When you think of success for Swindon Town, the names of Glenn Hoddle, John Gorman and Jan Aage Fjortoft probably come to mind. After winning promotion they competed in the inaugural season of the Premier League. As far as league positions go this was their finest hour. But for a couple of seasons at the end of the 1960’s, they were one of the most talked-about sides in English football.
This is the start of a new six part series.
It all began at the start of the 1968-69 season. Swindon had remained in the third tier of English football since they entered the league in 1920, other than two seasons between 1963 and 1965. Mid-table finishes for the past few years did little to suggest how memorable this particular campaign would be.
Before the league season got underway they were in action in the League Cup against Torquay United. Torquay had finished just a couple of points off a promotion spot from Swindon’s division a year earlier, so could’ve been considered the more fancied side.
14,702 was a decent turnout for a Tuesday night in August and the home fans weren’t disappointed. Although things didn’t begin well with John Rowlands giving the visitors the lead in the first half. They lead until the hour mark before Roger Smart equalised. Ten minutes later Peter Noble scored the winner for Swindon.
The following weekend saw the league season commence. Swindon were again at home where they entertained Stockport County. County were only two points behind Swindon the season before, so would provide a decent test. The deadlock wasn’t broken until ten minutes from time when Noble scored giving Swindon the win, 1-0.
Swindon made a good start in the league. They didn’t concede till their seventh match which was also their first defeat. Having said that, three of their opening six matches ended goalless. It took Don Rogers four games to get off the mark, when he hit a double in the South-West derby against Plymouth.
The defeat came at Bournemouth, or Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic as they were back then. This was then followed by defeat at Bristol Rovers. In the Rovers side that day were Larry Lloyd, later of Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, Ray Mabbutt, father to Gary and Kevin, and Ray Graydon who went onto score the winning goal in the 1975 League Cup Final for Aston Villa.
In a matter of a fortnight they’d dropped from second to ninth as Luton continued to set the pace at the top.
In amongst all this they’d reached the Third Round of the League Cup as they saw off Bradford City in the Second Round. Bradford were a division below but held Swindon to a 1-1 draw and were then two goals to the good in the replay. But Swindon gamely came back to win 4-3.
After the Bristol defeat it was back home to meet Second Division Blackburn Rovers in the League Cup. Blackburn fielded a side which included John Connelly, who was in England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad, and at right-back, Keith Newton. Newton was in the provisional squad for 1966 but didn’t make the final 22. But he played in the 1970 tournament and was the first England player to be substituted. But Swindon were not fazed by this and Don Rogers goal on 20 minutes proved the difference. Swindon were now into the Fourth Round.
Back in the league and Swindon registered back-to-back home wins against Shrewsbury and Orient (not known as Leyton Orient back then). They were now just two points off the two promotion places and still hadn’t conceded a goal at the County Ground.
Swindon’s success so far was founded on a tight defence. Peter Downsborough was becoming a steady, reliable keeper. Stan Harland and Frank Burrows were forming a tough centre-back pairing. Burrows had been signed at the start of the season from Scunthorpe. Harland joined the club the day before England won the World Cup. They were supported by Owen Dawson at right-back and Rod Thomas on the left. Thomas was a Welsh international by the age of 20 and remains the club’s most capped player. He would later join Derby County and then Cardiff City. Thomas began the season on the right, but injury to record appearance holder, John Trollope in the second game of the season, saw him move to the left with Dawson slotting in on the right. This contributed to their record thus far of six clean sheets in six home matches. From their ten league matches they’d only conceded in two.
Back-to-back home wins were followed by the same away from home at Reading and Brighton. John Smith and Joe Butler scored their first goals of the season against Brighton, as Swindon moved up to fourth.
The league form would have to take a back seat as they travelled to Highfield Road to take on First Division Coventry City in the League Cup. Coventry’s side contained Tony Hateley (Mark’s father), Ernie Hunt, Willie Carr and Maurice Setters (who played under Matt Busby at Man Utd and would go on to be Jack Charlton’s assistant for Republic of Ireland). Don Rogers gave the visitors the lead just before the break. With 20 minutes to go Roger Smart scored his fourth of the competition and remarkably the Third Division side lead 2-0. Coventry brought on John Tudor for Hunt and with four minutes to go he got a goal back. Then Hateley scored a dramatic late equaliser and the tie would go to a replay. 2-2 was certainly a creditable result for the Robins, and their reward was a home match.
