A late rally cannot prevent a deserved defeat for struggling Hereford United, as Paolo di Canio's slick Swindon Town team edge closer towards promotion from League Two, writes Taylor Parkes
I am from the Welsh end of the Midlands – barely 40 miles away – but Hereford is a mystery to me. A town that can only be reached by train from London via Abergavenny, it is one of those places everyone has heard of but no one knows that much about. A rather olde-worlde town centre; some tasty estates round the edge, most probably. Cider and cattle and Mott The Hoople, or were they from Ross-on-Wye? This part of the country is a strange place, anyway, lacking the South's self-confidence, the North's reflexive pride or even the cheery irreverence of the West Midlands proper. It is very pretty in parts, but – as I recall – prone to a quiet pessimism, a sense of being nowhere in particular. Especially here; especially today.
Edgar Street, the home of the Bulls, is a dump even by League Two standards. The crumbling entrance to the Merton Meadow Terrace appears to have been transplanted from the ruined amphitheatre at Pompeii. Inside, only the rig of seats placed over the terracing at the away end looks like it dates from the last three decades. As though caught up in the ambience, the DJ spins Slade's early-1980s sunset hit Run Runaway. The last time I heard that song, all football grounds looked like this. Wood and concrete, roped-off bits and no programmes remaining for me, since according to a chap from the local paper: "They only ever have about ten." Denied the chance to take down some useful numbers in case I ever need double glazing fitted in the Hereford area, I make do with the teamsheet and its curious advert for "The Hereford United Starlite Rooms, now available for booking". This must be the first time since 1981 that I have heard of a nightspot called the Starlite Rooms. It is also, I fancy, the first time a nightspot called the Starlite Rooms has been promoted with a line drawing of a bull's face.
Hereford's football, too, is looking pretty outdated at the moment. The visit of Swindon – all modern and continental, these days – inspires little optimism. Hereford lie fourth from bottom and have not won in four months. Swindon have won their last six, are a point off the top with two games in hand and boast the division's best goal difference. Paolo di Canio, currently serving yet another touchline ban, may not be the obvious choice to haul a side out of League Two. Prior to this, his only experience of meaty hoof-prone defences will have been during his time at Celtic.
Despite a tricky start and the occasional dust-up with his own players, he seems to be doing rather well. Around the ground, the gloom is choking.
Out on a sparse pitch whose lumps and bumps are picked out by the winter sun, Hereford's mascot, a paunchy, cross-eyed bull called Edgar, allows a group of children to stroke his furry nose. Sadly, Edgar is a man in a suit – it seems that Hereford's endearing habit of leading an actual live bull around on a rope before kick-off is a thing of the past. Shame, considering Swindon play in red. Nothing inspires a struggling team like seeing the away side's centre-forward, hands clasped round his muscular buttocks, propelled over the main stand in the sitting position. Ooyah! Well, you can't have it all.
From the kick off, Swindon attack, but lose the ball in the centre circle to Hereford defender Ryan Green. He wellies it forward, despite the fact that all his team-mates are standing behind him. I button up my overcoat; already, there is a chill in the air. Neither side will dazzle today, but Hereford's play is so rudimentary it is painful to watch. In Nathan Elder they have a target man sufficiently beefy to magnetise those wild, lofted clearances, but when he brings the ball down it is a terrible anticlimax.
At some point in the first half, Hereford captain Rob Purdie pulls off a simple flick and the ground erupts with famished applause. Emboldened momentarily, Hereford throw caution to the wind and try an attack along the ground. Will Evans moves into a pocket of space and begins screaming for the ball. When it is rolled towards him he hits it first time, straight at an adboard for Thorne Widgery ("make us part of your team!"), and it is a throw-in to Swindon on the halfway line. They will not be trying that again, I think to myself. I am quite correct.
In terms of atmosphere as well as pattern of play, this could be a Swindon home game – Robins fans behind the goal are engaged in a call-and-response routine with the overspill in the far stand, while the Bulls' supporters tut and fret. The loudest home support comes from a pocket of small children to my left. They do not know any chants, but their shrill, endlessly repeated "He-re-ford" cuts through the winter air like the persistent sting of a chapped lip. As Swindon goalkeeper Wes Foderingham runs up to a goal-kick, they execute a great, rising "Aaaahhhhhhhhhh" – but cowed by the presence of responsible adults, decide against following through with a lusty, high-pitched "you're shit!"
