That game again…

Article by George Dugdale Thursday, October 22nd, 2020  

This article was originally published on

In case you didn’t know, Swindon and Oxford hate each other. It’s an intense rivalry that’s been fierce since the 1970s, but in the new millennium the sides have only met ten times; the eleventh meeting is on Saturday.

In 2011, the sides hadn’t met for nearly a decade. Following promotion for Oxford and relegation for Swindon, both teams would be playing in the same league for the first time since 2001.

2011 was something of a reset year for Swindon. The Reds had enjoyed a single season in the Premier League in the mid-90s, conceding 100 league goals, but had since undergone a period of decline. Now, having been relegated the year before, they were desperate to make an immediate return to League One. To achieve this, they turned to an unlikely source: Paolo di Canio.

Di Canio was undoubtedly one of the most recognisable players in world football around the turn of the millennium, making headlines when he shoved a referee whilst playing for Sheffield Wednesday. His openly fascist politics didn’t help, either. On top of all this, he had no managerial experience before his appointment. In short, di Canio was a gamble at a time when Swindon were desperate for success.

Oxford had a more stable figure at the helm. Years of turmoil had seen Oxford slip into the Conference in 2006, but in 2010, under a young manager called Chris Wilder and inspired by prolific striker James Constable, the U’s had defeated York City at Wembley to win promotion back into the Football League. 2010-11 had passed safely, and now, Oxford fans were hoping for a promotion push.

Swindon opened their campaign with a 3-0 win over Crewe, before losing their next two games. Oxford, meanwhile, had won one, drawn one, and lost one. Both sides had shown potential, whilst failing to cement a reputation as a decent side. The opportunity would come with a derby meeting at Swindon’s County Ground at the end of August.

In the week before the game, excitement was at fever pitch. Di Canio, ever the showman, took to BBC Radio Wiltshire, claiming that Wiltshire-born Constable was, in fact, a Swindon fan. Wilder denied these claims, suggesting that Constable was a Tottenham supporter instead. Meanwhile, Oxford midfielder Adam Chapman was forced to miss the game, serving a prison sentence for causing death by driving.

In the event, Constable seemed to be motivated by di Canio, netting two close-range goals in the first half; an intervening goal from a young Matt Ritchie was unable to prevent a famous 2-1 victory for Oxford. Perhaps inevitably, Di Canio was sent to the stands for dissent.

Something about Constable had stuck with di Canio. In January, with his side still in with a shot at promotion, the Swindon boss returned to the issue, making two bids for the striker. Both the bids were turned down by Wilder, desperate to hang on to his best player. The next week, Swindon improved their offer – with a reported bid of over £200,000 – and Oxford finally accepted.

If the transfer went ahead, it would be a rare case of a player transferring directly between the clubs; the last to do so had been Joey Beauchamp, a diehard Oxford fan and skilful winger who’d been sold to West Ham to keep Oxford afloat. From West Ham, he moved to Swindon; from there, homesick, he returned to Oxford on a free, welcomed with open arms. But a direct sale of Oxford’s best striker to a team in the same league would invite fury from Oxford fans; Constable was their talisman, and without him, the side would struggle.

There was a twist in store, though. Constable refused to speak to Swindon, despite a reported offer to double his wages. Taking to Twitter, he declared that Oxford ‘meant everything’ to him. Di Canio, snubbed, removed Constable from his transfer list. Both men would have a point to prove at the next meeting, at Oxford’s Kassam Stadium in March 2012.

March came around quickly, with Swindon top of the league; the Railwaymen had won ten games in a row, unbeaten in the league since December, 67 points from 32 games. Di Canio, once again, used the press as a weapon, claiming Oxford had done his side a favour back in August by showcasing their weaknesses – a ‘medicine’, as he termed it.

Swindon’s travelling fans were in buoyant mood. This game offered the opportunity for a record-breaking eleventh straight victory and revenge over Constable, and police were forced to make 13 arrests as trouble flared.

Di Canio’s mind games hadn’t worked before. Now, though, the pressure went to Constable’s head. Ten minutes into the game, he appeared to elbow Swindon defender Joe Devera; the referee promptly showed him the red card. Tempers were fraying both on the pitch and in the stands.

But Oxford fans’ fury was soon replaced by euphoria. Six minutes later, Oxford were awarded a free-kick in almost the same position as Constable’s foul. The ball was whipped in and Asa Hall bundled home.

The home fans went into raptures, but their side wasn’t finished. A cross from the by-line two minutes later trickled through to Ollie Johnson, who buried the ball in the back of the Swindon net. With less than 18 minutes played, ten-man Oxford were two goals to the good.

Swindon went on to miss several gilt-edged chances; Matt Ritchie hit the post, before attacking a ball-boy who he felt was time-wasting. Ritchie was only booked for the incident, but even with a full side, Swindon still couldn’t find a way through. The match finished 2-0, ending Swindon’s run of wins and putting Oxford in the playoff places. Constable had not won his battle, but Oxford had won the war, completing the double over Swindon for the first time since 1973.

Swindon did go up at the end of that season, sealing promotion by mid-April. Life in League One soon began to sour, though, and di Canio resigned in January 2013 after the sale of Ritchie to Bournemouth, alleging the deal took place behind his back. Appointed by Sunderland later that year, he guided the Black Cats to safety, but was quickly sacked. He hasn’t found managerial work since; it seems his flamboyant persona and questionable politics, whilst making him an iconic player, don’t appeal much to cautious owners.

Oxford had to wait until 2016 for their chance to progress up the divisions. By that time, Wilder had moved on, lured away by higher wages at struggling Northampton Town in 2014. Constable, too, departed that year, having scored 106 goals for Oxford, one fewer than the club record. Despite the goals, and his vital role in Oxford’s promotion from the Conference, it was his role in the Oxford-Swindon derbies that cemented his reputation as an Oxford legend, the Wiltshire lad who defied a Premier League icon.



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