IT WAS a day when football came second.
After Paolo Di Canio’s strongly-worded statement on Friday, the focus was not on the two teams who scrapped for a 1-1 draw. The evening was about the Italian, his every move critiqued by observers who have precious little knowledge of his extraordinary psyche.
Perhaps this is how he wanted it – cameras and eyes trained solely on him – if it was, Di Canio got his wish. Banners in amongst the travelling crowd urged Swindon Town’s manager to stick it out. In the gantry, commentators and journalists noted his relative inactivity on the touchline as often as they made reference to the gross indecency that was the playing surface at the Broadfield Stadium.
And so it mattered little that Billy Clarke and Adam Rooney scored a penalty apiece; this game could have ended 45-39 and it would only have received a smidgen of recognition from the various media outlets present.
In their post-match discussions, Sky Sports spent more time analysing the trajectory of Di Canio’s wave to the supporters than discussing why on earth referee Robert Madley had chosen to award the two penalties which defined the game.
“A tearful Paolo Di Canio goes to the travelling fans,” said presenter Simon Thomas as the replays slowed to a pace usually reserved for David Attenborough to comment on the wing velocity of an African fish eagle. “Is that a goodbye?”
No wonder Danny Wilson looked so bemused alongside him in the studio. “I never got this treatment,” he must have thought.
But this is Di Canio – an enigma of a man whose very reputation encourages a little DIY psychology; a man who publicly spent 10 minutes after the game in a two-man huddle with his agent Phil Spencer, gesticulating at every divot on Crawley’s ploughed pitch, only to bat away questions thrown at him about his future with near-disdain.
We’ll never know what the Swindon boss is thinking, to be frank there’s a part of me that believes it is probably safer that way, but what we do know is his capacity to change a game in an instant.
Amidst all the crazy stunts and imperfect analogies, it is easy to overlook the Italian’s brilliant managerial instinct. You can object to his politics, his man-management and his temperament – I certainly have – but his impact substitutions have been simply sensational.
Think of his decision to sacrifice Matt Ritchie for Alan Navarro in the home clash with Coventry which freed up Gary Roberts and inspired his players to haul back a two-goal deficit, the introduction of Andy Williams and Miles Storey which made Aston Villa look like non-leaguers, the way James Collins gave Portsmouth an almighty New Year’s Day headache and how Simon Ferry and Chris Martin’s arrival off the bench prompted a change in fortunes at Bournemouth.
And to that list he added another example of his ability to read a game on Saturday with the introduction of Rooney with 40 minutes remaining. The on-loan Birmingham striker, without an appearance in more than two months, won and scored the spot-kick that handed Swindon a point and totally changed the dynamics of Town’s attacking play.
In the first half, though for the most part they had been in control of possession, Swindon were rigid and impotent. Central midfield was bypassed by aimless long balls into the channels. It was agricultural, perhaps apt given the match was played on a pitch which could quite feasibly moonlight as a farmer’s field.
Williams and Collins both had early sights of goal but the former headed straight at Paul Jones while the latter’s acrobatic volley was neatly saved by the Crawley stopper.
Despite seeming comfortable, however, the Robins fell behind in the 23rd minute. Nicky Adams darted into the box, Alan McCormack went to ground and the winger duly followed.
To the naked eye it seemed a legitimate decision, but replays suggested otherwise. Adams appeared to have taken a tumble.
Making the most of his luck, Clarke thrashed home the penalty. It was Crawley’s first ever league goal against Swindon.
Moments before the interval, the hosts should really have doubled their advantage.
Town’s sloppy defence, too tight for much of the match, allowed Jamie Proctor to bear down on Wes Foderingham unchallenged. On debut following his switch from Swansea, the striker should have done better than allow the Swindon keeper to get a big paw on his side-footed effort.
It was a let-off, and one Town capitalised on after the break.
Within six minutes of coming off the bench, Rooney fell under the presence of Joe Walsh in the Crawley box. It was the equivalent of a building collapsing in a summer breeze, but Madley pointed to the spot.
Rooney was clinical from 12 yards. Jones didn’t move. Now Swindon were back on top.
With 20 minutes remaining the Irishman came tantalisingly close to turning the game on its head. Raffa De Vita worked space for McCormack to deliver a fizzing cross from the left, Rooney galloped in front of his man and his bullet near-post header was only kept out by a stunning, one-handed reflex save by Jones.
It was the last major chance of the game, as both sides battled with the furrows and rivets which plagued the playing surface like some form of vegetal disease.
Nathan Thompson weaved through four challenges to shoot at Jones, while Aden Flint’s excellent header prevented Proctor from nodding home at the near post, but a draw remained a good result for Town. Not that it mattered for anyone outside Swindon. This was all about Di Canio.
The Town boss was pleased with his players’ second-half spirit, and the impact made by Rooney in particular.
He said: “After the way we started the game and the way we finished the first half it is a good point. It is another game we didn’t lose. It’s obvious that I didn’t enjoy the first half but the team completely changed its attitude, mentality and desire.
“I didn’t have any doubts. We’ve got value in here, now they feel the cause more than ever. Even if we couldn’t play our kind of football we tried to adapt ourselves. We had one or two chances but we didn’t get the second goal.
“It is a good point, another away game has gone and we stay up there. I know that I can use him more. He’s been ready since two weeks ago. He’s been totally focused in training sessions, I can see a different player. He understands everything I want.
“In the last few weeks I tried him in a wide area as well but today he was a very important part, not only for the penalty but we also saw several times he did for us what we didn’t have in the first half.
“The first half was a disaster because there were 20 balls up front and Willo and James didn’t get one. If you don’t have the quality up front to collect the ball for your teammates it’s difficult.
“Rooney was very good from the first ball and credit has to go to him. I know now that I can give him a different chance than getting him in during the game.”