Swindon are not shit, though, that is the thing. They do almost nothing constructive in the first half hour, but their superior technique is so obvious as to be embarrassing. Even on this lunar surface, on what looks very like an off-day, the patented Di Canio blend of cultured football and macho histrionics keeps them ticking over. Hereford's doughty commitment creates nothing but bruises and work for the ball-boys. Elder, for all his energy and strength, is ridiculously isolated up front – the rest of his team are packed around the edge of their own box, while he stands on the halfway line with three red-shirted defenders around him, the loneliest man in the world. There is no other way out for Hereford, though. On those occasions when their defenders cannot make him out in the distance, they shrug and smash the ball out for a throw-in instead.
The home side's grim simplicity is working in a way, I suppose. Neither side has a serious effort on goal until close to half-time. But then Adam Bartlett, the Bulls' trembling goalkeeper, sidefoots an attempted clearance straight to a red shirt (neither for the first nor the final time) and Paul Benson is felled by Ryan Green. Paul Caddis hits the penalty under a dive from Bartlett that looks like a mime of a chimney being demolished.Swindon have the lead at last.
Storming forward in response, Hereford suddenly find themselves with eight men and the ball in the opposition half. That means they can no longer hoof it as hard as possible. Several failed attempts to unlock this riddle take us to half-time. It looks like the bloke three seats down from me is grieving – head bowed, hands in lap, silent. In fact, as the whistle blows and he looks up, I realise he is texting. Somewhere in town, a man out shopping has it confirmed that his football team R CRAP LOL. It will not have come as much of a surprise.
At half-time, most of the Hereford fans look too enervated to leave their seats, but for the 12 of us here on business there is tea and chocolate cake in the "press room", a miniature gymnasium full of home-made motivational posters. "Success is a journey not a destination," says one. Next to it, sits the marvellously awkward: "Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow." On either side of the door there are deep depressions in the plaster, as though someone has been so "motivated" by this hectoring inanity, they have tried to kick their way out of the room.
As the second half gets underway, large birds are circling the pitch (one is almost brained by a left-foot attempt from Will Evans). They have a distinctly vulturous air, though they are probably just here to scavenge chips. Whatever Jamie Pitman might have yelled in that godforsaken changing room, it has not soothed the Bulls' trepidation. If anything, they are worse. An easy chance falls to Byron Anthony, who can only slam it into the shins of a well-placed Swindon defender. A chap near me is watching the game with a faint smile, chuckling and rolling his eyes, but most opt for a silent, horrified stare. Before long Swindon have a farcical and entirely inevitable second goal, when the hapless Bartlett juggles Billy Bodin's cross to Paul Benson, who taps into an open net. A significant number of Hereford fans get up and leave. It is 4.20pm.
Still, it is not quite over yet. Hereford bring on Lyle Taylor and Harry Pell, and as Swindon grow tired and complacent there is a sudden shift of momentum. The lanky Pell brings dynamism, Taylor at least a suggestion of skill, and Hereford start to play at last. Purdie – the home side's best player by far – sends a great swerving drive past Foderingham to general happy disbelief, and for the last 25 minutes Swindon are reeling in the gloaming. A crop-haired figure rises from the stand, gesticulating with black leather gloves like an agitated giallo killer... It is Di Canio! And he is not looking happy! Hereford's remaining fans are still so mute and listless they cannot even muster a "sit down" chant, but once he is sure we all have seen him, he sits down anyway.
Purdie and Kenny Lunt exchange a lovely string of disguised passes, as slick as they are unexpected. You wonder what was stopping them earlier. Of course, they have left it far too late. Taylor blows a colossal cloud of moisture from one nostril, which hangs there sparkling in the winter sunlight. He sends in a lovely curling ball, which Delroy Facey manages to waste. An ominous wind picks up, sending Styrofoam and greaseproof paper scattering across the pitch. Anthony heads against the bar with a thwack that sounds like a closing book. It is not going to happen. This brave rally cannot redeem a truly rotten match.
On the way out, I am wading through a crowd of Swindon fans when a middle-aged man creeps up to me and half-whispers, from the corner of his mouth: "Poor side, Swindon. We should have got something out of that." In light of the last half hour or so, you can almost see his point – but I stroll off wondering what made him so sure I was not from Swindon. Perhaps I have a certain "Welsh end of the Midlands" look about me. A hangdog air, slowly matured through seasons of disappointment. It is in the blood, you know. In the blood, and on the pitch. Hard to see Hereford hanging on, with their desperate old-tyme football and their increasingly desperate fans; there are some situations to which quiet pessimism is the only response.
From WSC 302 April 2012