Their winning run in the league continued with a 2-1 win at home to Torquay. Alan Welsh became the first visiting player to score at the County Ground that season in the seventh match to be played there. Torquay’s side contained two former West Ham players, John Bond and Ken Brown who would both go onto manage Norwich City at various stages. Bond famously lead Man City to the 1981 FA Cup Final before ‘that goal’ from Ricky Villa.
Goals from Rogers and Noble sent Swindon to the top of the table, ahead of Bournemouth on goal average (the method of separating teams on the same points, before goal difference) with a game in hand.
Morale was really good at the County Ground for the visit of Coventry City in their League Cup tie replay. Northern Ireland international, Dave Clements, was back in at right-back. Later in his career he would line-up alongside Pele for New York Cosmos.
Swindon were flying by this time. Don Rogers opened the scoring after ten minutes. Six minutes later Roger Smart doubled their lead. He’d scored in all but one of their League Cup ties so far. Once again Coventry found themselves 0-2 down but crucially for Swindon the next goal was theirs. Still only 23 minutes of the game gone and Willie Penman crowned his first start of the season with his first goal. The First Division side couldn’t find a breakthrough and Swindon recorded a famous win, in front of almost 24,000. Swindon were into the Fifth Round of the League Cup for the first time in their history. Top of the table and League Cup Fifth Round, could it get any better?
The next league match was a visit to Oldham Athletic. For the first time in nine matches they went behind, but Rogers scored for the fifth successive game after Don Heath scored his first. Oldham equalised but Roger Smart hit the winner with five minutes to go.
Six successive league wins and they were now clear at the top of the table with five clubs a point behind.
At the end of October Swindon made their first appearance at the Quarter-Final stage of the League Cup. They travelled to the Baseball Ground, then the home of Derby County. Derby were managed by Brian Clough in his second season at the club. Up against the likes of Roy McFarland, Kevin Hector, John O’Hare, Dave Mackay and Alan Durban, the game ended goalless. Once again Swindon had the chance of winning the tie in front of their own fans in the replay.
This was the first time Derby had failed to score at home that season, and Swindon were one of just two sides to achieve that all campaign.
As with the previous round against Coventry, they warmed up for the League Cup tie with a home match. Southport arrived at the County Ground were given a thumping, 5-1. Rogers scored four including one from the spot. He now had 13 for the season, 9 in the league. They’d won seven successive games in the league and their unbeaten run was now at 11 in all competitions.
On Bonfire Night just under 27,000 packed into the County Ground. Derby were on a run which had seen them lose just one in their last 17 in all competitions. They’d put out Everton and Chelsea and were looking forward to a Semi-Final place. Or so they thought. Swindon manager, Danny Williams made one change from the first meeting. Owen Dawson was back in at right-back with Joe Butler returning to midfield in place of Willie Penman. A hard-fought match was settled midway through the first half. Don Rogers it was who scored and Swindon held on for another famous win. The magnitude of Swindon’s achievement was illustrated further into the season as Derby won Division Two by seven points. Three years later they were English League Champions.
Maybe still celebrating their midweek achievement, Swindon’s long unbeaten run came to an end at Kenilworth Road. Luton Town had made the early running in the table, before slipping back but their quality showed in a 2-0 win. Swindon dropped to third, as Bournemouth and Barrow moved above them.
Their unbeaten run had reached at seven in the league and 12 in all competitions.
The cup games were coming thick and fast as attention now turned to the FA Cup. Swindon were drawn in the First Round against Canterbury City of the Southern League. Although drawn as the away side, Swindon agreed to hold the game at the County Ground and the non-league club were rewarded with a crowd of over 14, 000. In the Canterbury side was Irishman Joe Carolan who was at the end of a career which had seen him play in the Busby Babes team of the late 1950’s.
The minnows equipped themselves very well in only their second ever FA Cup First Round appearance, and it took a last minute Don Rogers penalty to beat them.
