Manchester City do not take these assignments lightly, even when presented with some unhelpful hurdles in the buildup to this game and, perhaps unsurprisingly, almost half a billion pounds’ worth of talent came out on top against a Swindon Town team 72 places below them in the pyramid. Ultimately City punished Swindon’s attempts to play them at their own game and Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gündogan and Cole Palmer earned a victory that saw them ease into the FA Cup fourth round. Regardless of defeat, Swindon supporters will always cherish the moment Harry McKirdy streamed through on goal, amid the backdrop of fans collectively rising to their feet, and drilled the ball into the City net before a jam-packed Town End.
Whatever the score, Swindon supporters were determined to savour the occasion after a miserable couple of years following a team that were unceremoniously relegated to the fourth tier last season, plagued by off-field chaos. Ben Garner insisted his side would play their normal game and not resort to dirty or direct tactics but, at the same time, the closest they came to rolling out the red carpet was ordering two bins from a waste management company to provide City with the means to enjoy a post-match ice bath. This ageing, sold-out stadium was rocking at kick-off.
A glance at the teamsheet made it hard to believe a Covid outbreak had decimated City’s numbers and inevitably disrupted their preparations, with Pep Guardiola and seven players among 21 of the first-team bubble that were absent here because they are isolating. Guardiola was in dialogue with the City staff crammed into the away dugout. In the end City made only four changes from the team that overcame Arsenal in the Premier League last time out as they named a starting lineup that cost a £425m to assemble, including Kevin De Brunei and Rúben Días. On paper it was a total mismatch – Swindon paid a nominal fee for just one of the players that started this game, the captain Dion Conroy – and the League Two side remain under a transfer embargo owing to the previous regime failing to pay players and staff.
Despite the financial gulf both teams have the same number of players at the Africa Cup of Nations – one, with Riyad Mahrez and Jojo Wollacott away with Algeria and Ghana respectively – which meant Swindon named their 43-year-old goalkeeping coach Steve Mildenhall among the substitutes. Mildenhall’s legendary status in these parts increased tenfold when he assumed the role of de facto manager last summer after an exodus of staff and key figures – Swindon had eight contracted players in pre-season – before a takeover that led to the arrival of head coach Garner.
Rodolfo Borrell, the assistant coach who took charge of City in the absence of Guardiola, had suggested they made to lean on the under-18s because players in the development squad had tested positive for Covid but the only youngster to start the game was the 19-year-old Cole Palmer, who made his league debut in November. There were seven teenagers on the bench, including the Brazilian striker Kayky, alongside two goalkeepers. It was Palmer who helped City stride into the lead on 14 minute, the England Under-21 midfielder waltzing past Ellis Iandolo, Swindon’s longest-serving player, before sending in a delicious cross into the six-yard box, where Silva was on hand to tap in. City, as expected, dominated possession and doubled their lead without breaking sweat, seizing on a Swindon lapse. De Bruyne picked out Jesus with a diagonal pass and the striker slid the ball past Lewis Ward in the Swindon goal.
Swindon struggled to get near City but the strikerMcKirdy, who scored four against Northampton last weekend, was lively and, in the first half, tried to lob Zack Steffen in the City goal. As Garner had promised, they were not going to be shy, even if sometimes their daring was to their undoing. But amid a brilliant atmosphere, it became clear Swindon supporters are grateful just to still have their club. A rousing chant of “stand up if you love the Town” brought almost everyone bar the 2,300 away supporters in the uncovered Stratton Bank End to their feet.
Gündogan added a third, effortlessly dispatching a free-kick low into the corner following a clash of heads between De Bruyne and Iandolo and then City missed the chance to add to their tally. Silva was fouled by Lyden inside the box but Ward dived to his right to deny Jesus, who staggered his run up. City were comfortable and Palmer added a fourth but the Swindon substitute Jonny Williams played in McKirdy to ensure Swindon departed with a moment to remember, when the former Aston Villa striker fired through the legs through Steffen.