Freight Rover, Sherpa Van, Leyland DAF, Autoglass, Auto Windscreens, LDV Vans and now Johnstone Paints. Many names for the Football League Trophy, or the Associate Members Cup. It doesn’t matter what it is called, it is simply the easiest way that teams from the lower reaches of the Football League can enjoy a day out at Wembley. Previous winners since its inception in 1983 have included five current Premier League clubs, as well as current Blue Square Bet Premier League sides Grimsby Town, Mansfield Town and Luton Town. The most successful side in the history of the tournament has been Carlisle United who have played in six finals, winning twice, including last season’s trophy.
Despite the fact the Football League having toyed around with the format to try to increase its interest amongst the fans, it is still only the final that gets the crowds through the doors. For the period between 2000 and 2006 the 48 Football League sides were joined by a host of teams from the Conference, including the likes of Leigh RMI (Now playing in the North West Counties League as Leigh Genesis), Scarborough (on five occasions – who are now known as Scarborough Athletic and playing in the Northern Counties East Premier League) and Dover Athletic now in the Blue Square Bet South. But crowds for some of the games dropping below the 700 mark it was decided to keep it just to the Football League clubs.
This season’s competition started with some of the bigger names in the competition falling by the wayside early on. Sheffield Wednesday lost to Bradford City on penalties and holders Carlisle United went out to Accrington Stanley. In one of the more remarkable games, Leyton Orient lost to neighbours Dagenham & Redbridge 14-13 on penalties in a game that was still going on at near 11pm.
But eventually the 48 teams who started the competition were reduced to just two – high-flying Swindon Town, and struggling Chesterfield. Looking at their respective league positions coming into the game there was just one league place separating them. Chesterfield, with just one win in seven prop up the bottom of League One, whilst Swindon Town top League Two thanks to the inspiration of Paolo Di Canio.Ironically, this time last year their respective positions were reversed, with the Spirettes on their way to the League Two title and Swindon heading out of League One.
Now I am not afraid to admit it that Di Canio is one of my favourite ever players. Passion, genius and Roman flair – all dressed up into one unpredictable Gucci wrapper. There were a number of people in the game who thought he was a shoe-in the managers role at Upton Park in the summer (and based on the crap football we have seen there this season I wish he would have), but instead Swindon Town gave him the chance to earn his managerial spurs.
And he hasn’t disappointed. There have been a few “incidents” which questioned whether he was cut out for a life on the touch-line such as appearing to clip Leon Clarke around the ear in the Robins League Cup defeat to Southampton, and invading the pitch to celebrate a last-minute winner at Northampton Town. God knows what he had planned for Wembley, but I bet the neutrals were praying for someone special.
The tournament had been running for nearly twenty years, over a thousand games in total yet this was going to be the first game in the competition I had ever seen. Which almost guaranteed it would be dull, uninspiring and uneventful. However, I would be going with one eye on the Italian, who set his stall out on the eve of the game:-
“We go to Wembley not as tourists but as warriors, singing our own song”
To me when I close my eyes and think about the two teams I can see a young Kevin Davies running rings around a Middlesbrough defence, whilst Jan Age Fjørtoft does his bird impression as he celebrates another goal. Both have had good times in the cups over the years, and a little known fact is that Swindon Town are actually the only team to have won the Anglo-Italian Trophy. Not the Cup – that came later. But in 1969/70, after winning the League Cup as a 3rd tier team, they weren’t allowed to take a spot in the Fairs Cup (forerunner to the UEFA Cup) and so the FA got together with the Italians and created a special game which the Robins won 5-2 versus AS Roma.
Wembley Way was bathed in sunshine as I made my way towards the stadium. Both sets of fans were enjoying the occasion – in some ways this was a brief distraction from the league, and day I bet both teams wanted to win, but if they didn’t then they would swap it promotion/survival come end of April.
Chesterfield 2 Swindon Town 0 – Wembley Stadium – Sunday 25th March 2012
Few will argue that Chesterfield didn’t deserve their win over the ninety minutes in the beautiful sunshine. They matched Swindon in every department, created the best chances in the game and put two second half balls in the net to take the trophy back up the M1.
The first half began cautiously, with both teams feeling each other out. Swindon looked to use the pace of Lee Holmes down the wing, whilst Chesterfield tried to get striker Westcarr in behind the Swindon defence, taking advantage of the missing Robins skipper Paul Caddis. But with less than ten minutes on the clock Chesterfield had the ball in the net when the aging Jack Lester thought he had scored, but it was correctly ruled as offside.
The best chance of the half fell to Alan Connell when he controlled the ball at the end of a fantastic flowing move, but he volleyed his chance high and wide, must to the frustration of Di Canio who vented his impatience by kicking a water bottle.
Just a minute after the break Chesterfield took the lead. A well worked move seem to have come to nothing but then a smart turn from Mendy put him in space and his dangerous cross low into the six yard area was turned into his own net by Risser. Thousands of fans who were undoubtably still queuing on the concourse for their £2 bag of crisps would have missed the goal, but Di Canio didn’t. Again he went mad, cursing the sky, turning to his bench as if the answers were there (see this video of 2 minutes in his touch-line antics).
Soon after it should have been two-nil but Westcarr pulled his shot wide of the post after being put clear. He would make amends with a similar chance in injury time, by which time Swindon appeared to have already given up the ghost, with only a header from Cibbocchi the only threat of an equaliser.
So it was the blue half of the stadium that rejoiced on the final whistle. The Swindon fans knew their greatest prize would be promotion back to League One come May, but as they made their way back down Wembley Way they will have had a mild sense of irritation that the team didn’t turn up on the biggest stage. They certainly didn’t come as tourists, but they still have the chance to end the season as gladiators.