This is part two of the glory days of Swindon Town. Three extraordinary seasons where they hit heights never seen again. The first part covered the first half of the 1968-69 season. Their run in the League Cup had seen them book a place in the Final against Arsenal. In the league they were sitting second in the old Third Division (English football’s third tier).
Swindon woke up to the New Year sitting second in the Third Division and with a place in the League Cup Final already booked. The Cup Final was ten weeks away and first there was the other cup to deal with, the FA Cup. Swindon were in the Third Round against Fourth Division Southend United, at home. They’d won all but one of their league matches at The County Ground, and their only defeat at home came in the second leg League Cup Semi-Final tie against Burnley. So it came as quite a shock when Southend won 2-0. John Trollope was back from injury but could do little to lift his team as goals from Billy Best and Ian Hamilton put The Shrimpers into the next round. Swindon obviously believed they had more important things to concentrate on.
Their league campaign resumed with a trip to Southport. Don Rogers hit his 20th goal of the season with 20 minutes to go. It looked as if it would be the winner, but with two minutes to go George Andrews equalised and the points were shared. They were down to fourth, but now had three games in hand.
They would now have a crucial couple of matches. Luton Town and Tranmere Rovers were their next opponents, the two clubs immediately below Swindon in the table. They were at home to Luton first, and eager to reverse defeat from their first meeting. The Match of the Day cameras were at the County Ground to see two of the top sides from the Third Division. Unfortunately, they couldn’t produce any goals, though there was no shortage of action on a shocking pitch. The game ended goalless. Three games into the new year and just one goal. Not the best start.
If Danny Williams had words with his team, it certainly had the desired result. The trip to Tranmere had the potential to be disappointing, but few expected what transpired. Joe Pritchard put the home side in front in the 11th minute, but with 12 minutes of the half remaining, Chris Jones equalised. Five minutes later he scored again. Don Rogers then hit the target right on half-time and Swindon went in 3-1 up.
Gerry Casey got a goal back for the home side but within ten minutes Swindon had scored twice. Roger Smart and Peter Noble were now both in double figures for the season. Roy Sinclair scored a late consolation goal just before the end and Swindon came away with a vital 5-3 win. They were now back up to second, two points behind leaders Watford with a game in hand.
The following Tuesday saw the visit of Oldham Athletic to the County Ground. The Latics were rock bottom of the table and not in good form. Swindon started with a bang. Frank Burrows scored his first goal of the season after just two minutes. Two minutes later they were 2-0 up with Chris Jones scoring. Jones then scored again just before half-time and the game was done. Alan Spence got one back for the visitors in the second half, but there was no comeback as Smart made it 4-1. Jones then completed his hat-trick with five minutes to go.
January ended with Swindon now level on points with Watford at the top. Bournemouth were a point behind but they’d played two games more. Ten goals in their last two matches certainly helped the goal average column.
February was going to be a busy month with six matches. First up was a trip to mid-table Barnsley. John Trollope scored his first goal of a season he’d missed a large part of. However, John Bettany equalised for the home side and the game ended, 1-1.
Three days later they were at home to Hartlepool. At this stage in the season, they’d only dropped two points from their 11 home games, so it was a bit of a surprise when Malcolm Thompson equalised Peter Noble’s opener for another 1-1 draw.
Watford were in cup action so Swindon missed their chance to go top. The top three were separated by a solitary point.
Swindon then had 11 days off before they travelled all the way up to the North-West to take on Barrow. They enjoyed the break and the trip as they came away with a 3-0 win. Smart, Noble and Jones all scored in the second half. As they travelled back home they learned leaders Watford’s ten game unbeaten run in the league had gone as they were beaten at Torquay.
Watford and Swindon were locked together on 39 points, the same amount of games played. They were three points ahead of Bournemouth in third.
Swindon were now unbeaten in seven since the turn of the year, scoring 16 goals. Yet the most surprising thing was Don Rogers had only scored twice.
They then embarked on four home games in ten days. All were won 1-0 with Peter Noble scoring the only goal in the first three, and Rogers scoring in the fourth.
Swindon were now top of the table, four points clear of Watford although they’d played two games more. Crucially they were nine points clear of Bournemouth in third. 11 games unbeaten and these were heady days.
However, like all good things, they can come to an end. At the beginning of March, they visited Gillingham and lost 0-2.
Their home form was excellent, unbeaten from 16 matches with just two points dropped. But now it was their away form that started to cause concern. They immediately went to Stockport County and lost there as well, 1-2.
Two straight defeats was not the best preparation for Wembley. But they had to put that out of their mind. They were still top of the table, although their lead was now just two points and they’d played two matches more than Watford. Luton had moved into third, also with games in hand.
LEAGUE CUP FINAL 1969
Saturday 15th March 1969 was going to be a memorable day for Swindon fans no matter the result. They’d reached their first ever cup final, their first ever trip to Wembley. They were up against the might of Arsenal. The Gunners had been beaten by Leeds United in the League Cup Final a year earlier and were determined to go one better this time. They were overwhelming favourites, sitting fourth in the First Division and packed with internationals. Bob Wilson, Peter Storey, Frank McLintock, Peter Simpson, Bob McNab, George Armstrong, Bobby Gould, George Graham and John Radford. Many of them well known throughout the sixties and it seemed a foregone conclusion they would lift the trophy. But Arsenal were trophyless in the decade and desperate to win some silverware.
