Looking back, it was all rather surreal, even for Swindon. For reasons that escaped me then and baffle me now, the World Cup winner and Tottenham icon Ossie Ardíles had arrived at the County Ground in 1989, and in his first season as a manager led us to the Second Division play-off final.
Just days later, and despite us beating them 1-0, Sunderland had been promoted to the top flight and Swindon, guilty of financial irregularity, were relegated to the Third Division before the Football League plonked us back in the Second on appeal. So far, so Swindon.
We duly fell apart, and when Ardíles left to manage Newcastle in 1991, it felt as though the ropes had loosened on a slow, inexorable drift back to, well, where we are now. But then: Glenn Hoddle. It was like signing a unicorn; one with a magical left hoof. First he kept us up, then we narrowly missed out on the play-offs the following season. And then it clicked.
Hoddle’s 1992-93 campaign as player-manager started at home against Sunderland with a goal of such sublime poise and brilliance it’s still hard to believe he did it under our skies and not somewhere far more exotic. Central Swindon, you must appreciate, is no Monaco.
In this new normal we could better Wolves, Watford and Newcastle at home, come back from 4-1 down to win 6-4 at Birmingham, and beat Tranmere in the play-off semis to face Brian Little’s Leicester.
Another big day out, but this time it felt different. Bathed in sunshine, Wembley was an unbroken sea of red and blue with green stripes. For many it would have been their first date with the Robins; they were about to experience a range of emotions unique and yet so familiar to anyone who is unaccountably attracted to men who cannot be trusted.
An even first half ended with Hoddle stroking a shot past Kevin Poole; we blinked. Two minutes after the restart Craig Maskell pinged one in off the post for 2-0; we hugged. Six minutes after that Shaun Taylor nodded in his 13th goal of the season from centre-half; we relaxed. Had we learned nothing? Leicester scored three goals in 12 minutes as the knife of naive optimism twisted. Hoddle is said to have cut through the descending funk on the pitch with a cheery: “Heads up, it’s still only nil-nil.” Poole had pulled off three worldies before fate smiled and laid on a soft penalty.
Hoddle floated a looping pass from the halfway line, over the Leicester defence, for the substitute Steve White – high-shorted, hard-working – to chase. White nodded the ball past Poole, Poole made contact, White went down; David Elleray (bless him) pointed to the spot.
And so, with seven minutes left, all that stood between us and away days at Old Trafford and Anfield in the Premier League was Paul “Zippy” Bodin’s capacity to absolutely welly a football from a standing start.
As all around me stood in anticipation, if not expectation, and the Leicester fans, visited again by injustice in a play-off final, whistled their disgust, I sat down and closed my eyes. Evidently my act of cowardice/self-sacrifice worked. Poole went left, Bodin went right; a tiny pause, noise, a blurry forest of legs.
Of course, it all went wrong after the final whistle. Hoddle had barely taken off his boots before he left for Chelsea and the following season’s numbers suggest unremitting gloom, though we also had a lot of fun. It was like getting into Chinawhite in a Town shirt, holding a can of Arkell’s, singing our Elvis song. Then getting kicked out.
And so we returned to just being Swindon: slightly shambolic, next to that roundabout, in and out of administration, highs and lows, relegation, promotion, relegation. But we will always have that day when we became more than ourselves, when we didn’t balls it up; with the sun at our backs, and Hod on our side.
The post My favourite game: Swindon reach the promised land – thank Hod appeared first on The Guardian.