s promotion rivals – Doncaster and Tranmere – found it in their hearts to give the Robins a little respite from the chaos of recent weeks, as both lost to leave the door open for Town to go top with a win.
But if we’ve learnt anything from the events of the past seven months, it’s that simple is not in Swindon Town’s vocabulary.
It started so well, as Simon Ferry galloped forward to slide home in the 15th minute and the Robins largely dominated the first half, and the first 10 minutes of the second, without being able to make their evident superiority count.
However, as chances went begging and frustrations grew so Town’s football disintegrated. Hartlepool grew into the game. Ferry and Tommy Miller in the middle of the park were left watching long diagonal balls into the channels returned by the visitors with interest.
By the time Andy Monkhouse snatched Hartlepool’s equaliser it had become no more than his side deserved. They had made their high-flying hosts look distinctly ordinary.
Swindon came out of the traps quickly and almost took the lead in the third minute. Raffa De Vita’s cross reached the back post where Gary Roberts’ looping header was scrambled clear by Hartelpool goalkeeper Scott Flinders.
Andy Williams thrashed a left-footed effort wide after wriggling free of his marker six minutes later, while the striker only just failed to pick out Adam Rooney with a neat header in the 10th minute. Swindon had looked dangerous in the early exchanges and the hosts deservedly took the lead on the quarter-hour mark.
A swift passage of passing football started with Nathan Thompson in the Town half and ran through Williams and Roberts before the latter picked out Ferry’s late run into the area and the midfielder obliged with a clinical side-footed effort beyond Flinders.
It took Hartlepool over 30 minutes to have their first effort on target, and even then James Poole’s long-range strike was simple for Wes Foderingham to save. Simon Walton’s rasping strike from distance flew marginally over the crossbar in the seconds before half-time before, at the other end, Swindon should have doubled their lead.
Alan McCormack burst out of defence, exchanged passes with De Vita on the left and squeezed through the gap between two defenders to bear down on goal. The Irishman beat Flinders with his shot but couldn’t find the target.
But for Flinders, Hartlepool would have been well and truly sunk in the first five minutes after the break. He made three astonishing saves in the space of 60 seconds to keep his side in the game.
Firstly, he somehow stopped Rooney’s point-blank header, then he stretched one hand up to his left to push away Roberts’ fizzing volley before finally producing an excellent reflex block to once again deny Rooney. It was a dazzling minute of fine goalkeeping.
With 25 minutes remaining Flinders was at it again, leaping to his left to prevent Rooney’s deflected attempt from creeping in the bottom corner – but from then on Hartlepool fought their way back into the match.
Pools manipulated possession in their own half and steadily lurched forwards, a five-minute spell of pressure ending with a series of three corners from the last of which the visitors levelled.
A looping cross to the back post was nodded back into the six-yard box by Jonathan Franks and there was Monkhouse, unmarked, to tap home.
The ex-Town player, booed as he entered the field of play just a handful of minutes earlier, quickly lapped up the displeasure thrown his way by the Town crowd.
In their desperation to get back in front, Swindon seemed to lose all recognition of the style of play that has got them as high as they are this season. Long balls down the channels were aimless and overhit, high balls up front were being aimed at the diminutive Miles Storey rather than the imposing figure of James Collins, the wingers cut further and further inside without finding a killer cross. It was ugly to watch.
Collins had the final chance of the match in the fourth minute of stoppage time, when Storey dug out a cross from the left, but the forward couldn’t make any connection from close range.
“I’m not happy, it’s obvious,” he said a frustrated Di Canio. “We dominated the game in terms of chances created but that proves that we don’t have a top scorer.
“We don’t have a natural goalscorer, but that is a problem that we have had since the beginning.
“In terms of our performance I am not in any way happy completely because, even if we created many more chances, there wasn’t in some moments during the game the same desire, the same fire.
“We accepted their tempo and that proved also that we are not ready for some stages.
“When you have to interpret your own situation, some of our lads are very inexperienced players. It’s not an accusation, they have done an amazing job until today, but in this game when you have to go through and win.
“We have to know that there are many games and we have to accept it.
“Today we were punished heavily because we dominated and we should have won with four or five goals.”