They huffed, they puffed, but they couldn’t blow the house down. Despite a huge dominance in possession, Cheltenham Town couldn’t recover from failing to convert a first half penalty and then going behind shortly afterwards to Paul Benson’s ninth goal of the season. Town’s 1-0 victory was, by all accounts, by the slimmest of margins, but true champions ride their luck, with this victory moving Swindon - a perhaps unassailable – eight points clear at the summit of League Two, writes Ron Smith.
With Paul Caddis out of the starting XI for the first time this season through injury, Paolo Di Canio had to organise a makeshift backline to prevent second best on the road Cheltenham from leaving the County Ground with all three points. Alan McCormack was favoured to deputise at right back, while Oliver Risser took the former Charlton man’s place at the centre of defence alongside Joe Devera. The only other change saw a welcome return for Luke Rooney on the left with Raffa De Vita dropping to the bench, which also featured new loan signing Jonathan Tehoue.
It was our visitors who started the sharper, with a Steve Elliot header clearing the bar and then former Town youngster Kaid Mohamed’s shot passing to the right of Wes Foderingham’s goal.
Town needed time to settle into the game – a common theme this season with just 4 of our 61 League Two goals scored in the opening 15 minutes – and it wasn’t until the tenth minute when we had our first shot, when Alessandro Cibocchi’s free kick failed to beat the wall. From 40 yards out the ever hopeful Italian always had the odds stacked against him to find the target, a situation replicated five minutes later with another speculative effort failing to test Cheltenham ‘keeper Jack Butland.
Looking to shoot from direct free kicks – from whatever distance – seems to be a disappointing and reoccurring theme this season. With only one goal scored direct from a free kick in League Two, you have to question whatever happened to the constructive approach setting up the many red shirts in and around the box…
A few minutes later Billy Bodin had an excellent chance to put Town ahead. After being put through on goal the Welsh u21 International shot low, hard and straight at Butland, who saved well with his legs for the ball to run loose. Seeing that Bodin typically makes better use of his bucket load of technique, experience will teach the youngster to round the ‘keeper or play a simple chip. Matt Ritchie was quickest to react to the ball, however his follow up shot was cleared over the bar by a defender.
After Alan McCormack was cautioned for a needless push on loan striker Darryl Duffy, Cheltenham came back strong into the game, however the Robins from Gloucestershire needed the referee’s assistance to provide the golden opportunity to take the lead.
With half an hour on the clock and the long ball punted forward towards Duffy, Oliver Risser allowed the Cheltenham striker to lean back into him and collapse to the ground, sending the Namibian with him. Referee Russell, without thinking why on earth would Duffy collapse in the absence of a Risser arm around his front to wrestle the forward – that would be obvious from the ref’s position – or any pulling from behind – that would have been clearly viewed from his assistant, nonetheless without hesitation he awarded the penalty kick to the visitors.
Duffy couldn’t capitalise on his good fortune, striking the penalty low and to the right of Wes Foderingham, who once again proved his tremendous ability, to dive and parry the ball away to the jubilation of the County Ground faithful.
With their penalty chance gone begging, for a short spell Cheltenham lost the momentum and within five minutes it was the hosts who stamped their authority on the game with the opening goal.
The otherwise quiet Luke Rooney made his first real contribution to the game. After finding himself in acres of space on the left side and running half the wing, the former Gills man laid the ball back to Alessandro Cibocchi, who made up for his earlier speculative efforts with a right teaser of a cross deep into the box. After Billy Bodin excellently fained to leave the ball and the Cheltenham defenders just watched as spectators, it was left to the ever alert Paul Benson to sneak in at the far post to strike home. Benson again showed his poaching skills with this strike being his sixth of eight goals in League Two scored from within the six yard box.
The goal signalled the end of a frenetic phase of the game and with Cheltenham edging back into control, this half time whistle came not a moment too soon.
The second half started and thereafter it was all about Cheltenham controlling the game, however they failed to make best use of their 60% dominance in possession as the half unravelled.
Cheltenham’s versatile five man midfield – switching from a flat five to two deep lying ball winners and an attacking three supporting Darryl Duffy - overran Town. Not for the first time this season, and most notably at Oxford a week ago, Di Canio didn’t seem wise to the opposition threat and change his approach, stubbornly asserting his system will prevail.
Instead of using the replacement of Bodin - five minutes into the half - and then the next change eight minutes later, to reinforce the midfield manpower by going to one target man upfront, the still wooly hatted and gloved Italian stuck rigidly to his 4-4-2. With an abundance of space behind Ferry and Smith (later Cox) Cheltenham were pulling Swindon apart, forcing Risser and Devera ever forward to clear up and cover, leaving space for the alert Duffy to exploit the offside trap, although he failed to really test Foderingham and add to his 15 goals this campaign.
The Cheltenham system restricted our usual attacking outlets. Our normally overlapping full backs spent more time actually defending and tracking the widemen, leaving Rooney and Ritchie dropping deeper to chase the ball – much to the complaint of Di Canio – instead of being ready to receive in their normally dangerous forward positions. Ritchie also wasn’t helped by the absence of Paul Caddis, as McCormack didn’t seem to have the energy of Caddis to continue tracking back after his infrequent marauding forward runs.
At the final whistle
With so little of the play and the widemen gone AWOL, throughout the half Town were reduced to the long ball and speculative efforts, but of those a dipping half volley from Paul Benson had to be expertly turned away by Butland and later on a long range drive from Luke Rooney again saved by the ‘keeper.
The introduction of new loanee Jonathan Tehoue was meant to provide Town with that physical presence to deal with the long ball, but it just didn’t work. Tehoue didn’t show here was a play who is playing to win a contract come June. The Leyton Orient striker will have to show much better in a Town shirt, having shown he’s nothing other than a poor man’s Wayne Allison, with a desire and energy to run that makes Vincent Pericard look like Usain Bolt and defies his “I would say I am a runner” assertion to Gary Rose last week. All that being said, this was hardly the best game for the Frenchman to settle into the Swindon system.
Cheltenham’s best chance of the half came with four minutes remaining, when Duffy reacted quickest to a cross and found space for an overhead kick only to send the ball direct to the focused Foderingham. A yard either side and our rivals would have been celebrating a ‘deserved’ late equaliser to show for their efforts.
The match ended with a talking point for the Cheltenham supporters, who were angry the referee didn’t order the injured Joe Devera and Oliver Risser to rejoin play from the sideline and instead the Town pair were allowed to defend a corner. Cheltenham fans having forgotten Law 5, which allows the referee to exempt enforcing players to leave the field after treatment if those players were from the same team.
This victory ensured Town have taken 47 from the available 54 at the County Ground and are now surely favourites to not only secure an immediate return to League One, but they’ll depart this division with the silverware that Cheltenham now have little hopes of getting their hands on.
A welcome week of ‘rest’ with no midweek match awaits a tired Town side before the trip to Crewe next Saturday.