Are Swindon Gaining Momentum..?
While Mark Cooper is still leaning away from talk about the ‘P’ word, we just can’t help ourselves to evaluate Swindon Town’s play-off credentials, writes Ron Smith.
With Swindon Town finally finding some form after a miserable two months, a third successive win after surviving Ashton Gate with ten men and a goalless draw has demonstrated to the remainder of League One that you write-off Town at your peril. Optimism again surrounds my thoughts about our chances, but always there remains the fallback that a top ten finish. This eventuality would be success in itself following a season of substantial change and remodelling that was always necessary to secure our long-term future.
As we enter April there are six games remaining for Town, who sit one point behind 6th placed Peterborough United, albeit the Posh have two games in-hand (versus Colchester and Gillingham at London Road). So while much depends on Peterborough’s need to substantially improve their own League One record and their ability to control the situation, it is at this point in the campaign that momentum frequently carries one team across the line, into the play-offs and typically to promotion itself.
Swindon find themselves in a very different situation when fighting for promotion from League One compared to our two previous attempts.
With six games remaining in 2009/10 Town were 2nd and 11 points clear of 7th. Two successive 3-0 scorelines against Leeds United and Tranmere Rovers cemented Town’s status as likely candidates to join Norwich City in the Championship, however thereafter it all unravelled. A run of one win, three draws and two defeats ensured a 5th placed finish some four points off the pace. The fact that Town did make it to Wembley after a month of disappointment seems astonishing looking back.
Last season Town were 4th with six games remaining and two points behind AFC Bournemouth in the final promotion place. With a game in-hand and vastly superior goal-difference Swindon then surrendered the advantage following a run of two wins and four defeats. The 6th placed finish with eventually nine points adrift of automatic promotion, and in the play-offs themselves penalties would this time deny a return to Wembley.
The context of the failures of these two play-off campaigns must therefore be seen in relation to missing out on automatic promotion and how the team coped with falling into the play-offs as the consolation prize.
This campaign is the contrast. Swindon cannot finish higher than 6th and therefore the play-offs are the valuable prize. With Town never positioned higher than 5th in the League this season and the group of Wolves, Leyton Orient and Brentford storming away at the top, the realism of gaining automatic promotion has never really entered our minds.
Momentum is the key. It’s a factor that’s frequently discussed at this time of the season. Perhaps Swindon have that momentum, perhaps not if this four game run without defeat is “our run”. Memorable recent runs include Stevenage’s unbeaten final six League One games in 2011/12 secured 12 points and a jump from 9th to secure 6th place. Also Crewe Alexandra’s unbeaten final 16 games in 2011/12 League Two to secure the final play-off berth and an unlikely promotion.
Today, Town’s League One contenders for 6th place stretch from Peterborough to Sheffield United in the table. With none of these contenders to play each other again this season there will be no six-pointers to decide the fates ensuring a real fight for the position. Peterborough have their two games in-hand and are set to play only one of the current top ten (Wolves). Swindon will play both Brentford and Rotherham at the County Ground. Walsall are fortunate to be not scheduled to meet any of the top ten. MK Dons will play Brentford, Rotherham and Leyton Orient. While Sheffield United will play Brentford, Leyton Orient and Rotherham and all of these in their next three games before an FA Cup Semi-Final. It seems Sheffield United will not have enough to make up the points at this late stage, while Walsall could be the dark-horses should Peterborough stumble.
With Town having been dealt a difficult final games, including away trips to relegation threatened Carlisle and Notts County, we must remember Jay McEveley’s words pre-match on Saturday. He said the team finds it natural to motivate themselves for the division’s ‘big games’. Given recent results against Preston and the Blades and the vital momentum that’s building at the right time, there’s little reason to doubt our ability to beat these opponents.
I still believe it’s probably too much this season to believe the ‘P’ word – whether play-off or promotion – is realistic. Fortunately as this is Swindon Town that we support the seasons are rarely dull and it’s a credit to Mark Cooper’s side that with six games remaining we can still be dreaming of promotion and not a mediocre mid-table finish.