THE future of the club has yet to be cleared up, the manager has resigned, the fans don’t quite know what’s going on. So what, Swindon Town are top of League One.
Last night at Prenton Park, the Town players turned around and shouted in unison: “No manager, no problem.”
So often their efforts and quality have come second to the magnetic character of former boss Paolo Di Canio; so often have they been overlooked in favour of the Italian’s extrovert passion. For one night only, however, and perhaps the most important night, they had their chance to take centre stage.
That they did so with the same commitment, the same endeavour, the same attitude and class shows that this is a team moulded by Di Canio but inspired by each other.
James Collins put the Robins in front just after half-time, Gary Roberts’ exorcet from 20 yards doubled that lead and, though Donervorn Daniels gave Tranmere a lifeline, Roberts completed the victory that elevates Swindon to the League One summit by casually scoring from inside his own half.
It was quite extraordinary.
Town had their first sight of goal in the sixth minute. Miles Storey, making only his second start for the Robins, flicked the ball forwards and Collins muscled into the area to test Owain Fon Williams from the edge of the area.
Tranmere replied with a haphazard and harmless attempt from Michael O’Halloran, which was never likely to trouble Wes Foderingham in the Swindon goal but the visitors looked assured in the opening exchanges.
With Collins and Storey running devilish lines up front, the Rovers centre-backs were immediately shown to be wanting over the ground. Raffa De Vita’s neat chipped through-ball put Collins in on goal in the 12th minute, but Fon Williams got down well at his near post to push the ball out for a corner.
Given Storey’s minimal involvement in senior competitive football since the turn of the year, the teenager settled remarkably quickly into the rhythm and pattern of the game and almost put Town in front when he latched onto Tommy Miller’s deflected effort but could only prod wide from close range.
Moments later Collins contrived to dragged his shot wide after Zoumana Bakayogo and Fon Williams collided inside their own area before a limping Storey crossed from the right for De Vita to volley over as Swindon swarmed all over enemy territory.
It was the final involvement for the bright and bubbly Storey, who hobbled off with a hamstring injury soon after, and almost immediately the hosts started to find their feet. But it was only a brief interlude, and Town soon rediscovered their superiority.
Fon Williams, who was immense in between the sticks for Tranmere in their 5-0 thrashing at the County Ground in December, pulled off an excellent diving save to his right when Collins turned Kay inside the six-yard box in the 32nd minute while the striker headed Alan McCormack’s cross wide three minutes before half-time.
In between, Cole Stockton fizzed a 20-yard rocket marginally over and the same player missed Rovers’ golden chance inside the final 60 seconds of the first period when he somehow put his free header from David Amoo’s pin-point cross wide of the Swindon goal with Wes Foderingham rooted to the spot.
That miss proved costly moments after the break, as Town went ahead. After failing to find the net with a series of chances in the opening 45 minutes, it took Collins just four of the second half to beat Fon Williams in front of the stand housing the noisy traveling fans.
Simon Ferry’s long ball fell into the path of the former Shrewsbury frontman, who beat his marker for pace and Fon Williams to the ball to slide home into an unguarded net.
The Robins thought they had extended their lead eight minutes later when, after an episode of aerial pinball inside the Tranmere box, Fon Williams’ parry from Collins header was turned in by Roberts. However, as the Scouser wheeled away in celebration he could see the assistant referee’s flag raised to signal offside.
Tranmere battled hard to try to force their way back into the game but while they were able to find possession down the flanks, McCormack McEveley were staunch in their resistance.
And as it was Swindon came close to doubling their advantage once again just after the hour. Williams outmuscled Paul Corry down the left, cantered into the penalty area and sliced wide with his right foot.
Nevertheless, the remarkable resolve of this depleted group of players refused to relent and they finally did manage a second in the most spectacular of fashions.
One moment Town were frantically defending their slender lead, but McCormack won back possession in the right-back position and played a low pass to Collins in central midfield. The striker quickly found De Vita on the left who teed up Miller to chip a lofted ball downfield.
Williams nodded down for Roberts on the edge of the box and the winger produced a scintillating, first-time, left-foot half-volley which was still rising as it lodged in the top right corner.
There were 12 minutes left and perhaps some of the traveling contingent were already dreaming of what top spot would look like in the morning newspapers when Tranmere hit back. A long free-kick somehow picked out the unmarked Daniels eight yards out with all the time he needed to stab past Foderingham.
Cue 10 minutes of nervous tension as Rovers pushed hard for a leveller. Williams on the counter fired straight at Fon Williams but otherwise Swindon were scrapping for their lives all over the park.
Foderingham found a sensational save in him to deny Ash Taylor’s header in injury time, leaping low to his right from point-blank range, and his acrobatics were rewarded moments later with an astonishing third for the visitors.
With Fon Williams up in opposition territory in search of an equaliser, the ball fell to Roberts inside his own half and the winger managed to outdo himself by finding the back of the net from around 60 yards.
It was an unbelievable end to a quite unbelievable night. Today Swindon Town sit top of League One. My word don’t those players deserve it.