Swindon v Oxford: Constable returns to haunt Town
Completely ignore what was written in the build-up to the A420 derby about the history, passion and desire; as that’s exactly what I’m having to do, coming to terms with a deflating first home defeat since 1973 and a sea of yellow and blue celebrating on the Stratton Bank. All this is despite an vastly improved Swindon performance. With the minutes ticking by to the final whistle I was dreading the prospect of writing this post match review and typing Swindon Town 1 – 2 Oxford United. There I’ve got it out of the way at the start…
As the match commenced Town’s starting XI included four changes from the mid-week defeat. An obvious return for Devera in place of Comazzi, but the midfield pairing of Ferry and Smith plus former QPR man Leon Clarke signalled a shift in approach through the spine. In the end these were only partial fixes as Town fell to a more endemic series of lapses from set-peices and poor finishing that cost any chance of walking away with some dignity of a draw.
After an early Oxford attack resulted in a Lewis Guy shot turned away well by Phil Smith, like against Crewe, it was Joe Devera who showed he’s the weak link in defence. Diving into a poorly timed challenge out on the wing, a needless place to commit in any respect, left the Oxford forward – not sure who – to race clear to cross for Constable only for Aden Flint to come to the rescue, and not for the first time this season.
It wasn’t long afterwards Oxford secured the opening goal and in doing so highlighted the defensive lapses from set pieces. Pre-match mind games failed to put James Constable off his stride as he outjumped Matt Richie to rise unchallenged to powerfully head past Phil Smith, sending the large travelling support delirious and the Town defense looking bewildered.
In the aftermath it appeared conceding first had invigorated Town. The response was immediate as constant pressure meant it was only a matter of time until Swindon would quietened the throngs from Oxfordshire. After Leon Clarke controlled well and turned to fire a 30 yard bullet just to the left of his namesake’s goal, there was something to celebrate.
Out on the left Callum Kennedy looked to have been closed down in the corner but to his credit he kept going, managing to fire a cross towards the onrushing Clarke and Richie, only for the later to rise highest, in spite of his height, to head firm the equaliser and in doing so made it two excellent headed goals. As exhilarating as the goal itself was Di Canio’s celebration, charging down the touchline as if he’d scored himself, although this action was not going unnoticed by the referee.
As the first half progressed Leon Clarke seemed to be involved at every stage and Town were lively, but were unable to make further chances pay for Caddis, Esajas, Clarke and Ritchie. So despite creating the chances Oxford would sneak the upper hand with Constable’s second. Like their first goal it was another accurate assist from Peter Leven, this time ensuring Phil Smith could do little but parry the ball to the chest of the fortunate Constable who grabbed his second. Rough justice for Town, yet demonstrating again the ruthlessness of the Oxford finishing.
The second half was a strange affair. Lacking the vociferous and charged atmosphere with Town behind, Swindon were chasing the game and failed to reignite the crowd. With Oxford fully prepared to sit back with a resolute eight men behind the ball to protect their slender lead, Town found it hard going throughout to cope.
The key moment followed Oxford’s call for a foul amid claims Lewis Guy was tripped en-route to the penalty area. With the decision not given and the ball launched long, Leon Clarke looked to have latched clear of Oxford’s high defensive line and with a clear run at goal. Cue the late, and as I witnessed, a wrong flag for an offside, robbing us of our best chance and incensing supporter and Di Canio alike. Having seen Clarke level I can only assume the Assistant was distracted by the Oxford protests. With Di Canio having already been warned for leaving his ‘technical area’ referee Haywood signalled the manager to the stands.
Even though Swindon pushed for their second equaliser of the game, it looked laboured, lacking of ideas, and when chance did present itself they were just scares for Oxford. The worst Town culprit being the otherwise excellent Clarke who wasted a golden opportunity to blast over from just six yards out. It took the introduction of the second debutante, Spanish winger Lander Gabilondo in place of the ineffectual Esajas on the left, to liven up the proceedings with providing an effective outlet and getting in an early shot to fire a fine save from Clarke. But Town just couldn’t break through the stubborn defence and get a clear shot on goal.
In the end had it not been for Phil Smith’s excellent one-on-one save to deny the onrushing James Constable his hatrick, the undeserved gloss really would’ve been on Oxford as they hung on to secure a tense victory.
With defeat against our greatest rivals brings questions from some concerning ‘Project Di Canio’. It’s not as simple as that and by no means should any Swindon supporter be fearing we’re going to fail to mount a successful promotion charge. We have a fledgling team that still needs time to bond and develop on the pitch. What has been evident is Di Canio has yet to see the players prove to him that they deserve to be within his prefered XI. The decision to drop Risser was a brave move that previous managers Wilson or Hart wouldn’t dare attempt. In his rebuilding and selections Di Canio has been brave, but what has sorely been missed is that bravery and commitment being reciprocated on the pitch.
So being one to look at the positives the match did yield two promising performances. For a start Leon Clarke’s debut had everything apart from the goal – more on him tomorrow. Then there was Jonathan Smith’s return to the side showing we’ve signed a calm, composed and assured footballer, who was able to retain possession under pressure from the Oxford packhounds.
With three successive defeats in the opening four games isn’t it great to get all these disappointments behind us at the start of the season. Now that’s wishful thinking.
Header photo from oxfordunited.co.uk