Adventures in Football #75: The County Ground (Swindon Town FC)
March 25, 2023
SWINDON TOWN vs. STOCKPORT COUNTY (League 2)
My last four grounds are Villa Park, Luigi Ferraris, San Siro and Q2 in Austin, Texas. It’s with a little jaunt to Wiltshire that we come crashing down to earth. No offence to Swindon but this isn’t quite the wild ride of Genoa or Texas. This is #41 of the 92. Creeping up towards halfway done and already into some of the less fashionable destinations for football.
When I think of Swindon Town, the name Glenn Hoddle pops into my head. Swindon, aka the Robins, appointed Hoddle as player manager in 1991 and a few seasons later Swindon were promoted to the top tier of English football for the first time in their history. Hoddle moved to Chelsea, they spent very little money and got absolutely battered. They’ve never been back. They conceded 100 goals that season.
Swindon began life in the Southern League in 1894 and stayed there until 1920 when they were founder members of Division 3 South. Their first league promotion not coming until 1969 (nice). The same year they beat Arsenal 3-1 and claimed the League Cup, the only major honour the club has ever won. Unless you include the Anglo-Italian Cup, won by the Wiltshire minnows in 1970. They beat Juventus 4-0 in the group stage and went on to be awarded the title after the final, against Napoli, was abandoned after 79 minutes with Swindon winning 3-0. The home crowd, in Naples, became frustrated with the home team’s performance and pelted the pitch with anything they could get their hands on.
Swindon had a tumultuous 80s. They went down to division four in 1982, only to bounce back in 1986 with a whopping 102 points. Lou Macari then took them up again through the third division play offs. In 1990 they won promotion to the first division, beating Sunderland in the play off final, only to get hammered with FA charges regarding illegal payments. They were relegated, the chairman did actual jail time and they only got to stay in division two on appeal.
Since the glory days of Hoddle, Swindon have been mired in the lower divisions. They won the League 2 title in 2020 but came straight back down in P23 the following year.
At the start of play today, Swindon find themselves in P11. Nine points behind today’s visitors; Stockport County. For a club that’s won the League Cup and twice made the FA Cup semi-finals (losing to Newcastle in 1910 and Barnsley on a replay in 1912) recent years results make for grim reading. Beaten by Eastleigh in the FA Cup in 2017, Woking in 2019, Darlington in 2021 and this season suffered a 4-0 first round drubbing against today’s opponents.
The County Ground, sadly currently dubbed the “Energy Check County Ground”, has been home to Swindon since 1896. The most unusual aspect of the ground, from a neutral standpoint, is the away end has no roof. Which feels particularly mean-spirited as Swindon isn’t renowned for hot weather like say…Barcelona. The Stratton Bank end was due to receive a roof but Swindon’s financial struggles have prevented this from happening. Most reviews of Swindon, from away fans, slate the ground for its outdated facilities.
A recent ‘take’ on the ground, from Port Vale fan “IzzyM708” complained that the away stand is “terrible”. It only had “one kiosk open for 2000 fans”. It also had no toilets, only having 6 portaloos for the 2000 fans. Fans in the away end are guaranteed to be drenched in inclement weather and are recommended to bring wet weather clothing.
Thankfully we’ll be in the covered Don Rogers stand. Named for outside left former Swindon player on scored 149 goals for the glorious Swindon team of the late 60s/early 70s in 412 appearances. He scored both extra time goals against Arsenal in the famous 1969 League Cup win. Don Rogers Sports shop is still a fixture on the streets of Swindon. It’s sandwiched between a pizza place and a tattoo parlour if you wanted to make the pilgrimage. Don runs it himself!
A note on the ground before today’s fixture. This is the first game played at the County Ground since Swindon gained ownership of the ground. Are things look up for the Robins? Time will tell. This is the first time Swindon have ever owned the ground, previously leasing it from the council.
Game day and I get a bit of a shock when Maria has left the house in the morning. I message her and she’s gone to work! “Only for a couple of hours” she assures me and we’re off around 12.30pm. There will not be any pre-match pints today! The drive to Swindon is uneventful and takes roughly 80-90 minutes from home. It’s one of the closest league grounds I’d not yet ticked off to the south. We’re parking in “Brunel North car park”, which is the multi-storey car park for the Brunel shopping centre*. It’s a mall where nothing is open. If you ever want to see modern high street decay, this is the place for you. About the only useful thing about it is the parking and the toilets.
*named after Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who made Swindon a thing in the industrial revolution after picking it for the site of the Great Western Railway works in 1841. He’s been a popular figure in the town ever since. Brunel himself is from Portsmouth.
