This would be my first chance to see Swindon play and my first visit to their ground, Foundation Park in the shadows of the Arkell's Stand at The County Ground. I have, however, seen Abingdon play a couple of times, both last season. The first was a very chilly day in December when United won 2-0 after being pushed very hard by Wycombe Wanderers (Two Will Do For The Yellow & Blue). The second time was in January when they were really starting to push for the league title and saw off Bournemouth Sport 5-0 (Abingdon Turn Up The Heat)
Swindon Women play at Foundation Park, home of Swindon Town Community Foundation. The ground is directly behind Swindon Town's County Ground stadium, literally in the shadow of the main stand. I never knew there was so much going on around the County Ground. I've been there a few times but wasn't aware of the complex behind the stadium. Foundation Park is a new facility but there is also a cricket ground as well as an athletics track. The new football 3G pitch and the the community hub building are sandwiched between the athletics track and the County Ground. Entrance is through a gate in front of the main building. A path takes you past the athletics track and into a patio area between the café and the football stadium. Spectator access is limited to one side of the ground but there is plenty of covered seating all down that side of the playing surface. Four identical small stands separated by standing areas are equally spaced out alongside the touchline. The dugouts are on the opposite side. I'm not usually a big fan of the new 3G facilities. Although I completely understand the need for them and the reasons behind them, I generally find them soulless and way too sanitised. However, Foundation Park has certainly given me a fresh perspective on what can be done with these new facilities. Of course, as a recent build it is very clean and well maintained. Having the County Ground looming over the pitch gives it a little character and the four small stands are wonderful. Yes, it's a new ground and a plastic pitch. It doesn't have that 'lived in' feel that some of the older grounds have and, as anew ground, it doesn't have that air of history. However, it is clearly a ground designed to watch football not just to play it. Spectators have been catered for and, judging by the number there, the locals like the stadium. Well worth a visit in my opinion.
I was very surprised to find a programme being sold on the gate at this game. It's a small affair but high quality full colour 4-page design. There's a full page of Manager notes from Mike Cook, the Swindon manager, a Swindon squad list and, on the back page, the two squad lists for today. Like I say, it's not very big but it is printed to a high standard.
Swindon Town are stalwarts of the National League system now. They were founder members of Division One South West in 2014, finishing third and then, the following season, taking the division title. The step up was difficult and Town finished second from bottom in the Southern Premier League but stayed up, only to end rock bottom the following season, returning to the South West Division for the 2018-19 season. The next two seasons were written off and, after Covid, Town ended in seventh spot and then improved that by one place last season.
Abingdon took last season's Southern Region Premier title by four points from Ascot United. This came on the back of a runners-up spot the previous season. They came up through the Thames Valley Premier League, winning Division 1 in the 2017-18 season 11 points from Woodstock. There are no previous league meetings between these sides, as this is Abingdon's first venture into the National League. What a way to start, with a local derby!
Both sides were very much changed from the teams that finished the final league games of last season. Swindon were only fielding three players from that last game against Exeter, Georgina Hunt, goalkeeper Emily McGrogan and top scorer Annabelle Colston, who notched 25 in 28 games last year. Whilst Abingdon had seven players in the matchday squad who featured in their last league match against Ascot, they too had made significant signings in the Summer. Four had come in from Oxford United, Erin Hartigan, Billie French, Alex Ashley and Libby Gilmore, whilst they also had Grace Eagles, signed from Larkhall Athletic, in the starting line-up.
It was the hosts who settled first, pushing Abingdon back and hunting in packs to get the ball back when they lost it. They started to turn the screw early on and only a very good fifth minute save from Hannah Cox (the first of many) prevented Meg Jarvis from opening the scoring. Cox was back in the thick of the action four minutes later making another fine save only to see Annie Colston pounce on the loose ball to put Swindon ahead. 1-0.
It was clearly going to be a busy day for Cox as Swindon continued to exert pressure on the Abingdon defence. Grace Purnell stung the hands of Cox with a free-kick and Billie Haynes tried an audacious effort from out on the right that just went above Cox and the crossbar.
