Manchester City do not take these assignments lightly, regardless of the trying circumstances and, perhaps unsurprisingly, almost half a billion pounds’ worth of talent swatted aside a spirited Swindon Town team that are 72 places below them in the league pyramid and predominantly made up of freebies.
Ultimately City punished Swindon’s attempts to play the runaway Premier League leaders at their own game as strikes by 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 sound of fans collectively rising from their seats, 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. They gleefully celebrated when the goalkeeper Lewis Ward dived low to his right to save Jesus’s second-half penalty but for Swindon’s head coach, Ben Garner, attention now turns to what he was adamant was a bigger game: Tuesday’s trip to Mansfield. “The league is our bread and butter and we will push on with optimism for the rest of the season,” he said. “It was a fantastic night for the club. It was about our supporters, who have been through a tough time.”
Garner insisted his side would not stray from their usual game-plan and not resort to dirty or direct tactics but that determination played into City’s hands. For the second goal City pounced on a loose touch by Louis Reed after Swindon attempted to play out from the back with a short goal-kick, with Jesus slotting in after a give-and-go with Kevin De Bruyne.
Until then the closest the hosts came to rolling out the red carpet was ordering two bins from a waste management company to provide City’s superstars with the means to enjoy a post-match ice bath.
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 checked in with Rodolfo Borrell, who led the team in his absence, at half-time but his assistant had to reach for a charger to get the post-match debrief. “I haven’t been able to speak with him because I ran out of battery,” Borrell said in his post-match press conference, though the message waiting for him was no doubt congratulatory. “We knew we were facing a big challenge. If you don’t take it seriously and start on the front foot, then you have problems. It is a great competition and we are very much aware of the huge history.”
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 £425m to assemble. 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 Swindon’s goalkeeper, Jojo Wollacott away with Ghana, meaning 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 amid the off-field chaos – Swindon had eight contracted players in pre-season – before a welcome takeover.
Borrell had suggested City may need to lean on under-18s owing to the scale of the outbreak but the only youngster to start the game was the 19-year-old Palmer, who made his league debut in November and was a standout performer from start to finish. It was Palmer who helped City stride into the lead on 14 minutes, the England Under-21 midfielder pausing and then 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, when Jesus seized on a timely Swindon lapse.
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 Jordan Lyden inside the box but Ward denied Jesus, who staggered his run-up. City were comfortable and Palmer added a fourth but only after the Swindon substitute Jonny Williams played in McKirdy to ensure the Swindon fans departed with a moment to remember, the former Aston Villa striker emphatically firing through the legs of Zack Steffen.