Coming out of there we walked down The Parade, which was an improvement and featured a pro-EU dance thing. Someone behind me yells “Brexit means exit”. You can’t even get the dipshit slogan right mate, fucks sake.
On nearing the ground (it’s about a mile walk) we spot the Arkells Ales pub; the County Ground. Yes, the pub and the ground have the same name. Old man Arkell was instrumental in Swindon Town’s early days as a club, donating money for their first stand. As a result there’s a historical tie between the local brewery and the football club, which is wonderful to see. I wish we’d had time to nip into the County Ground pub to get some local beer, but it wasn’t to be. The weather today is sunshine and wind, which lulls me into a false sense of security and I just wear a hoodie instead of my coat. Which is fine out in the sunshine but not so good in a covered stand where the sun can’t get in.
As you can see from this shot; one of the stands is still named after Arkell’s brewery. The Arkell’s stand is also named after John Trollope, Swindon’s record appearance maker, giving it the somewhat awkward name of the Arkell’s John Trollope Stand. It’s the biggest stand at the club and we’re sat opposite it today.
Hardly floodlight porn but Swindon were the first club in the country to play a game under permanent floodlights. Or so they claim. According to story on their website, floodlight football was banned by the FA until 1951 and Swindon played a friendly against Bristol City right after the ban was lifted. I’ve had this corroborated by Footballsite.co.uk, so I reckon that’s accurate.
This is our stand for the day, the mighty Don Rogers Stand. It’s a proper beast. Both the Arkell’s and Don Rogers stands are substantial. The grounds other two stands, located at either end are less substantial. More on that in a bit. You can see how much rain they had in Wiltshire here. Almost every patch of grass was covered in water. The normal drainage simply overwhelmed by the elements.
Up into the concourse and it’s heaving. Although we did arrive at 14.45, so that’s probably on us. You can just about make out the steps up into the stadium in the background. Walking up those steps and having the stadium just suddenly be all around me is my favourite thing about going to a ground. It’s a magical moment.
Here’s our view from, literally, row Z. Booking into the top row is something I try to do if I can because the view is fantastic, and you can stand if you want to. Plus, you have a little shelf behind you. You can see the ground in glorious detail from up here. The home end, to the left, is called the Alan McLoughlin Town End. It’s a cramped end with a low roof and they made most of the noise. Apparently, this end has the lowest ticket prices, which is something I hadn’t explored as I like to be off to the side a bit. The floodlight literally goes through this stand. You can just about see it on the far left.
From a distance, the ground looks in decent nick but up close you can see where the work needs to be done. Look at the paint flaked off the steps on the way up. To be fair, they’ve been saving up a couple of million to get their ground paid off so I can see the reluctance to bring everything up to code. Legroom is ok. It only looks bad here because of my obscenely long thigh bones.
Is Maria asleep today? Nope, she trying to take a selfie of us, but I’ve snuck in there and bagged my own selfie. She’s sporting Swindon Town red today as I’ve told her she’s not allowed to wear her pink Everton shirt, which she’s become very attached to. It’s busy in our area with not a lot of empty seats. The proximity to the rowdy Alan McLoughlin Town End is surely a factor in this. I deliberately went here to be near the atmosphere. It turns out we were right in it!
Pre-kick off I spot the local mascot; “Rockin’ Robin”. I know we’re quite far away here but in terms of effort, this is a barrel scraper. It’s crap. It looks more like a duck with a mohawk. The away end is not in use today, with Stockport’s supporters located in the far right side of the Arkell’s stand. Despite being somewhat tucked away they were in good voice. We could hear them most of the game. Stockport show up in an Argentina inspired away kit, which draws a “you’re just a shit Argentina” from the Town End.
This is the Town End. I would describe the support from over here as “lively”. They were as much fun to watch as the Austin fans and their full brass band. This lot didn’t play instruments, but they were exponents of one of my favourite footballing emotions; rage. It didn’t help the mood inside the ground when Kyle Knoyle, Stockport’s marauding right back, stormed into the box in the opening minute. He was felled by Jacob Wakeling, who’d been tracking him back. The result; red card and a penalty. Not the best of starts for Swindon. Paddy Madden’s resultant spot kick was saved but that was it for the first half in terms of highlights. Swindon resorted to a 4-5-0 formation, designed to limit space and goalscoring opportunities. Stockport couldn’t break it down and game was sloppy with lots of bad passing and poor play. At one point Swindon’s keeper launched a goal kick straight into touch. A goal kick mind you, not a clearance from open play.
