| Another narrow home victory left Swindon all but promoted - only a crazy set of results able to separate the Town from an immediate return to League One - but any thoughts of celebration were quickly dispelled after the news that Paolo di Canio’s mother had passed away last night, just months after his father.
Paul Caddis returned to the starting eleven for the first time since being injured in early March - replacing his stand-in skipper Alan McCormack, who missed the game due to the birth of his child - Joe Devera moving back into the centre. The only other change to the starting eleven saw Raffa de Vita into the side in place of Luke Rooney on the left flank.
Swindon showed no signs of nerves - the Town in the ascendancy for much of the game, and certainly the first period, as we tried in vain to break down a resolute visiting defence. The closest we came to scoring was in the opening ten minutes - after an aimless ball forward appeared to have halted a promising move, Paul Caddis won the ball from a dallying defender almost on the bye-line. Playing it back, the ball went to de Vita whose cross was blocked, and out for a throw, from which a cross was fired at the back post, meeting the head of Paul Benson, only to come back off the top of the crossbar.
As the Town pressed forward, a number of dangerous crosses went in - one just eluding the head of Flint after Holmes had won a corner following a crunching tackle, another great ball in from Caddis just nicked away from Benson’s head when he seemed poised to strike. Caddis made a huge difference to our attacking play down the right side.
The Scot nearly made a chance on 23 minutes - after Murray had been chopped down from behind twenty-five yards from goal (no yellow card?!), Caddis played a quick ball into the feet of de Vita on the edge of the area. Had he been aware that he had space, he could have had a clear strike at goal, instead he hesitated, and the chance was gone - with his back to goal, he moved it out to Ferry, who shot over. That was the second effort from Simon Ferry in the space of a few minutes - just moments earlier, the ball had ricocheted into his path in the area, and though he perhaps should have squared across goal, his low shot was saved by the keeper’s legs.
With ten minutes of the half remaining, a bursting run from Lee Holmes was halted by a Plymouth foul (again, no yellow...) - McEveley’s free kick from a central position bounced threateningly in the area - a touch would have seen it in, but it bounced harmlessly wide of the post. Swindon went on to force three corners in the last few minutes of the half - and two chances fell to Joe Devera, first the Town defender crossed the ball when it really needed smashing at the far post, then a Plymouth defender just getting in front of him when he threatened to apply a finishing touch to another ball into the box.
It hadn’t been a superb half, but Swindon were comfortable - Plymouth hardly ever venturing into the Town’s half, let alone threatening. We seemed to lose our thrust in the opening part of the second period though - and both managers made substitutions to try and inject something into the game - di Canio withdrawing Ronan Murray and Raffa de Vita for Alan Connell and Luke Rooney, Plymouth boss Carl Fletcher replacing Alex MacDonald up front with Ashley Hemmings.
Fletcher’s change had an almost immediate impact - as Hemmings latched onto a ball on the edge of the area with what must have been his first touch - his shot never looked like going in from the DRS, but the angle obviously wasn’t kind for the Argyle supporters, who jumped up thinking it could have been in, drawing laughter amongst the home support. Paolo’s substitutions would have a far bigger say in the outcome of the game a little later on.
We huffed and puffed, but the away side seemed more organised after the break - neither side was particularly helped by some comical officiating - throw ins being given to the wrong team, players getting booked for some innocuous looking challenges, some others (not least Darren Purse’s elbow on the back of Alan Connell’s head) going unpunished. It was one of the only times in the game that di Canio was his usual animated self on the touchline - we had noted that he was spending far more time sat in the dugout than usual - the significance of which we realised later. It brought the usual ‘f--- off Di Canio’ riposte from the away support.... one of many original ditties coming from the away fans - if you really want to go home, you know where the exits are.
As the game entered the last fifteen minutes, the Town pushed forward in search of a winner - Lee Holmes almost creating it when he did superbly well to keep the ball in on the touchline, lifting the ball over his marker’s head as he did so. He played the ball into Connell, who crossed the ball in the direction of Benson - the Town striker couldn’t connect, but it fell to Rooney on the back post. His shot looked goal bound, but was charged down... bouncing toward goal where it was cleared off the line by a defender.
Both Holmes and Smith had long range efforts - Smith’s effort deflected away for a corner, Holmes’ desperate strike only threatening the few fans in the Stratton Bank. Much like the Rovers game, it felt like the game was getting away from us - until the decisive move with just six minutes remaining.
It seemed as though another Town move had broken down when Jay McEveley played what looked like an aimless ball forward toward the byeline on the left side - that was until Luke Rooney chased it down, managing to get there before his marker and flicking the ball into Alan Connell with his back to goal. The Town sub swivelled and shot at goal - it looked as though it took a big deflection, but it was good enough - the ball rolling slowly into the far corner. The goal was greeted with a huge cheer from the home support - Connell and the rest of the Town team headed straight for the bench to celebrate with their manager - thinking about it now, it was very reminiscent of the scenes in the away game at Plymouth back in October, when di Canio lost his father.
Plymouth had a couple of chances to have got back into it in the final few moments - they registered their only two shots on target in injury time, both woeful efforts that Wes Foderingham gathered with ease. The Town’s sixth clean sheet in a row was their 24th of the season (a new club record), the eighteen clean sheets at home a new record for the fourth tier. It is incredible to think we have only conceded one goal in the sixteen matches at home since October - we may not have been so dominant in recent weeks, but our amazing defensive record has ensured that our run continues.
Though the late Crawley equaliser meant that promotion was not mathematically ensured, the vast majority of the crowd stayed beyond the final whistle, waiting for di Canio’s customary celebration - it seemed unusual that he disappeared straight down the tunnel, rather than congratulating the players on the pitch. After a few minutes, the crowd began to sing his name, but as time went on, it seemed apparent that he wouldn’t be coming - and a few began to drift away - Nick Watkins taking to the pitch to impart the sad news, and that di Canio had left immediately to return to Italy to be with his family. Though to all intents and purposes we are up, it was surely for the best that promotion was not secured today - it would not have seemed right if it had. It speaks volumes for the professionalism of the man that he was even in attendance today.
Paolo, our thoughts are with you.