Walsall 1-1 Swindon Town: A point closer to safety…

At last, something to take from a road trip other than new things to grumble about as a Swindon Town comeback secured a draw at Walsall, writes Scott Keith…

Not only did it feature a point and a goal, it at least allows the exciting fantasy of sneaking into the playoffs to flicker for a while yet. While that sits in the possible, rather than probable category, it’s nice to have such visions as we enter February.

Mark Cooper made three changes to the side that squeezed past Shrewsbury. Nile Ranger was back in the starting line-up after illness confined him to the bench at the weekend, with Nathan Byrne making way from the front three.

Injury meant no Jay McEveley, with Jamie Reckord starting at left-back, and Ryan Mason also failed his fitness test. The choice of Louis Thompson, rather than Ryan Harley, as replacement caught the eye as one perhaps designed to give the team a more solid feel away from home, in the usual 4-3-3.

Walsall came into the game having pummelled Notts County 5-1 at Meadow Lane and started with a breezy intent that was met with Town’s normal slightly rickety away beginnings. Febian Brandy, who netted a weekend hat-trick, showed what a problem he was going to be on early, hitting a volley just wide from the edge of the box. He would prove to be impossible to fully contain, and Walsall’s front four showed a good understanding throughout.

Town got past the 20 minute mark with it 0-0 and began to show a little threat. With Michael Smith’s height added to the presence of Ranger, there was something new in Swindon’s play.  It was the opportunity to sling free-kicks into the box and test defences aerially. Darren Ward and Raphael Rossi-Branco would also trot up from the back, meaning four bulky targets for Alex Pritchard to aim at. Smith and Ranger both nodded wide from these opportunities, which in the past have just seen a quick re-start.

But with a slightly brighter spell, came the switch off for the goal. To be fair, Walsall probably showed more flashes of high quality passing, and the move to score was pacey and precise. Full back James Chambers quickly made himself available for a counter down the right, Craig Westcarr was alive to the movement around him on the edge of the box, and his lay-off had the ideal weight for Romaine Sawyers to run onto as he strode into the penalty area to finish things off with a low shot. “One-nil” went the ghost of the late David Coleman.

Brandy’s volley from 18 yards, taken early, forced Foderingham into a scrambled, quick, reaction save, just before the whistle blew.

And so to the second half, where Walsall had that bit better tempo and possession again. Pritchard was reduced to pulling at Brandy’s shorts at one stage, when the midfielder got away from him, in a clear booking. But then the Town winger got petulant, finding it too much of an affront to his dignity to walk up to the referee Mark Brown to get booked. While Mr.Brown and his assistants had some unique interpretations of the laws, like the fact the team who touches the ball last shouldn’t concede thrown ins, it wasn’t necessary.

Shortly afterwards, Pritchard was substituted. It might have been expected if the management team had thought he was going to get too wound up. But no-one really assumed he was going to be replaced by Jack Barthram.

It heralded a tactical switch from 4-3-3 to 5-3-2, with Barthram as a wing-back and Nathan Thompson becoming one of three centre-backs. Now one of the (many) criticisms that Mark Cooper gets from fans post match is that he can’t change games from the bench.

Now it might not always be something that works, but if you think back to the Coventry home win, the substitutions inspired the win. When it wasn’t going well against Shrewsbury, it was a switch to a diamond. So to say he doesn’t try to influence games with subs is not really credible.

Barthram did get the chance to set off on a couple of liberating runs. One produced a terrible shot, with Nathan Thompson hurtling forward inside him, and being ignored. The next time this happened, Barthram was more alert to his colleague, and Thompson (N) was able to force a rare second half corner. Yaser Kasim’s original ball in from the right was cleared, but Ward clipped back in a neat cross, and Smith produced a simple, but effective header, to divert the ball down past the keeper and confirm his status as Wiltshire’s latest goal machine. 1-1.

With 15 minutes or so left, it was then time for the hairy moments. Westcarr and Sawyers leathered shots over, and Brandy was played in with the Town defence looking uncomfortable. He was able to run into the penalty area, and at Branco, who not only managed to avoid lunging in, but forced the striker into shooting from a wide angle. It was an excellent piece of defending, and summed up his return to form after a wobbly Saturday with the Shrews. The Brazilian was also powerful in the air throughout.

Miles Storey got time to chase things like an excitable hare and Walsall’s Ashley Hemmings, on as a sub, hit the bar with a dipping long range shot, right at the end.

Louis Thompson also deserves praise, along with Branco, for his immense energy in midfield, and while it lacked the fluidity of Town’s home football, the performance had some of the resolution that wasn’t seen at Stevenage and the Priestfield.

The 50 point mark gets closer…

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