WHEN I was six years old my great grandmother gave me a framed poem for Christmas.
I know what you’re thinking – “How stingy was that?” – and at the time I remember feeling a little bemused. I wasn’t exactly going to impress my friends, with their Pogs and Tamagotchis, by whipping out a two-foot manuscript. Blimey, one of my mates got a rubber conker that year and even that was more of a playground status symbol.
But quickly I found the words of the poem to inspire me and it now has pride of place on my bedroom wall. A timely reminder every day of life lessons we could all do well to observe.
The piece is “If” by Rudyard Kipling and when I woke up this morning I noticed for the first time its relevance to the ongoing saga at Swindon Town. I realise I’m perilously close to morphing into Melvyn Bragg, but hear me out.
Kipling’s words preach patience, tolerance, forgiveness and perseverance. He tells us to wait and not be tired by waiting, he urges us to be lied about yet not deal in lies, to be hated and not give way to hating.
Over the course of the past four weeks Swindon has, rightly or wrongly, been perceived as the devil child of the Football League. Pundits, broadcasters and fans of a variety of other clubs have been quickly to admonish its behaviour.
National newspapers have been all too quick to print the kind of erroneous information you’d expect from the North Korean tourist board; Town have been called cheats by senior figures in the national media; falsities have been passed off as fact. It’s been a maelstrom of theory and counter-theory, unfounded report after unfounded report.
Kipling suggests Triumph and Disaster should be treated the same. Thankfully, at Swindon we don’t discriminate. In a season where Town have knocked a Premiership side out of the League Cup away from home and climbed to fourth in League One, we’ve still been privy to in-house bickering that makes the Ugly Sisters look like diplomats.
We’ve had an unhappy manager, an unhappy owner and dealt with enough worry to turn a polar bear grey. Yet at the same time we’ve been privileged to watch some of the best football I have ever seen played at the County Ground. Figure that out.
Kipling asks us to force our hearts and nerves and sinews to hold strong in the face of adversity. The Robins fans have managed that. Their passion has been quite extraordinary.
At the Advertiser we frequently note how active Swindon forums are in comparison to other clubs, how attentive readers and fans are to the minute detail within articles. At Crawley, at Colchester, at Leyton Orient, at Bournemouth, at Stoke and all over the country, Town fans have outsung their opposite numbers.
The heart of this club remains where it has always been, with the supporters who have inherited it.
Perhaps most poignantly, Kipling tells us in his final stanza, that we must fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run. The Swindon players have certainly done just that this year.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to go to work in an environment my own boss described as “hostile”. I wouldn’t fancy a cold trip to Essex the night after I’d been up all night getting to know the toilet a little too well. I wouldn’t enjoy being publicly chewed up and spat out after a forgettable day at the office. Yet the Town squad have retained their dignity, their quality and their class through all of this. They might not have received the attention they deserve of late, for obvious reasons, but their efforts can’t be forgotten.
Although it’s far from over maybe, just maybe, we have passed Kipling’s test of maturity.
PUTTING THINGS INTO PERSPECTIVE
SOMETIMES we have to realise football is just a game, and that there are more important things in life.
On a national scale the recent revelations regarding Paul Gascoigne’s deteriorating condition shocked football fans across the country, but closer to home we have had another reminder that perspective is an important quality to hold in reserve.
The news that Martin Ling continues to fight what the press in Torquay are calling a “debilitating illness” has hit home hard in Swindon’s footballing community.
When I first started watching Town in the mid-1990s, Lingy was the maestro – a tiny bundle of class in the middle of the park. He’s gone on to become a respected manager and is perhaps the most approachable Football League boss I’ve come across.
You’d hope Torquay will come to a sensible compromise regarding his position at Plainmoor. If ever there was a man in football who deserved to be treated properly, it’s Martin Ling. I’m sure I speak on behalf of everyone at the club and in the town when I wish Martin a full and speedy recovery.