MAYBE it was all in our heads. Maybe there was nothing wrong with Swindon Town after all. Maybe, just maybe, the events of the past three months have led us all to become hypochondriacs.
When Hans Christian Andersen, the celebrated author, travelled Europe in the 19th century he was so convinced he was going to be taken ill that on his person at all times he carried a piece of paper on which he scribbled ‘I only seem dead’.
Swindon, it seems, had been handed a similar note by their fans and local media during the summer of 2014. Perhaps understandably, the County Ground became a place of pessimism and borderline nihilism while the sun shone brightly; and the phrase ‘no news is good news’ was by universal consensus dismissed as total garbage.
No one can blame the club’s hardcore support for feeling that way. It’s hard to be inspired ahead of a new season when there are more headlines relating to off-field squabbles than enterprising new signings. Yet, amongst all our collective doom and gloom and anxious glances at the garish Sky Sports News transfer window countdown clock, we managed to forget that there already existed a group of hugely talented players with a season’s experience in League One stuffed neatly into their back pockets. On Saturday, they showed how valuable that and they can be.
And so an opening day that began with nervous smiles ended with rapturous applause. This was far from the perfect performance from Mark Cooper’s men but it was everything the manager had promised – entertainment, hard work and pride – and more.
Sure, there are still plenty of areas of concern. The defence lacked shape against the counter-attack, over-committing through youthful exuberance, and for 20 second-half minutes the Town back three ought to have been slapped with a baggage tag – ‘fragile, handle with care’.
However, thanks to some woeful Scunthorpe finishing and the now traditional stoic display from Wes Foderingham, they survived with just one goal conceded. That needed an element of luck. Going forward, Swindon’s supremacy had nothing to do with good fortune.
In Yaser Kasim, Massimo Luongo and Louis Thompson, the Robins have perhaps the most naturally gifted midfield in the division. On Saturday they strutted their stuff with all the arrogance and poise of unbeaten stallions in the paddock.
Kasim, in particular, was sublime. One pirouette on the touchline in front of the dug-outs brought gasps from the home crowd. He ran the engine room with grace on the ball and dogged determination off it.
Then there was Nathan Byrne. Finally allowed back over to the right, the wing-back delivered balance to a team so lop-sided for much of pre-season. Marcus Williams, the Scunthorpe defender, couldn’t keep up. Quite literally.
Byrne’s nimble feet and darting runs had his marker chasing dust. No wonder, then, that Williams lost the plot with 10 minutes to go, delivering a double-handed thump to Nathan Thompson’s face and getting himself sent off for his troubles.
Byrne set up the opener with a tidy cross, tucked home by Luongo for his first goal in a little over nine months – a gestation period that has seen the Australian grow into quite possibly the finest all-round footballer Swindon has had the pleasure of watching this millennium. After the game he talked of hitting the 10-goal mark this season. If this performance is replicated 45 more times, he’ll surpass it with ease.
Then it was Michael Smith’s turn. Detracted by the stubborn element amongst Town’s fanbase since his arrival, the former Charlton man has a knack of being in the right place at the right time. He was there to latch onto Louis Thompson’s cross to make it 2-0 after 12 minutes and then again when Ben Gladwin’s cannonball strike rebounded off a post into his path on the stroke of half-time – though how much he knew about it is grounds for a good debate.
In between Smith’s first and second goals, Paddy Madden stole in to bring Scunthorpe back into the game, ghosting ominously through the middle to beat Foderingham, and, but for the Town keeper, the half-time fanfare that greeted the Swindon players might have been a little more downbeat.
He saved marvellously from Jennison Myrie-Williams’s back-post header and, in the second half, kept out an almost identical chance for Madden.
And so after our cries for help this summer, on Saturday the County Ground was enthralled not by a new signing but by familiar faces.
Kasim, Luongo, Byrne and Foderingham – names we all know, players who were on the roster before this summer of our discontent; the old guard in a brave new world.
Cooper said before the match that first-day results are undecipherable, they can’t be relied upon to predict the direction of a campaign.
Still, it seems our hypochondria can be cured after all.