On a ‘cabbage-patch pitch’ two very similar teams, in terms of league position and form, went head to head in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Area Final 1st Leg at Peterborough’s London Road. We were promised goals and drama and the game most certainly delivered, writes Jonny Leighfield.
Mark Cooper made five changes from the team that put in that pathetic performance at the weekend against Oldham. The front three were changed from Nathan Byrne, Michael Smith and George Barker to a more powerful, threatening front two of Dany N’Guessan and Nile Ranger. The midfield transformed from a three to a midfield four of Yasser Kasim, Louis Thompson, Massimo Luongo and Ben Gladwin and finally Jay McEveley came in for the cup-tied Jamie Reckord at left back.
Swindon made a positive start to proceedings at London Road putting in early crosses and pressing from the word go. It was encouraging to see this feature in our game re-emerge as it seems to have gone missing from previous fixtures, certainly away from home. The early pressure lead to a couple of corners before Gladwin swung in a cross for N’Guessan, but the big Frenchman got the timing on his header all wrong, possibly due to the stickiness of the pitch, and the ball skewed away.
Yet, as is the Swindon way, all of our hard work and early pressure was in vain as defensive errors cost us. Posh earned a corner on the right which was poorly dealt with by the Swindon defence at the first time of asking and thanks to a much better delivery from Grant McCann, Raphael Rossi Branco had little option but to head emphatically past Foderingham. As a defender at a corner he did everything you can ask. He followed his runner, stayed tight and attacked the ball. Unfortunately, he put his clearance in the worst possible area, his own net.
And if Swindon wanted to make their task an even bigger uphill struggle, they got their wish thanks to some charitable defending from the whole back line. Several weak clearances and feeble tackles later the ball ended up in the net for a second time. A tidy reverse finish from debutant Kyle Vassell put Peterborough two-nil up inside fifteen minutes.
The next ten minutes followed a similar pattern where Swindon’s defending looked frail and the tackles that we were making were unusually rash. Nathan Thompson was, in my view, extremely lucky not to be sent off for his challenge on a Posh midfielder after he raised his foot and left his studs up. He received only a yellow but it could and possibly should have been more.
Gladwin particularly impressed me throughout making some good runs and getting early crosses into the danger area for Town strikers to attack. The step-overs he cleverly deploys may become a regular feature in the Swindon line up if he continues to grow in confidence and learns to play more cohesive football with his team-mates. He looked greedy at times, not getting his head up to find a team-mate but this could be a strategy Cooper had asked him to play with to see if it harvested results. His style of play was certainly causing the Posh defence problems as midway through the first half the step-overs came out before some neat footwork ensued, but a shot over the bar tainted a sparkling run. An exciting player to watch nonetheless.
On the thirty minute mark Swindon were back in the tie. Kasim played a lovely through ball to Ranger before the prolific striker opened his body up and slid the ball past Peterborough ‘keeper Olejnik. There was a hint of offside before Ranger began his descent on goal but the linesman’s flag stayed down so the goal stood.
Then the most contentious decision of the game. A quick throw down-field from Olejnik left Britt Assombalonga one on one with McEveley on the right flank. Both were travelling at a fair speed when McEveley raised his left leg around head height to clear the ball. Assombalonga went down holding his face and the referee brandished a red card. On first viewing live at the game, I thought the decision was borderline. After seeing it in real time on T.V when I returned home I thought the referee got it wrong. Yes, his leg was high but there was no intent there and it certainly wasn’t malicious. It was just an honest attempt to win the ball and a yellow card would have sufficed. Either way McEveley had to go, but as we all know every cloud has a silver lining. Swindon’s cloud must have had a pretty thick one as Assombalonga, Peterborough’s £1.5 million pound, 22 goals already this season, striker had to be substituted with a swollen right eye.
And if you thought we had run out of luck by this point, you’d have been wrong as deep into ‘Fergie time’ a massive slice of luck came Swindon’s way as Shaun Brisley sliced past Olejnik into his own net from a pacey Gladwin cross. Comical, but could yet prove vitally important in Town’s bid to reach Wembley for the third time in five years. Two goals each in the first half of a crazy game of football.
The second half started fairly slowly with both teams seemingly shutting up shop in a quest to not concede an early goal which could significantly affect the tie. It did, for a brief moment, spring into life as Darren Ward leapt above all others to plant a powerful, wind assisted header just inches wide of Posh’s right hand post. Most of the away followers thought the ball was sailing over Olejnik into the net but alas, it was not the case.
As I hinted to earlier, I was impressed with Gladwin’s performance even if his over exuberance to go past defenders and not look for a team-mate frustrated most. Once again a quick, counter attacking Town move lead to the youngster being given a chance to show what he can do but he blazed his shot into the stand-less end Swindon were attacking.
The rest of the second half was played out in cagey manner with not many clear cut chances being created, but nevertheless Swindon were the more dominant team with most of the ball and more of the half-chances that did occur. The pitch began to cut up and the wind picked up making it even more difficult to play any sort of organised football. Peterborough did have a chance on 75 minutes when a corner was swept in around the six-yard-box. Foderingham was fouled when a header looped up into the air and Vassell jumped into him but the referee didn’t give it. Luckily Vassell couldn’t prod home and the official’s blushes were spared.
After a really poor start from Town, they produced one of the most resolute and surprising performances I have seen away from home in quite a while. Most teams who were a goal down with ten men would have crumbled into oblivion but Swindon showed the sort of fight that ideally you would like to see every week.
However, Swindon’s hard work was nearly undone late on when Nathaniel Knight-Percival, who produced a stunning volley against Town at home, was allowed a free header from six yards out. Fortunately he headed over though, with thanks to some pressuring from Branco as he met the header.
Then to a sombre event that will live long in the memory. On 87 minutes a Peterborough fan unfortunately collapsed at the side of the pitch, plunging London Road into silence as paramedics and doctors on site rushed to his rescue. I for one have never experienced anything as saddening or shocking as this at a live sporting event and it really showed the lowly importance of football in the scale of life. Our best wishes and thoughts are with the fan and from everyone here at TheWashbag.com, we wish him a speedy recovery.
Play was restarted after the referee had made the decision to remove all players from the pitch to allow the man to be treated with care and peace. After play was restarted a solemn mood surrounded London Road with neither team perhaps having the fight or feeling it was appropriate to go for a winner in the circumstances. Common sense should have perhaps prevailed where both teams agreed to move on with the draw but such are the laws, the game must be completed to stand. Maybe someone needs to update those laws as I really didn’t feel it was appropriate to continue the game given the circumstances.
In the end, one of the strangest games of football I have ever witnessed was overshadowed by a sad event late on putting football and a gutsy comeback from Swindon a distant second.
2-2 the final score, with 90 minutes (and the possibility of penalties *shudder*) separating either team from a trip to Wembley.