It should have been a predictable tale of an STFC win but as Alex Cooke found, this story had a twist.
With last week’s removal of chairman Jeremy Wray, Paolo Di Canio’s latest threat to quit over his lack of players and the return of Leon Clarke and David Prutton to the County Ground, this game already seemed to have its narrative written.
Except it was far less interesting than that as bar a late flurry of Swindon chances the pair of yellow cards for Aden Flint meant Town had to otherwise be content to contain a poor Scunthorpe side.
The opening passage set the tone: sloppy passing from both sides as they looked towards their respective target men of Clarke and Paul Benson to create space. Where Swindon’s 442 was narrow – Nathan Thompson stumbling early on in the penalty box. Scunthorpe’s 442 was wide – Clarke heading off target from a by-line cross from the nippy Mark Duffy.
Town’s central strategy was help by a Scunthorpe’s defence who struggled with the offside trap, but so did James Collins as the striker repeatedly wandered offside when he could have been played through. However, when an 18th minute Simon Ferry ball found Benson, Collins actually manage to check his run and score, and it was precisely what Swindon deserved.
It was also what Scunthorpe deserved too, and Swindon looked set to score more as match ground on. Just as Jay McEverley had found space for a cross early on in the half, Town created gaps – Thompson overlapped neatly only for Matt Ritchie to cut inside, and the winger also fluffed a one-on-one when played in by Ferry following Benson’s link up play.
The Iron seemed painfully cautious in their attack, as befitting the nominative determinism of Alan (K)nill. They did find some joy in balls to the flanks, outside of Swindon’s narrow full-backs. However, Clarke also offered an outlet, dropping off the centre backs to move the ball to the flanks. And it was precisely as he did so that Aden Flint dived in for his first yellow card. It was probably the kind of tackle that Flint probably excelled at for Alferton Town, nipping in ahead of the striker to win the ball. In League One, against stronger, quicker opponents, he overstretched and lunged, and a yellow card was a fair result. His second booking was less cavalier and Clarke, holding off two Town players, maximised the effect of the trip but it was a similarly naive foul. Di Canio’s reaction said it all: he literally distanced himself from the defender, sitting arms folded at the far end of the dugout as Flint trudged past into the tunnel.
Short of a man, Swindon’s effort must have pleased their boss. The Di Canio values of discipline, shape, effort and energy shone through. With Benson withdrawn for Alan McCormack, Scunthorpe lacked the midfield speed or incision to pull Town’s 441 out of shape and they weren’t willing enough to commit men to overwhelm in the wide areas.
After half time the game continued to resembled a training exercise. Scunthorpe would slowly switch the ball from flank to flank and Town’s midfield would shuffle across to shield their defence perfectly.
Thompson was particularly tigerish in the tackle, and McEverly, despite yielding yards in pace to Duffy, ensured Scunthorpe’s best player was largely shut down.Even the normally impetuous Gary Roberts checked his desire to break position and hunt for the ball.
This effort made the early Scunthorpe equaliser even more disappointing in its mundanity: A low ball into the feet of Clarke, a flick to Duffy on the wing and Karl Hawley headed in the resulting cross. It was just as the stats from Experimental 361 showed, and how Scunthorpe score all their goals. It had also taken just 11 minutes of the second half.
Even with parity resorted and a man advantage, Swindon weren’t cowed. Instead of dropping deep to be besieged, they maintained their position. And it worked, the higher defensive line keeping the aerial ability of Clarke and Hawley away from goal and stopping balls being played over the top due to the duo’s lack of pace. However, this did leave McEverley particular exposed against a much quicker winger but fortunately his defensive contribution was much better than his offensive one.
After the goal Scunthorpe made a change on the left flank and finally pushed their left-back into the attack. This further tested Thompson and when injury forced his removal, McCormack’s move from centre back fortified the flank and added forward motion to a tiring team.
Scunthorpe did earn themselves a one-on-one though, puncturing the Town’s offside trap on the right but Barcham never looked sure of how to beat the upright Foderingham and flicked wide.
And yet, Swindon probably looked more likely to score. Adam Rooney was clearly under instruction to use his 15 minutes to the maximum battering and buffeting the Scunny defence at every turn. He even had a superb chance, played in by a flick header from Matt Ritchie, but pulled his shot narrowly wide. It was the clearest of chances but McCormack, Ward and Roberts all had opportunities earlier to push Town into the lead again, none were taken.
With Di Canio refusing a post-match interview he did manage to force the focus back onto himself and his plea for a another new striker but the failure to finish this game was less about Swindon’s finishing than Aden Flint’s inability to see out 90 minutes.