Swindon Town finally had a chance to kick off 2014 by entertaining Peterborough United at the County Ground. After collecting four points from three games over a rather testing Christmas period, Swindon would be hoping they could pick up the perfect delayed New Year present for the Town faithful, as Matthew Peach reports.
As the team news came out, many Town fans were left surprised at the line-up selected by manager Mark Cooper. Cooper made four changes from the team that picked up a valuable point at Bradford City last time out with Raphael Rossi Branco, Ryan Mason, Dany N’Guessan and Nile Ranger returning to the line up in place of Jay McEverley, Louis Thompson, Nicky Ajose and Nathan Byrne respectively. With three centre backs in the team many people were left wondering what formation Town would adopt to combat Peterborough’s attacking football. It worked out as the tried and tested 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation, with Grant Hall deputising at left back. As well as a puzzling line up, new signing George Barker had his first taste of football at the County Ground, starting out on the bench.
But this was not the major cause for surprise among Town fans. It was the return of Nile Ranger that really got the fans talking. After being told his contract would be terminated, it seemed that there would be no way back for Ranger… again. However, as the club organising a meeting with his representatives, Ranger managed to haggle himself a last chance and after apologising to his team mates, he was back. He trained in the week and was handed a surprise start. Despite everything appearing to be rosy again with Mr Ranger, Swindon fans were left in the dark before the line up was announced. It was Friday afternoon when rumours slowly started circulating on Twitter, and come lunch time on Saturday there was picture evidence of Nile Ranger’s shirt hanging in the dressing room. Relief. Well that does of course depend on how you see the troubled character…
Enough about Ranger and his shenanigans, back to the football. Swindon got us underway at a mightily cold County Ground, attacking the Town End in the first half. Town made a slow start with Peterborough controlling most of the early parts of the game. As a result, the visitors created the first real chance of the game when former Town striker Nicky Ajose – who had returned from his loan spell a matter of days before – popped up with a header that was comfortably saved by Wes Foderingham. As it seems with all Town old boys, surely he was bound to score on his return? After some early Posh pressure Town mustered their own chance when wing wizard Alex Pritchard produced some quick skill and fired a cross come shot over the Peterborough ‘keeper, Bobby Olejnik’s bar.
After a few half-chances Town finally made the breakthrough. After a well worked short corner by Pritchard and Massimo Luongo the ball found itself sitting perfectly for guess who? That’s right, Nile Ranger to head home. You couldn’t write it better if you had tried. A goal for Ranger after his absence from the first team. Town were in the lead, perhaps undeservedly so, but that didn’t matter to the 7,000 plus fans. Unfortunately after the opening goal the Posh continued to create chances with £1.5 million striker Britt Assombalonga proving to be a thorn in Swindon’s back four along with teammate and former Celtic target Lee Tomlin, who turned into something of a pantomime villain. The half ended as Tomlin whipped a free kick over Foderingham’s goal and into the Stratton bank to jeers from the stands due to Tomlin staying down after a light challenge with Yaser Kasim.
As soon as the second half commenced it was all Peterborough with them very much controlling the opening 15 minutes of the second half. The Cambridgeshire side, who had only won once in the last seven in all competitions, were desperate to get back into the game. With the Posh midfield dominating the game chances were coming left, right and centre. However, one player who would continue to preserve Town’s lead was Brazilian defender Raphael Rossi Branco. He continually found himself in the right place at the right time making blocks, tackles and interceptions throughout the afternoon; although even he was powerless to stop Tomlin’s curling drive that clipped the post and went out of play. This was a warning sign for Town.
As a result, Cooper brought on Louis Thompson for Ryan Mason, who had been largely ineffective. Thompson sat in front of the back four, mainly picking up Tomlin as and when he went forward searching for an equaliser. Within ten minutes of Louis Thompson’s introduction Swindon grabbed a goal against the run of play. Kasim picked the ball up just over the halfway line and drove at the Posh’s defence. He kept running and running with N’Guessan drawing defenders off of him, before unleashing a ferocious drive from the edge of the area that nestled in the bottom corner. At last some breathing space for Town in the most unlikely of circumstances.
During the goal celebrations Cooper took off N’Guessan for Nathan Byrne to solidify the left hand side, as a lot of Peterborough’s play was coming down that flank. Many people have had a dig at Cooper, calling him tactically naive sometimes, but personally in this game I though he nailed it. Unfortunately for Town the away side continued to create chances and finally struck home when left back Nathaniel Knight-Percival volleyed home from a corner. A long ten minutes for the home side to hold on for a much needed three points against promotion rivals.
There was a twist in the plot though for Town, remember Lee Tomlin? The pantomime villain? Well he was up to his old tricks and in the attempt to take a quick throw-in he pushed Town hero Kasim to the ground, prompting his marching orders. Within minutes of this, all-hell broke loose on the touchline with a ten-man-plus brawl breaking out, which resulted in Jimmy Walker, Peterborough’s goalkeeping coach, being sent off. This was turning into a real cracker of a game.
Once last chance fell to Posh youngster Jermaine Anderson, a header from six yards that he managed to blaze over the bar. Shortly after the final whistle blew. Relief. Satisfaction. Call it what you want. Town hung on to pick up their first three points of 2014. With thanks to wayward Ranger.
Where does this leave Town now? With a midweek trip to bottom side Stevenage before another away trip to Gillingham, Town have a real chance to start making up some serious ground on those above them. This is all before a home game with Shrewsbury, which sets Town up for the vital game away at Walsall. So a big month for Swindon who have a real chance now to secure a place in the play offs.
Matthew Peach – @MattJPeach