Half time arrived at 0-0 and two teams of special needs kids took to the field in a sensational bit of half-time entertainment. The Alan McLoughlin end playing along and cheering the goals as they went in and celebrating saves. Great stuff from the boys at the Town End. In a seven aside game the formations started out as a 3-2-1 kinda shape but ended up as 1-5, with one guy defending and punting it forward for the other lads who promptly took on the other team’s one defender and keeper. I was almost sad to see it come to an end and joined the rest of the fans in applauding the players off. Great stuff all round.
At the away end, which as you can see is completely empty, they have the scoreboard (untroubled by goals at the turn) and a Rolex watch clock. According to the club, it’s the only one of its kind. It’s certainly a novel addition to the ground! Beyond it lies scenic Wiltshire. The second half was much the same as the first. Swindon defending in numbers. Their only chances should have come from set pieces but each corner and free kick was delivered with diabolically low standards. The worst collection of set pieces I’ve ever seen. Almost always hitting the man at the front post, or missing all Swindon players by a distance, or simply going back to the goalkeeper from dangerous positions. Something that must happen frequently as the crowd gave out an ironic cheer when it happened.
Here you can see the packed out corner where the Stockport fans are. The referee, pictured here doing something stupid no doubt, had a poor game. A combination of dodgy decisions, combined with the players realising he was weak and attempting simulation at every turn, turned the game into a bit of a farce. He was not popular and at one point the crowd chanted “stand up if you hate the ref” and everyone did. Another bad Swindon free kick led directly to Stockport breaking down the other end and Ryan Croasdale blasted home what turned out to be the winning goal. 1-0 Stockport. They deserved it for their attacking intent and Swindon were so bad they can’t really complain. Stockport are clearly chasing promotion and Swindon are resigned to another season at this level.
It didn’t stop this lot getting properly wound up. Arguments with stewards and police followed with Stockport players perhaps making a mistake by celebrating right in front of them. You could sense the relief from Stockport at finally making the breakthrough though. On the statistics side; Stockport had 13 shots, 60% possession. Swindon had a grand total of zero shots. The second half was significantly better than the first with a good 15-20 minute chunk involving good Stockport attacks, coming closer and closer to a goal before they eventually scored.
With Stockport having secured all three points we were off. I’ve seen Stockport play twice. They’ve scored six goals and conceded none. A word on Swindon before we go. It looked like a nice enough place. I didn’t really see enough of it to comment but the roundabouts in this place. Fuck me. There’s one roundabout, which is five roundabouts all stuck together. It’s an absolute nightmare.
It’s called the Magic Roundabout. I will be having dreams about this thing. We drove onto it and trying to figure out where to go once you’re on there is…interesting. We ended up bailing on it an exit too early and taking a detour around the local estate. Every estate on Swindon seems to have been built with no parking so there’s no enough room for two cards to drive down it. It’s a dystopian nightmare. Take the train!
Pretty good! The Alan McLoughlin Town End was very vocal and the Don Rogers made its fair share of noise. Good performance from the visiting Stockport fans. Just solid all round. ***½.
£25 for League 2. I paid £25 for Man City in the Carabao Cup. Rochdale was similar but less at £22. I think this is a little high. **
The game was quite poor. I don’t mind watching a team defend versus a team attacking but Stockport didn’t get creative in using their extra man. Swindon, reliant on set pieces, delivered incredibly poor quality balls into the box and failed to register a single shot. *½
EASE OF ACCESS:
The train station is less than a mile from the ground. It’s probably the most sensible way of visiting. We had no issues with the car parking and it came to £3.40 at the Brunel for our near 4 hour stay. ***
I’m sad to say I heard a few unsavoury things during my day at Swindon Town. The lad next to me booed the knee. I can’t tell if this was ‘banter’ or not, but it rubbed me up the wrong way. At half time I overheard a couple of old chaps slagging off women’s football and comparing it to the game at occurred at half time here. You should be fucking ashamed of yourselves lads. A couple of sad old wankers. The majority of Swindon fans were terrific, and they do some great community and fundraising work. It was sad to hear such misogynistic comments in the stands in 2023. *
It’s a very low score for Swindon, putting them bottom of the table for 2022-23. Below even sad sacks Rushden & Diamonds. Still better than QPR or Birmingham City in the big scheme of things. The low score wasn’t helped by the terrible game of football, which was mostly the fault of the referee and Jacob Wakeling. If he’d just let Stockport score, it could have been a fun game. Not to be sadly.