Swindon stormed into the League Two promotion places with a superb performance at Roots Hall last night – thumping fellow contenders Southend by four goals to one with an emphatic display, writes Richard Banyard.
I have to admit I was surprised by Di Canio’s team selection – I expected a very similar line-up to the one we saw at Leicester, with Risser in the middle, De Vita and Cibocchi on the left side – which seems to be Di Canio’s usual selection if we want to keep it tight. Instead, into the side came Kennedy and Rooney on the left flank, and though Risser was in there, he was paired with Smith and not Ferry.
It’s this sort of thing that has impressed me most about Di Canio – we all know about Paul Sturrock’s football philosophy, and that he considers the centre of midfield to be a ‘passing zone’ (remember how he left Curtis Weston out because he liked to run with the ball) – so though it was a gamble to go so attacking down the flanks, I’m guessing Di Canio’s selection was based around not allowing them to play in the middle of the park, and getting the ball out wide to attack.
And it worked a treat. Right from the start, Swindon were harrying and harassing their opponents all over the pitch – up front, Benson was winning a lot of ball in the air, but in the early stages the player who impressed me most was Ronan Murray. The Irishman was a livewire right from the start, and his running with the ball had the Southend defence panicking. His first opening came from a Kennedy ball that sold Rooney a little short on the left side, the winger just managing to knock it into the path of Murray before being fouled. The ref waved play on, but Murray’s effort on goal was blocked.
On nine minutes though, a build-up from a similar position put Swindon in the lead. Again from the left side, Murray was played in, and he ran at the defenders before placing a right-footed shot across the goal from the edge of the area – the ball beating the despairing dive from the keeper, only to come back off the post. The ball rebounded out to Ritchie, in a similar position to Murray but on the opposite side of the area – under attention from Southend full back Gilbert, the wingman cut the ball back outside onto his right foot, and slammed a low shot into the same corner that Murray had aimed at…. a great finish, and a perfect way to bring to a close all the transfer speculation that had surrounded him.
Southend pushed forward after the goal, and five minutes afterwards had their first real effort of note – an overhead kick from Hall that went wide. Within a minute of that attempt though, the Town had doubled their advantage. Again it was Murray causing the problems – this time attacking the home defence on the right side, his effort at goal deflected out for a corner.
It always makes me laugh how people complain when we go short with a corner routine – we have created numerous opportunities from them this season – so we had a few groans when Ritchie played the ball to the onrushing Caddis – his first time cross found Benson at the far post, and was headed back across goal – and after Murray just failed to connect, Jonathan Smith was there to slam it home.
There was definitely a bit of a lull after the second goal went in, and Southend started to muscle themselves back into the game a little – Michael Timlin was obviously up for the game – he had one long range effort that trickled into the hands of Foderingham, before another run at goal from the ex-Swindon man ended with him going down very easily under a challenge by McCormack, which earned the Town defender a booking. Though I didn’t think it was deserved, the yellow card was the only blip in an otherwise superb game from the Irishman, who read the game very well indeed. The free-kick from a dangerous position was shot wide by Dickinson – moments later, a cross from the Town’s left side was also met by Dickinson, who could only head straight at Foderingham. At the other end, a fantastic piece of skill by Ritchie was coupled with good build up play by Benson to let in Caddis, but the full back didn’t connect well with his shot, and it harmlessly rolled into the arms of Morris.
On 34 minutes though, Southend got themselves back into the game with an excellent strike from JP Kalala. There seemed little danger when Jonathan Smith headed clear a cross – but when the ball found Kalala about twenty-five yards out, the DR Congo international volleyed the ball first time, through the packed defence and low across Foderingham, into the net off the post. It was a very good strike indeed, and probably the only place he could have struck it to score.
With their tails up, Southend threatened momentarily – but the Town quickly moved back up the gears to reassert their authority, and three minutes later, their two goal advantage was restored. After Murray was fouled in the centre circle, Alan McCormack played a high ball into the area – the Southend defence parted like the Red Sea, leaving acres of space for Paul Benson to run in to. The Town striker had time to control the ball on his chest, and with his back to goal, his perfectly executed bicycle kick had Morris at full stretch to tip over the bar.
Swindon mixed it up from the corner, this time Ritchie played it directly to the back post – where it was met by the head of the onrushing Joe Devera, who opened his Town account with a powerful header into the net. For the remainder of the half, we put the home side under increasing pressure, forcing corner after corner – Benson almost increased the lead further still, but his headed effort was deflected over.
Southend came out on the attack for the second half, which was by far their best spell of the game – had they have scored at this point, we may well have had a game on our hands. After a couple of wild efforts – one overhead kick that didn’t trouble and another shot that only troubled the flats behind the stand – they twice came very close through substitute Bilel Mohsni, firstly when Murray was forced to stop the ball on the line after a corner after Mohsni’s header, and then when he struck a great first-time effort completely out of the blue from miles out, which had Foderingham at full stretch to save.
Once we had weathered that little storm though, we had a little spell of our own that would wrap the game up. On 53 minutes, Caddis had a free-kick gathered by Morris at the second attempt – two minutes later, the ball was in the Southend net again. The move started with Kennedy on the left side – he swept a superb cross-field ball to Ritchie on the opposite flank, catching the defence unawares. Ritchie played a low ball in across the face of goal, which Morris could only palm into the path of Bodin, who netted his first goal in Town colours, lifting the ball over the grounded keeper – cue pandemonium in the stand behind the goal.
From this point, you wondered if the home side might capitulate, but to be fair to them, they kept at their task of trying to attack – Swindon were brilliant though, and never allowed them to settle, constantly pursuing their opponents all over the pitch. The pressure obviously got to Michael Timlin, who can probably consider himself very lucky to have stayed on the pitch – a late tackle on Oliver Risser brought a yellow card when a red would not have surprised me, and no more than two minutes later another late challenge would probably have brought another card had it not been so soon after the first.
Even after that, there were another couple of occasions where the referee had to warn him – fair play to him though, he made a point of coming over to the Swindon fans to applaud them after the game, despite a few fans in the away support beginning to turn on him.
We could have made it five, when a through ball found Bodin bearing down on goal, we thought the chance had gone when he failed to strike at what looked like an opportune moment, instead he got to the bye line and played the ball to Benson at the back post – with the keeper in no man’s land, the Town striker could only volley over, missing out on the goal his overall play had deserved.
Come the final whistle, there were memorable scenes on the pitch – as PDC made a point of standing with the Town fans to applaud the players for their efforts… completely by chance, I had decided to video the end of the game on my phone, which I don’t often do, but so very glad I did. There may have been some apprehension about the appointment of Di Canio in the beginning, but quite honestly, thinking about it this morning, I don’t remember being this positive about a Swindon side in my whole adult life…. nothing is done yet of course, but he’s proving to be an excellent choice…. great times to be a Town fan.