Gillingham 2-2 Swindon Town: Cooper gets it “Wrong” but Town don’t miss the point

A late goalkeeping howler from Stephen Bywater gifted Swindon Town a point at Gillingham – which was the bare minimum their performance deserved. A totally dominant Town twice came back from a goal down to provide the kind of determined away performance that had been missing for most of last season, writes Joe Young. 

As a life-long Town fan, albeit one who has spent the last 15 years living in the north, I find the whole notion of the rivalry with Gillingham strange. Of course, the obvious answer to this is that I’m under 35 and won’t remember Ray McHale and 1987. Which is right, I don’t. That said, I have haven’t held Gillingham in a particularly strong light for some time, purely because of their role in the formation of the Championship and the unequal distribution of Football League money.

Peter Taylor and the Gillingham camp had talked up the rivalry leading up to match, but all that noise was not reproduced in the stadium. Conventional wisdom states that when going away in a derby game you sit back and try to weather the opposition’s storm, keep the score line at 0-0 and keep the crowd quiet. Well Mark Cooper doesn’t buy into conventional wisdom. Rather he asks the players to get the ball and keep it. Keep it from the opposition, work the space and dominate the game.

The way Town opened up was very, very promising. Nathan Thompson at the centre of the back three was at the heart of everything. Regularly taking the ball from Foderingham, rather than kicking it long and having to compete in the air and risk losing it, he was very much in the “Quarter Back” role. Taking the ball and moving it on Town had all the possession. They moved the ball around really, really well probing and asking questions of the Gillingham defence. This approach is very much about the three Ps – Possession, Patience and Performance.

It was completely against the run of play, and completely out of the blue, when Gillingham went in front. The ball was given away in midfield and suddenly Swindon looked in trouble. The danger appeared to have subsided when Bradley Dack over-hit his through ball, but in a real stroke of bad luck Wes Foderingham’s clearance rebounded off Jordan Turnball allowing Danny Kedwell to finish well from a tight angle into the empty net.

Fans around me were quick to blame Cooper, but I wanted to congratulate him instead. Too many times in the past my memories of Swindon away are of us encamped in our own penalty area, aimlessly booting the ball away to see it rapidly come back. This was better, this was proper football, this was football so confident that square balls across the penalty area were frequently used to spread the play and move the Gills midfield around probing for an opening.

Yet for all the pretty passing there were few clear cut chances made. Michael Smith headed straight at Bywater from a Ben Gladwin free kick and the keeper was at it again when he saved well from Andy Williams. Massimo Luongo also had a great effort which was headed clear for a corner.

The Adver, rather cruelly in my opinion, has labelled the passing “benign”. I wouldn’t go that far. It’s true that we were missing a true creative spark in the final third, but the Gills back line was constantly under threat. At one point, with Swindon moving the ball neatly across the Gillingham box, a fan nearby yelled in frustration, “somebody shoot!” Luongo neatly moved the ball across and Gladwin got a good effort away, saved down low to Bywater’s left. The fan looked happy, but to my mind patience and possession meant the shot was taken from a much improved position.

Despite the near total dominance of possession the away crowd were starting to get restless. This was in stark contrast to Peter Taylor, who in a break in play animatedly gesticulated at his players. Any neutral would have said his actions were those of a man’s whose team who were behind, not in front.

Thankfully the goal came. Gillingham had finally fashioned an attack not starting with Town being caught in possession, but couldn’t get a shot off. Town got the ball and broke quickly with Smith feeding Williams who ran through, cut inside and put the ball into the bottom corner of the net to end his long baron run. 1-1 at half time was less than Swindon deserved.

The Gills made a double substitution at half time and moved to a 4-2-3-1 formation. This had to be an attempt to stop the Thompson, Luongo and Kasim triangle bossing possession. After Williams had slammed the ball into the side netting, the change worked and Swindon were caught in possession again. This time Dack picked out Hause, allowing him to drill past Foderingham and restore the lead for the home side.

Swindon quickly settled back in to dominate possession again. This time they found the Gills more resolute and fewer chances were made than in the first half. Despite dominating the game, and being unlucky to be behind, the tension in the crowd started to grow. A series of short corners were met with derision and allegations that Cooper had got it all wrong.

The frustration grew as time wore on made worse when Gillingham hit the bar following a corner. Yet the Town players refused to give up on patience and possession. Finally, with time running out we got the break our performance so deserved. Neat possession resulted from a short corner as we switched the play to the right hand side. There was a half chance to feed someone in behind, which was rejected to more derision, but moments later the crisp passing created space for Branco to be set free. His cross was far from perfect, but Bywater did the rest and a point was rescued.

Overall I was really pleased with the way we played. I know some fans would rather we were slightly more direct and wish we’d throw the ball into the box, but for me there’s nothing finer than watching a young team go in to a supposedly harsh derby atmosphere and completely dominate the play. Peter Taylor has admitted that a point was the very least we deserved, being quoted by Kent Online as saying that we had “played some absolutely fantastic football”. So after two away games we have two decent performances and one point. Our away from looks really promising – but then again I said that last season after defeats at Peterborough, Preston and Wolves.

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