Arsenal liked to pass the ball around but it had been raining a few days before the game. In addition, the ground had hosted the Horse of the Year Show just a week earlier. This made for a very heavy pitch. To add to Arsenal’s woes there’d been a flu bug in the camp. Could this even things up a bit?
A very proud Danny Williams lead his team out alongside Bertie Mee and his team.
Early on, Downsborough was forced into a good save when he tipped Jon Samuels’ shot round the post.
At the other end, Don Rogers forced Wilson to come off his line to stop him. Rogers was certainly the man Arsenal feared, as he would just run at defenders. Gradually Arsenal took control and looked to come to terms with the pitch. Radford headed just over the bar and Downsborough was the busier of the two keepers. But Swindon certainly played their part in the entertainment.
Then with 10 minutes before half-time, the breakthrough came. As with so much of Swindon’s work, Rogers went on a mazy run towards the Arsenal area. Smith chipped the ball into the area but too far for Rogers. It looked like Ian Ure would just pass it back to Wilson (the back pass was still legal then). Inexplicably he hesitated, then seemed to wrong foot his keeper. As they dithered, Noble sneaked in and crossed to the penalty spot where Roger Smart ran in and passed the ball into the net. 1-0 to Swindon.
Arsenal hit back and Gould finally beat Downsborough, but the post saved the Third Division side and they went into the break still in front.
In the second half, Arsenal came at their less fancied opponents. Downsborough was called into action time after time, but he wouldn’t be denied. Samuels brought out the best of him with one effort he pushed round the post. Increasingly, the pressure was heaped on Downsborough and the Swindon defence. A succession of corners were repelled, either by the Swindon keeper punching the ball over the bar, round the post, or one of his defenders just clearing the ball to give themselves a breather. It was pulsating stuff.
Then after one melee, Bob McNab was stood just wide of the goal in the six-yard area. The ball came to him and he fired a shot, but Downsborough saved brilliantly from almost point-blank range.
But for all Arsenal’s pressure, there was still the threat of Rogers, so they couldn’t push everyone forward.
With five minutes to go, ironically it was a run from Rogers which resulted in the equaliser. He slightly overran the ball and it was played back into Swindon’s half. George Graham, who’d come on for Simpson, played Bobby Gould in. Downsborough rushed off his line and got to the ball first but only succeeded in playing it against Gould, whose momentum took him on. The ball looped in the air and as it came down Gould got to it first to nod it into the empty net. It was so cruel for Swindon. They’d lead for so long and were so near victory, yet it showed how tough it would be to beat a side like Arsenal.
The game went into extra time. For all Arsenal’s pressure, the Swindon players believed they now had the upper hand as the game went into a further 30 minutes. Years later, Rogers said they all thought they were stronger than Arsenal and could go on and win it.
It was Swindon who had the best chance in the opening stages of the extra period. Good work down the right from Don Heath allowed him to cross into the area. Smart got his head to the ball first and headed it down to Wilson’s left. However, the Arsenal keeper pulled off a brilliant save to push it against the post. They just wouldn’t lie down.
Then as half-time in extra time approached, Swindon had a corner on the right. It was floated into the area where a scramble occurred. The ball eventually fell to Rogers and from six yards out he got it past the players on the line. Swindon were back in front, 2-1. It was Rogers’ 23rd goal of the season, his 6th of the League Cup run and now it was advantage Swindon.
Both Swindon wingers, Heath and Rogers continued to cause problems as space just opened up for them with the game getting stretched.
Then with just seconds remaining, Ure’s pass was intercepted down Arsenal’s left wing. Smart then played a first time ball up for Rogers, who was away and clear. As Wilson came out, he calmly sidestepped him and slid the ball into the empty net. 3-1.
What a moment for little Swindon. Rogers now had 24 for the season and there was no coming back for the First Division side.
There was barely time for the kick-off before referee Handley blew for full-time. Swindon Town of Division Three had beaten First Division Arsenal. It was one of the biggest upsets Wembley had ever seen. The manner of the victory puts it right up there in the ranks of ‘greatest upsets’, as it wasn’t as if they’d won by a fortunate goal or were completely outplayed. What was most surprising was how they looked the stronger side in extra time.
Stan Harland gratefully collected the cup from Princess Margaret and held it aloft. The greatest moment in Swindon’s history.
Saturday 15th March 1969, Wembley, 98,189
ARSENAL (0) (1) 1 (Gould 86)
SWINDON (1) (1) 3 (Smart 35, Rogers 105, 120)
ARSENAL: Wilson; Storey, Ure, Simpson (Graham), McNab; Samuels, McLintock, Court; Radford, Gould, Armstrong
SWINDON: Downsborough; Thomas, Harland, Burrows, Trollope; Smart, Smith (Penman), Butler; Heath, Noble, Rogers
Back home they were treated to a hero’s welcome. The streets were lined with people, all there to cheer on a side who’d beaten the odds to win the trophy. During their cup run, they only met two sides placed lower than them in the league structure.
That was the League Cup secured, now for the push for promotion to Division Two. That’s coming up in part three.