THE stage was set and it was the grandest of stages.

With the glorious March sunshine illuminating the home of English football, it was almost written in the stars that the protagonists in red would saunter to victory with the same swagger that has accompanied their ruthless march to the top of League Two.

But for Paolo Di Canio’s Swindon Town, the final glory would rudely pass them by.

From the moment you arrived at Wembley Stadium, there was no doubting who the star of the show was.

The thousands of Swindon seats surrounding the press box were all stocked with cardboard masks of the Robins’ charismatic manager.

You’d be hard pushed to find a Town fan who wouldn’t relish the chance to get behind the face of their beloved Di Canio – even if it was metaphorically.

When the teams finally entered the arena to warm-up, Swindon’s Italian maestro purposefully stalked the touchline and a subdued but determined first-pump was greeted with rapturous cheers from the travelling Town contingent, whose numbers dwarfed their Chesterfield counterparts.

But it was to be the end of the ground bathed in blue that would be making the louder noise come 4pm.

As Swindon failed to take advantage of their first half opportunities and were hit with the devastating suckerpunch of Oliver Risser’s luckless own goal, the sky darkened, the groans set in and the usually expressive and vigorous demeanour of Di Canio evaporated as he cut a dispirited figure on the sidelines.

Like a wounded animal laying in wait for the killer blow, Craig Westcarr’s injury-time finish seemed almost inevitable.

Town suffered their second Wembley disappointment in three years and would not be lifting the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy this season.

Now that the dust has settled, their main focus should be on making sure their stunning league campaign stays firmly on track.

This was a bonus, that one-off Christmas special, that juicy cherry on top. But without that tasty-looking decoration, will the cupcake taste any worse?

Swindon are still sitting pretty at the summit of the League Two table, four points ahead of their nearest challengers Torquay United, who they swept aside 2-0 at the County Ground just five days prior to their Wembley outing, with the added luxury of two games in hand.

Their involvement in Sunday’s cup final may have come as a surprise but in Jay McEveley and John Bostock, the Robins have brought in two players on loan with the experience of operating at the highest level. Promotion to League One under Di Canio remains a likely outcome to the season.

And there is little doubt that Town’s league position and recent form makes them favourites to end their campaign as champions.

The pain of defeat in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final may linger, especially when the team know that they were capable of producing a much better showing than they served up last weekend, but there will always be a loser in a cup final.

That pain will be a thing of the past if that space in the County Ground Trophy cabinet reserved for the JPT gets filled by the League Two prize come May.