Bristol City 0-0 Swindon Town: Mark Cooper makes a point…

Adam Tanner made the short trip to Ashton Gate for a derby day fixture that has become quite a rare event in recent seasons.

Swindon Town went into the game hoping to avoid a third consecutive league defeat for the first time all season, and aiming to extend an eight-game unbeaten run against Bristol City, stretching back to 2002. Mark Cooper made six changes to the side well beaten by Wolves on Tuesday night. There were welcome returns for Wes Foderingham, Nathan and Louis Thompson. Debutant Jack Stephens joined fit again Troy Archibald-Henville in central defence, and George Barker made his second start for the club as an attacking midfielder in a 4-3-2-1 formation.

The pattern of the first half was familiar. Town generally looked comfortable, and had plenty of possession but, as has often been the case in recent weeks, struggled to find a killer pass, and did not manage a serious attempt on target. Bristol City shaded the first half an hour without causing too much of a threat. Archibald-Henville did well to block a Sam Baldock shot, before Foderingham got down quickly to parry a Wade Elliott strike that was creeping towards the bottom corner, and Jay McEveley dealt with the follow-up. Town improved as the half wore on, and managed a couple of half-chances during its final 15 minutes (at least as far as I could tell from the City away end, where the acoustics are a great deal better than the view). Massimo Luongo hit a right-footed shot across the face of goal and wide, and Ryan Harley scuffed a 20-yard effort wide when he probably had time to do better. Neither side could really complain about a goalless first half.

The second half began at a much higher tempo. Although Town generally looked sharper and livelier than before half time, Bristol City had two significant early chances. First, Wes Foderingham made a smart save from Scott Wagstaff’s close-range shot, before Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, who generally had a quiet game, hit the foot of a post after a long cross found him in space inside the box.

The game’s key moment came on 55 minutes, when Alex Pritchard’s response to a foul by Wade Elliott was to get up and push his opponent over. It was a stupid thing to do, and a red card was inevitable. Pritchard will now serve his third suspension of the season, which we could do without in the absence of Nile Ranger, Ryan Mason and, by the look of things, Dany N’Guessan. He receives far more cards than a 5 foot 6 inch winger ever should, and he needs to sort out his temperament before it restricts what should become an excellent career.

Town’s best moment of the match actually came within seconds of his departure. Ryan Harley’s firmly struck free kick was pushed wide by Frank Fielding, and the resulting corner caused a scramble in the City box. Michael Smith got a shot away, which was pushed by Fielding back towards Smith, six yards out. Sadly, he couldn’t control it quickly enough, and his second effort lacked the pace or height to beat the recovering Fielding.

It was tempting at that stage to fear the worst, but, as at MK Dons and Peterborough earlier in the season, Town coped admirably with ten men. Cooper made the right changes at the right times, most notably bringing on Yaser Kasim for George Barker and switching to a 4-3-1-1, with Luongo playing off striker Smith. In fact, I think Cooper got just about everything right on the day, and therefore deserves great credit.

City posed relatively little threat until around the 75-minute mark, when the inevitable push began. The typically excellent Foderingham made good saves from Emmanuel-Thomas and substitutes Marlon Pack and Martin Paterson, and the defensive application of the entire team was admirable, with countless blocks and interceptions made during the latter stages. I struggled to be excited by the return of Troy Archibald-Henville a few weeks ago, but he has greatly exceeded my expectations, and wins my man of the match vote for the most dominant aerial performance I’ve seen from a Swindon defender this season.

Town did have one real to snatch a famous win at around the 90-minute mark when, on the break, the ball was squared towards substitute Ben Gladwin inside the box, but he couldn’t bring it under control. An away win would have been harsh on City, but I think I could have lived with that.

Five minutes of stoppage time were played almost entirely in and around the Swindon area, with a range of long throw-ins, crosses and shots fired in from various angles, but the lads weren’t to be denied and hung on for an excellent point. Credit to the 2,004 away fans, who backed the team strongly.

Here are a few brief thoughts:

1.       Louis Thompson

Swindon have lost one of the last nine away games that Thompson junior has started. And we have lost six of the last six away games that he hasn’t started. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. For a lad of 19, his impact on the team is amazing. Against Wolves, we saw 45 minutes without him, followed by 45 with him, and I certainly know which I preferred. I would like to think that a long-term contract extension is a high priority.

His only mistake yesterday was getting a silly booking after one minute, I think in an attempt to play up to the crowd. It’s never ideal for a defensive midfielder to play 89 minutes on a tightrope, and he was visibly a bit jittery for the rest of the match. I’m sure he’ll learn from it.

2.       Darren Ward

Ward has struggled all season, not least on Tuesday night. Although he has barely missed any football since joining the club 18 months ago, Cooper was totally correct to leave him out yesterday. His lack of pace and mobility, and poor distribution, represent major issues.

Without him, a back four containing a debutant, and with an average age of 25, really excelled to keep only our second clean sheet since November. Ward’s experience and rumoured leadership qualities (which I have never personally been convinced about) clearly weren’t required. Let’s see whether he can now rise to the challenge of winning back his place.

3.       Player Commitment

Cooper is fully justified in pointing out that this performance demonstrates the high levels of commitment and desire of the team. For all sorts of reasons the side has hit poor form, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that half of our players aren’t interested, and, having seen most matches, I can’t agree with any suggestions that effort has been lacking. I have to say that anyone who turned up for the testimonial of Christian Roberts in 2009, but is willing to query the mentality of our current squad, has standards that are very different to mine.

Prior to this week we hadn’t lost consecutive home games since the days of Paul Hart, and so, whilst yesterday didn’t go entirely to plan, both the performance and result were very welcome. We can now face a Preston team that has lost only four of its 36 league games with some confidence and credibility restored.

Follow Adam Tanner on Twitter @AdamTanner87 

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