Luton Town 1-2 Swindon Town: Hats off for Smith

Adam Tanner went to Kenilworth Road, Luton to witness Swindon Town’s first step on the League Cup road to Wembley…

Swindon approached the game looking to uphold a curiously healthy League Cup record away from home. The team had won at QPR, Stoke and Bristol City inside the last three years; and we had only lost one away tie (on penalties at Wolves in 2009) since 2004. However, Luton Town had stormed back into the Football League in April with 101 points and opened this season with a win at Carlisle. It was clear that a further strong performance would be required to see them off.

Town’s current squad doesn’t allow for much rotation, so it was unsurprising to see only one change from the team which beat Scunthorpe. Derby County did not allow Josh Lelan to become cup tied, so he was replaced in central defence by Raphael Rossi Branco.

From the beginning, Town looked composed and began to regularly work the ball to Nathan Byrne down the right flank. This was the first game that I had seen since May, and it was quickly apparent that we had added some zip and pace to the passing game. Byrne was keen to take on the fullback, and delivered a steady flow of crosses. Two of the early ones fell to Ben Gladwin, who fired one over, and sidefooted another straight at the keeper. There’s still work to be done, but Byrne is so much better than the player we signed 18 months ago, and now that we finally appear to have found a position for him I expect him to establish himself as a key player.

Luton were chasing shadows for spells, but did pose a threat when they got forward though, like Swindon, they tended to miss the target. Paul Benson struggled to make an impression in the hour that he spent on the pitch, and our junior defence coped fairly comfortably with him and a hefty looking Luke Rooney, who was playing just behind him.

Swindon’s best chance of the half came out of nowhere. Louis Thompson sent a high ball wide towards Byrne, who hit an excellent first time cross across goal which fell just in front of the approaching Michael Smith, who couldn’t quite reach it. It would have made a lovely goal. Unfortunately, it summarised a first half in which Massimo Luongo, Yaser Kasim and Byrne also put decent opportunities off target. Despite Swindon’s dominance of the ball, we hadn’t seriously worked their keeper, and a goalless half-time scoreline was fair. It had been a frustrating half for Brad Smith, who had been largely isolated as most of our play had gone down the right. He also apparently picked up an injury, and was replaced for the second half by Jack Barthram.

The half started badly for Town, as Nathan Thompson was adjudged to have handled an innocuous ball into the box. It looked harsh at the time, and it looks harsh on the video. Rooney smashed the penalty inside the left-hand post, past Wes Foderingham’s dive, and Luton were ahead.

Predictably, the game then opened up, and a further goal looked likely at one end or another. In the 76th minute, the tireless Byrne drove at the Luton defence for the umpteenth time, and was tripped just inside the box for a stonewall penalty. As usual, Smith grabbed the ball with confidence, and fired it into the bottom corner. The winner wasn’t far behind it. The classy Luongo played an immaculate ball through to Smith, who wrongfooted first the defender, and then the keeper with a tidy left-footed finish. It was a lovely goal, of the type that I feel we will get used to.

This team thrives on being in front. In the final stages you could almost hear the midfield purr, as possession was retained with ease for large spells. We created one more chance when Andy Williams was played in down the left, but he shot rather than crossing towards the available Smith, and Tyler made a comfortable near-post save. Despite its class, the team isn’t afraid to do the dirty bit; Jordan Turnbull and Barthram ended the night with bandages around their stitched heads, and Louis Thompson left injured as we went into stoppage time.

There was still time for one hairy moment when Luke Rooney went over a stray leg in the Swindon area. From 100 yards away, it looked like more of a penalty than the one given against Thompson. Thankfully, the referee decided Rooney had taken a tumble, and showed a second yellow card, forcing him to plod the length of the pitch towards tunnel, to the amusement of the Swindon fans. The final whistle followed moments later. I should mention that the 436 travelling fans were nearly as good as the team, and it’s both an encouragement and a relief to see Cooper finally get some of the support that he deserves. We shouldn’t take him for granted.

Here are my thoughts:

  1. Player Development

Last night, it was apparent that Branco has gained a great deal of confidence on the ball since May, and he fits much more neatly into our team as a result. He has clearly worked hard over the summer. I would say the same for Barthram. I felt last season that, whenever he played at wing back, he looked exposed due to a lack of defensive awareness. Yesterday he played with a lot more intelligence, and certainly had one of his best games for us. Credit is due to the coaching staff. They clearly know how to develop players.

  1. Leadership

Football tends to assume that only older players are equipped to lead. Although Darren Ward’s performances last season had been below-par for some time before he was eventually dropped, there was a consensus that we might collapse without an experienced head in defence. In actual fact, as soon as the novice Jack Stephens replaced him, we produced our best run of the season, both in terms of points gained and goals conceded.  I firmly believe that leadership is something that cannot be taught; you are either born a captain, or you are not. Nathan Thompson was; Ward was not. Age is immaterial. Cooper is right to have identified this, and we are a far stronger team as a result.

  1. Strikers

We could now make a strong case for Michael Smith being our key player. For all our class in midfield, we could lose Luongo, Kasim or Thompson for a couple of weeks without great concern, as we have the quality to cover for an absence. Up front, things aren’t so straightforward. Besides Smith, the only forward with a career goal to his name is Andy Williams. In contrast to Smith’s five goals in his last three games, Williams has scored one in his last 25 appearances for Swindon and Yeovil combined, and hasn’t managed a league goal in over 17 months.

Williams is 27, and should be in his prime. As both our senior player and highest earner, we are entitled to expect significantly more than we get. Whereas the bulk our squad is now characterised by ambition and hard work, Williams still seems content to amble along, and do the bare minimum required to justify a healthy wage. He represents a throwback to the di Canio era when, despite all the hot air about flawless work ethics, large numbers of our signings were on board for little other than the silly money. I really want him to prove me wrong, but I don’t see it happening.

We now have consecutive away league games, against Crawley and Gillingham. We can approach them with confidence. If we can earn a couple of results and put last season’s patchy away form behind us… well, who knows. In the meantime, let’s look forward to tonight’s draw. If Round 2 treats us as well as it has done in the last couple of years, we’ll be in for a treat.

 

 

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