Just past the halfway mark of the first period Swindon were awarded a penalty when Charlotte Deeley handled in the box. Unfortunate for the defender but no real complaints. Colston stepped up to make it two for her and her team 2-0.
Abingdon's response to going two down was to launch their best attack of the day so far. Great work from Amy Chivers in midfield. She fed Erin Hartigan but the debutant was denied a first goal by a good save from Emily McGrogan. The action switched back to the other end and Cox was again called into action, doing well to block Diaz-Butcher's effort only for it to break to Colston again. The striker's effort was deflected but fell perfectly for Diaz-Butcher to slam home. 3-0
To their credit, even at three down, Abingdon's heads did not drop. They had been pinned back for the majority of the half, but were still in there fighting and, on 39 minutes, they got their just reward. Erin Hartigan did exceptionally well to force her way through a challenge and then stab the ball past McGrogan. 3-1.
Abingdon were buoyed by the goal and you could see the confidence growing in them. They were, however, very grateful to the bravery of Sahar Osborne-Ricketts just before the break when the defender threw herself in front of a goal bound shot to prevent Jarvis from making it four for Town.
HT Swindon Town 3 Abingdon United 1. Swindon took control of the game for the opening 30 minutes but Abingdon started to get back into it and grabbed a goal back late on which visibly improved their confidence. Game on?
However, Abingdon were once again indebted to their goalkeeper on 70 minutes when she somehow kept out a point blank effort from Haynes. Then with ten minutes to go and the game seemingly winding down to a 3-1 home win, it sprang to life again. Abingdon went close again when McGrogan did well to get to a shot from French but couldn't hold it. The ever-willing runner Erin Hartigan was on hand but couldn't get enough on the ball to force it past the keeper. Three minutes later the home side were reduced to ten when substitute Holly Randall clattered Grace Eagles and received a straight red for the challenge.
Any hopes that Abingdon may have had about using the numbers to their advantage were doubly scuppered just two minutes later. Osborne-Ricketts lunged into a challenge on the edge of the box and was given a second yellow, evening the numbers up. To make matters worse for Abingdon, from the resulting free-kick Taylor MacDonald produced a moment of magic, curling in the perfect free-kick. Top corner. Even the brilliance of Hannah Cox couldn't keep that one out. 4-1.
United were beaten but it was quite fitting and a tribute to their fighting spirit that they had the last say of the game when Grace Eagles grabbed herself a debut goal to make it 4-2.
FT Swindon Town 4 Abingdon United 2. A thoroughly entertaining game to watch. Swindon took control early on and could have run away with it. Abingdon looked dead and buried after an excellent first-half performance from Swindon. That was probably enough to win them the game, but Abingdon fought tooth and nail in the second period. Hannah Cox produced a masterful dimply between the sticks. Massive credit to Swindon for managing to get four past her. At the other end, Erin Hartigan ran herself into the ground for the entire game. She must be a nightmare for defenders.
Next up for both teams it's the FA Cup. Swindon head over to London to take on Division 1 South-East side Actonians. Meanwhile, Abingdon have another local derby as they make the short journey to Premier League outfit Oxford United, home from home for a number of the new squad.
Swindon Town: 1.McGrogan, 22.Beck-Esson, 35.Clifford(c), 27.Hull, 21.Purnell, 11.Diaz-Butcher, 16.Strappel, 8.MacDonald, 26.Haynes, 9.Colston, 7.Jarvis. Subs: 25.Hunt, 5.Randall, 6.Greensalde, 10.Evans, 14.Mugford
Abingdon United: 1.Cox, 5.Osborne-Ricketts, 2.Deeley, 23.Carrick, 20.Eagles, 13.Chivers, 8.Boxall(c), 19.Ashlet, 18.French, 10.May, 12. Hartigan. Subs: 21.Kirby, 15.Gilmore, 9.McCabe, 22.Durham, 24.Bowden
Ground Number: 373