Four days later and Swindon travelled up to Turf Moor to take on Burnley in the League Cup Semi-Final first leg. At the time Burnley were seventh in the First Division, just five points off leaders, Liverpool. They’d already knocked out Crystal Palace and Leicester City and fielded a side which included future England internationals, Ralph Coates, Martin Dobson and Dave Thomas. Coates scored the winning goal for Spurs in the 1973 League Cup Final and also won the UEFA Cup. Dobson won a runners-up medal with Everton in the League Cup and Thomas, who also played for Everton, was in the QPR side which finished runners-up in the League in 1976. They also had Steve Kindon, who scored plenty of goals for both Burnley and Wolves.
Stan Harland scored his first of the season just before half-time and Swindon’s dream run continued. But then midway through the second half, Ralph Coates equalised for the home side. Barely 60 seconds later and Peter Noble put the Third Division side back in front and they had a crucial 2-1 lead to take back to Wiltshire.
After the excitement of cup football it was back to league duty when they were away at Mansfield. A 0-2 defeat meant back-to-back league defeats without a goal scored, and they’d slipped to sixth.
They rounded off November with their third successive away game in the league. But it wasn’t three straight defeats, even though they went behind in the 16th minute. John Smith scored his fourth of the season to level things and then Rogers scored his tenth league goal to give Swindon the lead at the break. Northampton were player-managed by Ron Flowers, who was another of the England World Cup squad from 1966, but he was unable to stop Roger Smart putting the visitors further in front ten minutes into the second half. Within a minute Don Heath made it four, before Bob Hatton grabbed one back for the home side, 2-4. Swindon came back, though and further goals from Noble and Rogers gave them an impressive 6-2 win.
A year later, George Best scored six on his own against Northampton but for now Swindon were back up to second in the table.
Next it was back to the League Cup and the second leg of their Semi-Final clash against Burnley. Leading 2-1 from the first leg, Swindon was buzzing with anticipation. 28,000 packed into the ground and with the game still goalless at half-time, the home fans dared to dream. But just five minutes into the second half Frank Casper scored for the visitors and the tie was level on aggregate. Within sixty seconds Steve Kindon scored and now there was concern it was all going to fall apart for the Third Division club. But Swindon were made of sterner stuff, and six minutes later John Smith got a crucial goal back. 1-2 on the night but 3-3 on aggregate. There was no away goals rule or even penalty shootouts, so the tie would go to a replay. Neither side could add to the score so that’s what happened. They’d do it all again, at a neutral venue, The Hawthorns.
On the same night Arsenal saw off Spurs to make the final, and they had to wait to see who their opponents at Wembley would be.
Before that, Swindon were in the FA Cup Second Round against Midlands League side, Grantham Town. The two clubs met at the same stage four years before when Swindon won 6-1. They weren’t as ruthless this time, though. Just as it looked as if the non-leaguers had earned a replay, Chris Jones scored for Swindon with six minutes to go. John Smith then made things certain a minute later and Swindon won 2-0. Hopefully the headline in the Grantham press was “Alas Smith & Jones”
Don Rogers scored his 13th league goal of the season to beat Brighton at home. They were fourth, but only two points off leaders Bournemouth and still with a game in hand.
But that was a minor distraction as the Semi-Final replay against Burnley was what everyone was waiting for. Both teams rocked up at The Hawthorns to see who would meet Arsenal in the Final. John Smith drew first blood for Swindon after just seven minutes. It was still 1-0 at the break, and still that way with just seconds remaining. It was all getting a bit tense. Then Dave Thomas grabbed a dramatic late equaliser to take the game into extra time. Swindon were so close, would they be able to come back from this?
Just a minute into extra time, Frank Casper put Burnley in front, and suddenly it looked as if the dream was over. But just before the break in extra time, Arthur Bellamy put through his own net and Swindon were level. Fifteen minutes to find a winner. In the 108th minute, Peter Noble scored and Swindon were back in front. From there they stayed in front and won 3-2. Cue pandemonium in Wiltshire.
It had been a dramatic, exciting run and now for the first time in their history they were going to be playing on the hallowed Wembley turf. This was just before Christmas and the Final wouldn’t be until March so they had to park their excitement.
They rounded off the year with a 1-0 win at Torquay, then a Boxing Day 0-1 defeat at Orient. Despite the loss they were second in the table, a point behind Watford. Just two promotion spots were up for grabs in those days, and even though they were second only on goal average, second they were.
Swindon were able to celebrate the Christmas and New Year period knowing 1968 had ended as good as they could have hoped for. In the promotion place and into a Cup Final. What would 1969 bring?