It’s a sign of how far Bournemouth have come over those eighteen matches that home fans actually left a little disappointed, and ten minutes before the end had actually been hoping for a victory. This would have been an historic victory indeed, over a team that had beaten us 4-0 earlier in the season and scored sixteen goals without reply in their previous four games. Despite the pitch conditions (about which, more later) this was a thrilling match for everyone present, even though it would end with the away fans celebrating more enthusiastically than the home ones.
There were no surprises in the starting line-up. Our league goalie (James) was back in place of our cup goalie (Jalal); and Grabban was evidently recovered from sickness. So we were back to 4-4-2, Hughes being the player sacrificed. The heavy rain that had been forecast across the lunchtime period had yet to materialise, though there had been plenty during the night. The rainfall actually began again in earnest about three minutes after kick-off, and initially seemed to faze the Bournemouth players more than the Swindon ones. Indeed, within a minute of that, James was called into action and what looked like a great shot from a Swindon player was pushed over the crossbar one-handedly to great acclaim from the North Stand crowd who’d witnessed it at close hand. This was to be the first of a number of world-class saves from both keepers, who kept their sides in the game again and again, though more of the early scoring chances fell to Swindon than to Bournemouth. Meanwhile the rain continued to fall, puddles started to form on the pitch, several passes went awry, and both Cook and Grabban were seen slipping up at crucial times. But the weather affected both sides equally, and the stalemate continued until the 26th minute. Then a shot from Pitman was blocked by the Swindon keeper, but the ball fell for Arter outside the area, who made no mistake with a rasping left-foot shot on target. The opportunity was almost a carbon copy of one that had fallen for him a few minutes earlier; but whereas then he had fired the ball high over the crossbar, this time he kept it nice and low. And even though the Swindon goalie’s outstretched arm was reaching in the right direction, he failed to keep it out. 1-0 to us, and Swindon’s first goal conceded in four games.
Nine minutes later Swindon’s Collins had a golden opportunity to equalise, and this time it wasn’t James who prevented it, but Collins’ own ineptitude. James and Elphick were both stranded, the former prostrate on the ground, presenting Collins with an open goal. Somehow he ballooned his shot high and wide of the goal, to the delight of Cherries’ fans and the frustration of Swindon’s manager, Paulo Di Canio. Swindon, though, were now on the ascendancy and James was called into action once more to catch a shot from his left just before the interval.
So at the end of the first half the score was 1-0 to us. But would there be a second half? When the assessor was called to the referee’s changing room, we all wondered. Obviously at 1-0, and having endured the conditions for this long, we all wanted the match to continue. An announcement said there might be a delay in the start of the second half while groundsmen tried to make the ground fit for purpose. This involved a lot of forking of the pitch, and a man with a roller who somewhat erratically rolled the area around the halfway line while ignoring the huge puddles in the half we’d be attacking next. So much for any possibility of grabbing a quick second goal to put the game beyond doubt. Nonetheless it was to everyone’s relief that the decision was made to proceed with the match, even though the rain continued to fall and Swindon fans – somewhat unfairly – started to jeer about the ‘shit’ ground that is Dean Court! Don’t they have rain in Wiltshire? In the event the second half was less than five minutes late starting, so any fears of missing my homebound train proved unfounded! The Cherries emerged as initially the brighter team in the second half, even though attacking the sodden northern end of the pitch wasn’t easy, and Arter had an early shot saved. He and Grabban posed the greatest threat on Swindon’s goal, and the Town goalie did well to push one Grabban shot (off a Pugh cross) round the post. In fairness both goalies continued to excel. Di Canio got more and more angry about almost everything and substituted his striker, Collins, and one other player. Then Eddie (perhaps at least in part with an eye on the upcoming FA cup replay) started making changes too. First, on 74 minutes, he replaced McQuoid with Fogden on the right wing; not only was this a straight swap, but it’s also become a rather predictable one in recent games. Then, a minute later, a surprise: we hadn’t heard the substitutes named at the start of the match (perhaps because we were still cheering Danny Hollands’ return to the Court!) so we had no idea Thomas was even on the bench. I think most Bournemouth fans assumed we’d seen the last of him in Cherries’ colours, but on he came – for Pitman – though in fairness he didn’t do much. The third change, on 84 minutes, was bringing on Hughes for Arter, no doubt to shore up the defence. Unfortunately seconds later a miscued free kick by James, and a rare mistake by Fogden gifting the ball to Williams, gave the Swindon player a chance to shoot. By now James, who had come out for the ball, had slipped on the wet ground; Elphick couldn’t get to the ball on time; and Cook, apparently well-placed on the goal line, could do no more than look on helplessly as the ball flew past him into the net. 1-1, and the equaliser was chiefly the result of several relatively minor errors and the weather conditions, but the Swindon fans were no less ecstatic, and a few actually managed to invade the pitch. On reflection, it’s a tribute to our defence that a team of Swindon’s stature should be so thrilled to score against us. This would not have been the case – indeed was not the case – three months ago.
The crowd was announced as 8717, this season’s best attendance figure to date at the Goldsands Stadium, which went part way to explaining – though not condoning – the fact that the club had run out of matchday programmes at about half past two! Swindon fans jeered, “You’re only here to watch the Town.” The match ended at 1-1 (the referee thankfully didn’t add on as much time as he might have, given the worsening conditions on the pitch) but it was Swindon fans who were in best voice at the end, cheering like they’d won a cup final! On reflection, this is probably just a result of the order in which the goals were scored. If Swindon had scored early and we had equalised with five minutes to go, it would have been very different. Di Canio, as he had done at the County Ground, ran across to his supporters to receive a personal ovation after the final whistle, which only goes to show how different a character he is from our Eddie! No wonder the Swindon fans’ chants of “Paulo di Canio” had been answered by cries of “Who needs di Canio, when you’ve got Eddie Howe?” for much of the game.
There were no weak players in Bournemouth’s side today, but the left flank is looking particularly strong with Pugh and Daniels having developed a good understanding between them, and Pugh once again putting in some excellent crosses that we really need to exploit more. The sponsors gave their Man of the Match to James (admittedly before the conceded goal!) and he certainly made some world-class saves. The fans voted for Arter, the goal scorer, and he worked hard generally in mid-field today, though he did make one or two errors. But for me, the choice for Man of the Match was always between Elphick and O’Kane, and in the end – recalling his excellent work all over the pitch and even, increasingly, in a ‘sweeper’ role – I’ve decided that Eunan O’Kane has the edge.
AFCB: James, Francis, Elphick, Cook, Daniels, McQuoid, Arter, O'Kane, Pugh, Pitman, Grabban
Subs: Jalal, Partington, McDermott, Tubbs, Fogden (for McQuoid, 73 mins), Thomas (for Pitman, 74 mins), Hughes (for Arter, 84 mins)
Graham Pearcey, Walton On Thames