Monday evenings are usually nothing special. You might watch the One Show, have a sensible dinner and try to recover from a long first day after the weekend, you might try and catch up on some work or you might sit in anticipation for Sky’s latest coverage of Monday night football. This Monday, though, Monday evening at the County Ground was nothing if not spectacular. A ridiculous 5-5 draw between two of League One’s best teams, Swindon Town and Sheffield United, will live long in the memory of all at the ground and everyone tuning in and keeping abreast of developments at home.
Quite often, lower league apologists hold up the odd completely incredible game played by teams in England’s bottom three tiers of professional football as a show of where the Premier League’s going wrong; it’s quite easy to see how a ten goal stalemate in a play-off second leg might get the same sort of acclaim, given that it ran parallel to a match at the Emirates between Arsenal and Swansea which was, by all accounts, as flat as a pancake. But this sort of stance completely misses the point, especially in events such as Monday evening; Swindon Town just edging out Sheffield United to a place at Wembley next weekend wasn’t an advert for the lower leagues – although both clubs do indeed happen to be lower league outfits at present – it was an advert for football, and sport in general.
The drama is obvious. It was the highest scoring play-off game ever, with more twists and turns than a gripping thriller film and several potential future stars on show. Both Swindon and Sheffield United have excellent teams – evidenced, obviously, by their finishing positions in League One this season, but also in the way that managers Mark Cooper and Nigel Clough have asked their sides to approach their game throughout the season, and indeed by their performance against higher-league opposition. Sheffield United have shown a knack for knockout competition under Clough in recent years, having reached semi-finals in both the FA Cup and Capital One Cup in the past couple of years, as well as another Quarter Final appearance in the FA Cup this season.
Swindon’s cup form hasn’t been quite so prodigious, but Cooper’s young side has drawn plaudits from pretty much all that have seen them this season. Despite a miniscule budget in comparison to the league’s other strong finishers – Swindon are rumoured to have a budget of around £2m this year, compared to the likes of Bristol City’s outlay of £12m – Mark Cooper has created an attractive system at the Wiltshire club, based around an attacking, vibrant possession game which, at its devastating best, can finish games before they’ve even started. The inexperience of the side – until the arrival of Sam Ricketts on loan in late March, the Robins’ squad featured one player above the age of 24 – has sometimes led to the team shooting themselves in the foot defensively, and both sides of the proverbial Swindon Town coin were on show at the County Ground on Monday, as the Reds tore into a 3-0 lead after a little over a quarter of an hour, only to be pegged back by the final whistle as nerves crept in.
Still, what Swindon Town have done this season is arguably more impressive than the achievements of the already-promoted Bristol City or MK Dons, or their opponents at Wembley, Preston North End. Tipped by pundits and fans alike to endure a tough campaign this season, having lost a few key members of the squad which secured a mid-table finish last time out, the prospect of a brief flirtation with automatic promotion and a play-off campaign were seemingly distant in August, even though the club began the season with a stylish pasting of Scunthorpe United. As well as that, the club have made international stars out of Massimo Luongo and Yaser Kasim, who had both had very little experience of professional football before their arrivals in Wiltshire. The likes of stalwart goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, skipper Nathan Thompson, Michael Smith, Nathan Byrne and the Norwich-bound brother of Nathan, Louis Thompson, formed the nucleus of a promising young side, and the loan signings of defensive duo Jack Stephens and Jordan Turnbull from Southampton, talented playmaker John Swift from Chelsea and wing back Harry Toffolo from Norwich have taken Cooper’s fledglings to the next level this season.
Swindon are now a viable destination for starlets at Premier League clubs who need game time; the fact that clubs including Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Southampton have trusted Swindon with their young prospects in recent seasons is as much a sign of this as the trajectory of the careers of some of the recent loanees since their stints in Wiltshire; Ryan Mason is a full England international, Brad Smith has played for the Socceroos and Alex Pritchard was one of the stars of the Championship this season.
Everything points towards a healthy future for the club, its fans, and the young players still relatively close to the start of their careers. First, however, comes the task of beating a strong Preston side to promotion next Sunday.
A side containing the likes of talented striker Joe Garner, a by-now experienced Jermaine Beckford and Australian international Bailey Wright will be no pushovers and will probably go into the game as slight favourites, based on the unfortunate manner in which they missed out on promotion on the final day. Having steamrollered their way past Chesterfield over two legs, scoring four without reply against the Spireites, it’s safe to say that Preston will quite rightly be confident going into next weekend; but as play-off finals have shown us so much over recent years, and indeed since their inception, nothing can be left to luck for either side.
As for Monday night; it’s great that the exposure gained by games such as this in the play-offs seems to be pushing more and more people into taking an interest in lower league football. For many, it’s probably quite easy to forget that there’s whole swathes of competitive, exciting and interesting clubs below the top division, but it’d be great if the footballing world could stop short of the condescending nature that many comments about the lower leagues still seem to be imbued with. If Monday didn’t prove that Swindon, Sheffield United (and the rest of the clubs in the lower leagues) are big deals both locally and throughout the world, with viewers turning in from several different countries, nothing will.