I’m a fan of the musical “Back to the Future” and I felt like I’d taken a trip in Doc Brown’s DeLorean when I travelled to the FA Cup tie between Swindon and Manchester City on Friday night.
The game was live on ITV, which itself reminded me of the old days when the “Big Match” was our only source of live top flight football, but I was sat in the County Ground experiencing it for myself. It could have been the open end, that housed the travelling Blues that took me back to the 1970s. The facilities were basic, to say the least. Only two of three turnstiles were used to allow access to the 2,500 who travelled and I was asked, by more than one fan, if they sold programmes.
There was only one way out for the fans, at one end, just past the portaloos and the mobile food truck. Thankfully it didn’t rain, but all around the outside of the stadium, down the narrow passageways, there were huge puddles to negotiate. On the side of the pitch, behind the home goal, were a carpet of red and white streamers, reminiscent of the toilet rolls thrown onto pitches during the 1970s. Clearly the pandemic has made the use of toilet rolls less common in this day and age.
I wasn’t in the away end, on this occasion. I was sat in the overspill area of the press area, where trying to write notes was a major problem. Fortunately I didn’t need a table to work on, this time, because I was on the back row of the main stand, in among the home fans, who were up and down constantly. Each time they shuffled past me at least provided some relief for my pained knees that were forced into the back of the seat in front when I sat down.
The music played over the PA was stuff like “Geno” by “Dexys Midnight Runners” (1980) and when Swindon scored their goal it was celebrated by “XTC’s, Senses Working Overtime” (1982). There were no VAR checks to break up play, which was a joy, but no chance of even a Bovril at halftime. A steward announced during the first half, to all that listened, that they’d run out of alcohol & some other items at the bar.
Swindon lined up in a 4-4-2 formation. They played percentage football that relied on grit and determination and the individuality of striker Harry McKirdy, who wore his socks short and his hair long. He was their mini Frank Worthington and carried the faint hopes of the home crowd on his shoulders. They loved his goal and cheered their hero, as he limped off with cramp late on.
City’s slick, 21st century, one touch passing, easily swept their League Two opponents aside and I loved my return to the County Ground. It reminded me of what City used to be. I love what they are now, especially the football and the facilities but in some ways the old, more basic days had more soul. There are good and bad things about the way football has moved on and it will be an ongoing debate about the pros and cons as long as we follow our teams.
The gulf between the haves and the have nots has never been bigger. Within my lifetime I’ve seen times at City where John Wardle and David Makin were paying the players from their own savings and I’ve seen City win multiple Premier League titles and sign their first £100 million player. I’m enjoying the success but Friday’s trip to Swindon was a timely reminder of how football used to be. As a regular attender of games at all levels I will continue to enjoy all aspects of our beautiful game.