A Massimo Luongo inspired Swindon Town returned to winning ways with a tense 2-1 victory over promotion rivals Bradford City, achieving something that Chelsea and Sunderland haven’t been able to do in the process. Writes Daniel Hunt…
The Swindon that we all know and love put on a marvellous first half show and the unambitious Bantams should have been three or four goals down at the break but for some profligate finishing from Andy Williams.
A sloppy start to the second half was capped off by another individual error from Captain Nathan Thompson and Bradford were handed an undeserved route back into the game. This set up a tetchy last half hour where Bradford threw everything they had at Town but the returning Raphael Rossi-Branco stood firm like a Gladiatorial warrior amidst the barrage! Swindon have closed the gap to second place MK Dons to two points but with Bristol City, Preston and Sheffield United also winning on the night, it’s clear that it’s going to be a difficult job to maintain the automatic promotion push.
Mark Cooper’s men must also be congratulated for putting up with some more bizarre League One refereeing. James Meredith stayed on the pitch before half time and ex-Town man Stephen Darby getting wrongly sent off and then reinstated in stoppage time! There was also a nerve-ridden home crowd of 6,812 who, after showing so much patience/appreciation with the style of football this year, went to pieces in the second half.
Has a recent run of four defeats in five has done away with the extra supporters gained through six months of hard work this season? What is more obvious is that the pressure of being in a promotion race is particularly taxing not only on the players but also the fan base.
My pre-match team prediction was only one player out, I would have started Jonathan Obika above Michael Smith by virtue of the ex-Tottenham man scoring twice against Bradford back in September, but the balance of the side and energy in the middle of the park seemed much more like it. Yaser Kasim and John Swift are undoubtedly fine players but their performances against Crawley were walking pace and pedestrian. Ben Gladwin’s versatility got the nod on the left hand side as Toffolo was given a place on the bench for his awful first half against Crawley Town.
As I’ve already touched on, this game was made for League One’s David Luiz impersonator, Raphael Rossi-Branco. Jon Stead was Bradford’s lone man up front in the first half, with Billy Clarke in the ‘hole’ behind him, but Stead got no change out of Rossi-Branco et al. all night. Bradford were frankly useless in the opening period and Swindon were given all the time in the world to play out from the back and mould their attacks from wide through the impressive Gladwin and the lively Byrne.
Before Massimo Luongo drilled Swindon into a 15th minute lead, Gladwin had already planted a delicious left foot cross onto the head of Williams who could only head over from 3-4 yards. I’ve not seen the chance again but my gut feeling is that it was a pretty glaring miss. The opening goal was ruthlessly put away by the ‘Aussie Beckham’ however. Collecting a Stephens pass on the right edge of the box, Luongo shifted cleverly onto his right foot before drilling low across Jordan Pickford’s goal for the lead.
Andy Williams was gift wrapped an opportunity to double Swindon’s lead as one of the Bradford defenders inexplicably let the ball run into the path of Town’s 20-goal man. With only the ‘keeper to beat from ten yards, Williams curled the ball onto the crossbar just like he did at Scunthorpe on Valentines Day.
Swindon didn’t have to wait long for the second goal though. In the 33rd minute Jordan Turnbull got up a head of steam as he surged into the Bradford half unchallenged. The on loan Southampton man then threaded a ball to Williams on the right edge of the box and were it not for a heavy touch from Williams, Luongo wouldn’t have had the simple task of toe-poking into the same corner as his first goal. An inadvertent assist would be all Williams had to show for his night’s work.
Town still had time to spurn a wonderful opportunity to put Luongo through on goal for his hat-trick. The down-on-his-luck Michael Smith trying to go on his own when he would have been much better advised to leave the goal-scoring to the rampant Luongo. The final passages of the first half were spent with the Don Rogers stand baying for Bradford left back James Meredith to get his marching orders for a second bookable offence. Nathan Byrne was smart with how theatrically he went down for a couple of the fouls but how Meredith stayed on is beyond me?
Bradford brought Pantomime villain Alan Sheehan on to replace Meredith at half time – the irony being that it had been Sheehan who did receive a red card for punching Rossi-Branco in the opposite fixture back in September, also a 2-1 win for the Reds. Swindon started the second half really poorly and the vigour with which they attacked the opening period disappeared into the Wiltshire night.
Eight minutes in to the half, a tame right wing cross was intercepted by Nathan Thompson when it seemed easier for Foderingham to clean up, but Nathan took an ill-advised touch on his right instep which allowed Clarke the simple task of smashing home to reduce the deficit. After a plethora of recent self-inflicted goals conceded, this didn’t help the nervous crowd and the neat passages of possession at the back that followed received groan and moans – to the displeasure of Wes Foderingham after the game on Twitter.
Led by the right sided partnership of Luongo and Byrne, the Swindon response to the setback was strong. Massimo was cruelly denied his first career hat-trick by an outstanding one-handed save by the pre-pubescent Jordan Pickford – let’s just say that his Mum won’t be buying him a Gillette Mach 3 for Christmas! The Byrne effort required no action from the ‘keeper as he curled over from 18-yards after a jinking run that seemed never-ending.
Despite Bradford having a lot of possession and territory in the second half, Wes Foderingham was underworked and aside from a smart tip over the bar from debutant winger Burke (on loan from Notts Forest), our Wes could stand-by and trust in his young defenders. The introduction of Francois Zoko and Mark Yeates (another former Swindon player) added some more zest to the blunt Bantams but Swindon held on nicely – particularly in stoppage time when the majority of time was spent in the corner of the Don Rogers/Town End
The second half felt so pressured more because of the what was riding on the result from the home fans. Repeating myself here, but Rossi-Branco was magnificent in this spell, heading and tackling anything that came within 5-yards of him.
Bradford manager Phil Parkinson whinged post-match about Swindon players rolling round on the floor – so what? He also whined about three penalties not getting given in his side’s favour – don’t care! Bradford were awarded a penalty incorrectly at Valley Parade so it’s swings and roundabouts. The gap between the two sides in terms of football is vast and Town should have been at least four nil up at half time.
The rot has been stopped and make no mistake, Swindon stood up to the physical test late in the second half, that’s character after a run of four defeats in five games. Whether or not character alone is enough to get you over the line in a promotion race is still up for debate. In simple terms, Town need to keep producing displays like they did in the first half here and points will look after themselves.
Crewe away in front of 3,000 will be a tough proposition, as our recent trips north to Oldham and Scunthorpe pay testament. But if Swindon can compose themselves between now and May, and the supporters can take a deep breath, we might be able to start dreaming about playing in front of 20,000 plus on away trips north to Derby, Notts Forest, Sheffield Wednesday, etc.
Stay calm and give it to Luongo….!
Follow Daniel Hunt on Twitter – @dphunt88