Alex Pritchard: Why can’t a loanee can’t be loved at Swindon Town?
With the High Court contest between Jed and Lee likely to drag on into the summer, Alex Cooke chooses to compare a loan signing from Spurs to a holiday fling with a Spanish waiter…
Perhaps Alex Pritchard should have been loved at Swindon Town. The Spurs’ loanee gave an otherwise indirect team incision and élan. With his drop of the shoulder, slipping into a half-turn and accelerating into a dancing dribble, he moistened gussets and set pulses racing. But he wasn’t loved.
Perhaps Swindon fans insulated their hearts against him slipping and squirming his way in, but Wiltshire ventricles didn’t open as easily to him as League One defences.
Perhaps the certainty that as a Tottenham loanee he would leave them at the end of the season meant not getting too involved was essential. It was self preservation. It was protection. After all we all knew he’d be gone in the metaphorical morning.
Instead the crowd were happy to to admire his undoubted technique, but never to be fooled into fawning, celebration or song. This was just an affair. Others, less talented, less precocious but certainly more local players seem set to take the polls and the affection. They were the keepers.
Adulations has been more forthcoming from outside. Nominations came for the Football League’s Young Player of the Year and League One Player of the Year. With eight goals and eight assists he certainly caught the eye of the neutral, as he also did with full-backs and defensive midfielders who frequently cast him as the ingenue.
But eventually he played then too, as through their aggression he grew over the season. And so he developed over the loan period as Spurs would have hoped he would, and Swindon needed him to – from raw material to genuine prospect, schooled in the need to play collectively, to earn points.
At first, Pritchard was clearly a talented footballer, but not a player. He had the ability to perform the kind of stepover and twist which beguiled defenders but without always capitalising on the gaps they created; his more experienced opponents stood back watching his tricks, quietly pushing him wide or running him into blind alleys.
He started as a soloist, seeing too many moves crumble at the feet of inferior teammates. At times he seemed to be apply Christiano Ronaldo’s approach of shooting early and shooting often to bolster his own personal tally. And although he is a clean striker of the ball, he will need to be less profligate when Championship chances are fewer.
His brain, almost as nimble as his feet, would spy gaps but often to prefer a shot or slaloming dribble than risk a red shirt missing the chance. He would also narrow his options through choice, preferring to operate almost centrally, even when manager Mark Cooper’s tactics seemed to demand greater width. When stationed on the left, he would simply pop inside, swivel and head to the centre. He has a degree of blindness to that flank too, which can make him slightly predictable, even if his left foot is more than adequate.
Perhaps it was the license which came with being a genuine talent but it was clear that systems which didn’t demand endless touchline shuttling brought forward more of his ability; 4-4-2 limited him. Short snaps of acceleration, allied to an ability to find space dropping off the attacking line showed him at his best, not Aaron Lennon-like endurance at top speed.
For this he needed to be given the job of jockeying and channeling high up, not protecting a full-back or tracking a deep runner into his own area. After all, while he presses with persistence but couldn’t be described as doggedly. Possibly at a higher level, when the team’s talents are more evenly distributed, he will be given less leeway but at the moment, he is happy to hustle so long as he can also drift into space.
Mentally he also stepped up as the season wore on. Too many bookings were for backchat and frustration in being fouled by those he could humiliate on the ball but not best off it. To his credit he never sulked, just got up and got brought down again. It didn’t help him bond with Town fans though.
It might be obvious to say this behaviour peaked in his sending off and shove against Bristol City but even Pritchard seems to have seen the light by then, “I’ve stopped that,” he said “I got a couple of bad tackles at the weekend but didn’t react to it.”
The turning point he saw was against Bradford City but this growing maturing could also be seen a week prior to that, against Brentford. In that match it was Alan McCormack at full-back who seemed more troubled than he. Pritchard tormented this vastly experienced professional manipulator of referees, stopping McCormack overlapping, drawing a penalty and without once succumbing to provocation himself.
It is a lesson which Swindon need him to pass onto his most likely replacement, Ben Gladwin, but for different reasons. Pritchard’s flaw has been belief in himself, Gladwin’s problem seems to be a lack of it. Pritchard often shot at goal because it he believed it was the best option, Gladwin seems to do so when he runs out of other options.
But now it is time for Swindon fans to let go of Alex Pritchard. To let him go back to Spurs. He isn’t ready for their first team yet, he still need to grow elsewhere, with someone else.
If it hasn’t been love at the County Ground, it has been an enjoyable fling – one to remembered in seasons to come. Town fans know that one day, we’ll see Alex Pritchard with other teams, in other strips and at least it won’t break our hearts.