Swindon Town 2-4 Brighton: Rocked but proud

Two extra-time penalties saw Swindon exit the League Cup but with a red card and numerous injuries that is a fraction of the story, reports Alex Cooke.

“If the people of Swindon don’t want to watch this team, they don’t like football”.

It was hard boiled stuff tweeted in rage, but this one has a soft centre of truth. Swindon’s performance against Brighton & Hove Albion was a sweet display of control, incision and elegance, but it was seen by a meagre 5,414 crowd.

The bones of the game does little to convey its beauty. Brighton scored early with a volley of remarkable technique from Rohan Ince, Swindon equalised after half time through the dynamism of Louis Thompson. Extra-time became anti-climatic through injury to George Barker and two quickly taken Brighton goals; one from the spot, one from a neat cross. All of which came before a late flash of impetuousness from Nathan Thompson gave Brighton another penalty and himself a red card.

Brighton, a pick and mix team of internationals, regulars and callow youths, were happy to cede space. Town, by contrast, pressed and changed just one – Massimo Luongo for Ben Gladwin. Yet, Brighton’s 4-1-4-1 remained compact in the face of Town’s early pressure. And what pressure, Mark Cooper’s team fizzed and sparkled like sherbet. Pop! Yaser Kasim finds Luongo. Pop! One man beaten. Pop! Nathan Byrne flicks a cross. Bang! Shot!

Town were on top throughout the first half. Balls into the box by Byrne and Brad Smith flashed across the face or demanded lunging blocks from Seagull centre backs, dribbles and shots from Luongo and Kasim found only yet more bodies. Then a long ball undid all of it. Nathan Thompson was caught underneath the hoof, and when the cross was lofted to the edge of the 18-yard-box, Ince hit a waist-height volley of breathtaking technique. One shot, one goal. It was just a taste of the cruelty (and quality) to come.

Town were unbowed. They continued to both dominate the ball and the territory. The energetic but coordinated pressing of the forward line and midfield meant they snatched the ball back high up and drove onto the Seagulls’ defence. Michael Smith scuffed a close range effort and with Andy Williams had shots blocked by the tenacious Lewis Dunk. There was a clearance seemingly off the line when Brad Smith recovered an overhit cross to find Raphael Rossi-Branco. However, the best chance was probably on 31 minutes when Byrne’s cut in from the right flank and goal-bound hammer was headed away by Dunk.

As half-time loomed Brighton pushed forward again. Kazenga Lua Lua and Adrian Colunga joined the dreary Chris O’Grady up front earning a few chances, but nothing that actually tested Wes Foderingham. But again Town came back forcing the Seagulls’ ‘keeper into a fumble from a Byrne cross and another clearance from Dunk.

Fitting reward came for Town’s endeavour when Louis Thompson broke through the Brighton line just after half time. His almost unemotional celebration was out of keeping with the change in mood. This slipped pass from Kasim and dart of Thompson began a period of real pressure when another goal seemed almost inevitable. Williams twisted behind the defence once more, Brad Smith failed to connect with a Byrne cross, Thompson drove over and, most noticeable of all, on 47 minutes, Michael Smith found only the ‘keeper after a neat roll inside his marker.

After Dunk headed a Brighton corner against the bar, the game started to open up – and rough up. First Nathan Thompson earned a booking for stopping a counter attack with a shove, Branco then enraged the Brighton dugout with a robust challenge on Lua Lua.

Substitutions from both sides followed, most noticeably with the creative Paddy McCourt and the withdrawal of Luongo for Ben Gladwin. The Australian had been quite brilliant but his departure was crucial in another way. After Williams was replaced by George Barker, Gladwin was clattered mid-turn on the touchline and, although he rose and played on, he looked troubled. And when Barker injured himself pursuing a through-ball five minutes later, Cooper had a problem – two injuries and just one substitute remaining. Gladwin’s need was deemed greater and Connor Waldon came on. A drained Town limped through six uneventful minutes of injury time.

Extra time sparkled for a moment as Barker hit two fizzing shots, but then developed a sour taste. Barker’s shoulder injury returned, forcing him from the field. Combined with the clearly suffering Smith, Town looked spent as an attacking force. Brighton quickly exploited this with McCourt driving at the defence before Colunga flicked in a cross from the left. Like a kid suddenly let loose in the candy store, they pressed home the advantage. Turnbull took a booking when the line was again breached and Jake Forster-Caskey scored the resulting penalty.

But Town kept on. The spirit and intelligence they showed is a credit to each one, and to Cooper. Though Brighton were finding space wide, Swindon changed to a back four then to a three again. Byrne in particular switching fluidly from defender to attacker. Embodying this spirit was Kasim. Not only was he composed and creative, as he had been throughout, he was also inspirational. His goals was a summation of his skill: a short dribble, a pause, a drop of the shoulder, another pause and a delicate finish. It was in vain, ultimately like the whole night, but it was glorious.

Finally Brighton delivered the coup de grace: Nathan Thompson wafted a back pass and clattered the striker: a red card, a penalty and a one match ban resulted. Forster-Caskey’s second conversion mattered little to Town fans; a beautiful night had become nightmare for a squad so thin you could use it for origami.

At the final whistle, Swindon fans could be forgiven for feeling like they were on the comedown from a sugar rush: the performance had been energising but the protracted ending was hollow. Brighton’s individual qualities and the depth of their resources had allowed them to progress where Town’s limits had been pushed by injuries. And will be further in the days and weeks to come.

But inside the 90, Town had dominated possession, territory and chances. But this wasn’t match to be appreciated only by those at one with the teachings of Bielsa, this was a performance of heart, gut and those little bits of spleen which Branco’s tackling left on the pitch. If some of the reports of the game sound like sugar-coated rhetoric, they might be, however, Kasim and Luongo were outstanding even on a pitch shared with Championship players.

If only we can get some more of the people of Swindon to come and see that for themselves.

Image from Flic Wiltshire

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