Adam Tanner headed north to Bradford to watch Swindon Town’s strong start to the season continue…
Swindon approached the game looking to uphold an impressive record at Bradford City, where we were unbeaten in our four previous visits since 1998. As expected, Nathan Thompson and Jon Obika replaced Josh Lelan and Andy Williams in what turned out to be the only two changes from the team which drew with Coventry. Mark Cooper was spared a difficult decision at centre back when recently re-signed Jack Stephens was ruled out through illness. Wizened old veteran Raphael Rossi Branco, who turned 24 in July, was the team’s oldest member.
Cooper wasn’t wrong when he suggested that Bradford would start strongly, and Town were unusually lethargic throughout the opening 15 minutes. In the second minute, Nathan Thompson conceded possession cheaply in midfield, before the recovering Jordan Turnbull underhit his backpass towards Wes Foderingham. Even so Wes certainly appeared to win the ball when challenging Bradford’s Billy Clarke with his feet, so the award of a penalty looked very harsh. When Alan Sheehan stepped up our remarkable habit of conceding to former players looked set to continue, but fortunately our ‘keeper bailed us out by diving low to his left to make a typically excellent save.
Even so, Town didn’t heed the warning, and Bradford opened the scoring within minutes. Mark Yeates was given too much time and space down the left, and his cross was bundled into his own net by Louis Thompson, whose attempts at covering were in vain.
Fortunately, the goal seemed to kick Town into gear. It was surprising to see the predominantly right footed Yaser Kasim take a left footed shot from a free kick 25 yards out, but he produced a superb curling effort, which drew a strong save. Shortly afterwards, in the 23rd minute, an impressive break involving Nathan Byrne and Massimo Luongo ended with Branco’s effort being blocked. Brad Smith whipped the resulting corner to the far post, Michael Smith’s header back across goal was strong and well-directed, and Jon Obika was ideally placed to flick a header of his own into the net from two yards.
Town continued to press, and Luongo and Kasim began to shine in central midfield. Luongo had a couple of chances, drawing a decent save from one shot and putting another narrowly wide. It’s a shame that a player of his quality has only scored once since November. Swindon did take the lead in the 43rd minute. Nathan Byrne’s corner caused every bit as much panic in the Bradford defence as Smith’s 20 minutes earlier; Branco’s flicked header wasn’t cleared, and the ball fell to Obika, who smashed it into the roof of the net from 8-yards. We have badly missed a “poacher” since Nicky Ajose returned to Peterborough last December, but early signs suggest that we’ve found a new one.
The early stages of the second half were strong, as Swindon remained in control; Louis Thompson, Obika and Branco all had chances. My only criticism would be that our occasional habit of failing to test the ‘keeper reared its head. In fact we didn’t manage an attempt on target during the half.
Town’s performance fell a few notches as of the 68th minute when Michael Smith, who gave a typically tireless and capable performance, was replaced by Andy Williams, who sadly tends to play with a different mentality. Bradford suddenly had time and space to play from the back, and Town came under some heavy pressure. The defence lost some of its composure, and a string of dangerous free kicks were awarded, with Sheehan assigned to most of them. He drew an excellent save from Foderingham with one, and put another narrowly wide. Bradford also had a goal disallowed for offside after a ball into the box hadn’t been fully cleared.
Josh Lelan replaced Brad Smith for the six added minutes, and immediately conceded possession in a dangerous area. Bradford launched a break down the right which fortunately only resulted in a corner. Moments later, from a Sheehan cross, the flying save that Foderingham made to keep out Stephen Darby’s header was superb.
The final minute of stoppage time produced drama of a much more acceptable kind, when Sheehan decided, in his eternal wisdom, that if he were to punch Branco in the chest rather than the face, the officials might not notice. He was wrong, and the inevitable red card was followed seconds later by the final whistle. Full credit to our lads for showing each of the qualities required to grind out a win from, in my opinion, our most difficult match so far.
Here are my thoughts:
- Away Form
We have won two and drawn one of four away games to date and, crucially, have played well in each of them. Although these are early days, genuine progress appears to have been made from last season, when we averaged less than a point per game and put in a long list of poor (or worse) performances.
In view of the forthcoming run, this is just as well. Our scheduled home match against Preston on Saturday 11th October falls during an international weekend. As both sides postponed last week’s game due to call-ups, it seems unlikely to go ahead. We therefore face at least four consecutive away fixtures after next weekend’s match at home to Sheffield United; potentially five, if we win at Newport in the JPT and travel to Plymouth in the following round.
- Centre Backs
While there are various reasons behind our much improved away form, I believe that the current centre back personnel are high on the list. Last season’s most regular pair, Darren Ward and Grant Hall, seldom truly seemed up for the scrap required to win at somewhere like Bradford. You may have noticed that Bradford’s imposing striker James Hanson wasn’t mentioned by my report, and this is because Branco, Turnbull and Thompson, a trio who will mix the rough with the smooth, battled and fought their way through every second of the match. Last season, we were good enough to pass a fair few teams off the pitch, especially at home, but failed to challenge for promotion because we were one-dimensional, almost snobbish in our refusal to budge from “Plan A”. Not anymore.
If, as expected, Jack Stephens is soon fit to play, it will be interesting to see whether anyone makes way for him. Personally, as highly as I rate Stephens, I would allow him to wait his turn. In practice, I suspect that Branco could be the unlucky loser (possibly due, in part, to us wanting to keep Southampton onside by selecting both loanees). If so, I would urge Cooper to reconsider. In my opinion, Branco, more than anyone, offers the aerial dominance that we have tended to lack since losing Aden Flint. He also brings an attacking threat; one goal and two assists in five games shouldn’t be sniffed at. If his contract isn’t extended without delay, we risk losing an astute signing, who we have developed significantly, for nothing next summer.
- Attacking Set Pieces
I would be keen to know the last time we scored from two corners in a game. County Ground traditionalists will be delighted to hear that both deliveries were whipped directly into the box; in fact, I don’t think any of our eight corners were taken short. Presumably this was a conscious tactic (Bradford fans warned us in the pub beforehand that they keep conceding from set pieces), and it will be interesting to see whether it is repeated.
We’ll find out on Tuesday…