A WEEK after Swindon Town claimed a point from the game that should never have finished at Bournemouth, they went one better in the game that should never have taken place.
Staring out through a snowy haze on Friday afternoon, with cars avalanching down Drove Road and the County Ground layered in white, the prospects of a football match seemed almost ridiculous. However, thanks to the efforts of 200 volunteers, members of the club’s office staff, the remarkable groundstaff and manager Paolo Di Canio and his backroom team, come Saturday the playing surface at SN1 was a green oasis in Wiltshire’s icy desert. And Di Canio’s players thanked everyone involved in the clear-up with another comfortable victory to take the Robins into third place in League One.
Shrewsbury, impotent and clumsy for long periods, scarcely provided a challenge as Town completed their fourth successive home victory and extended their unbeaten run to two months.
In a tedious first period there had been very little to warm the cockles as Town’s neat interplay around halfway deteriorated with an errant cross or miscommunication up front. Only Danny Hollands seriously tested Chris Weale in the Shrews’ goal before the break as the visitors seemed content to adopt a sponge-like approach to defending and try to catch their hosts on the counter.
Di Canio was upset at half-time and his threat of a 5am training session in sub-zero temperatures on Sunday morning quickly prompted his players to find their stride after the break.
Andy Williams was dragged down in the box, leaving Chris Martin to notch his first goal for the club and Town’s 5,500th in the league, from the penalty spot before Williams nodded home from close range to put the Robins out of sight against a less-than-mediocre Shrewsbury.
The away side had a chance to pull themselves back into the game late on, when Alan McCormack needlessly scythed down Jon Taylor in the box, but Wes Foderingham saved Matt Richards’ spot-kick.
Swindon now face a run of four games on the trot away from home as they look to advance on the top two. With many other teams in the promotion mix not playing due to the ice and snow, this was all about maintaining their momentum. Thanks to the work of a hardy bunch of fans, the objective was achieved.
After 12 minutes of phoney war, Swindon created the first opportunity of note following a Gary Roberts corner from the left. Williams rose at the near post to flick the cross on and Hollands headed at Weale from close range.
Eight minutes later Shrewsbury had barely ventured into Town’s final third, and instead the Robins had another chance to break the deadlock. The ball broke kindly for Martin inside the area but he thumped a drive into the side-netting from an acute angle.
With Swindon dominant, Ritchie almost saw his low cross creep in the bottom corner, only for Weale to get down and make the save – while Simon Ferry saw his goalbound shot blocked a minute later. Williams wasted a golden chance on the half-hour after crisp passing down the left between Roberts and Alan McCormack left him bearing down on goal. From eight yards out the striker managed to slice the ball out for a throw-in.
David McAllister spanked the ball high into the Town End with 10 minutes to go to half-time, while at the other end Williams spurned another excellent opportunity as he held off Jermaine Grandison only to slash wide when one-on-one with Weale.
Their frosty first-half performance melted by Di Canio’s half-time hairdryer, Swindon looked a different side in the immediate minutes after the interval. Tommy Miller, on for the injured Hollands, completely altered the dynamic in midfield – allowing Ferry to chug forwards and spread the ball wide for the tricky duo of Roberts and Ritchie.
It was Miller’s superb pass with the outside of his right foot, in fact, which allowed Williams the position to win a penalty. Though the shirt-tugging with Shrews defender Darren Jones appeared to start outside the box, Williams collapsed to the ground inside the area and referee Richard Clark has no hesitation pointing to the spot.
Martin sent Weale the wrong way, jumped in celebration into the pitchside mound of snow, and with that goal so any nervous tension around the County Ground lifted.
Four minutes later the lead was doubled. Ritchie crossed deep to the back post, Roberts nodded neatly back across goal and there was Williams to notch his 10th goal of the campaign and his sixth in five matches.
Town were now rampant. Ritchie went into ‘shoot on sight’ mode, bombarding Weale’s goal – or more accurately either side of Weale’s goal – with a series of long-range efforts, while Ferry’s free-kick almost sneaked in at the near post.
After sorting out his radar, Ritchie drew a decent save out of the Shrews’ keeper with 14 minutes remaining. Weale had to launch himself low to his left to turn the winger’s stinging daisy-cutter out for a corner.
Despite having been defending for their lives for much of the second half, Shrewsbury were given an opportunity to make a game of it late on when McCormack hacked at Taylor’s legs in frustration after the winger eased past him on the right wing.
But the Salop side’s afternoon was summed up succinctly by Foderingham, who have felt like a cryogenics experiment between the sticks such was his lack of action during the game, leaping to his right to smother Richard’s penalty.
With the clock ticking down, Swindon could have been forgiven for keeping the ball in the corners and securing that 14th clean sheet of the season. But they pushed on in search of a third and Darren Ward came so close, heading Ritchie’s corner onto Weale’s right-hand post with five minutes left.
And that summed up the atmosphere around the club over the weekend – whatever the scenario, we’ll keep going.
Afterwards, Di Canio said: “It was a strange week and I am very pleased the player gave their best because it wasn’t easy. We trained indoor all week and on Friday morning we had a stretch session and some quick feet because we couldn’t get to Cirencester.
“It was crucial to focus the attentions, and maybe it is normal for other teams not to train on Friday in bad weather. The first half was very bad, but we have better players, shape and system.
“I told them the game would go on, and we won and I want to thank my players and all the volunteers last night who made an amazing job and the staff here. What they did last night is the most important thing.
“It was incredible because the common feeling was because they wanted to come and watch the game, and the best they can have is see their team win and wanted to send back a message to them to say thanks.
“The fact we won is a present to them.”