Oldham Athletic 2 – 1 Swindon Town: Our own worst enemies

Swindon Town suffered a second defeat in three games as a frantic 60 seconds lead to a frustrating evening at Boundary Park reports Ross Barrett…

Swindon returned to their more accustomed 3-5-2 in the face of a combative Oldham Athletic side who had caused Town problems in the 2-2 draw at the County Ground earlier this season.

Mark Cooper made three changes from Saturday’s comfortable 2-0 win over Barnsley. Ben Gladwin replaced the almost ever present Nathan Byrne at right wing-back and a double change in an attacking sense with Jon Obika and Michael Smith coming in for John Swift and Andy Williams – who were dropped to the bench. Captain Nathan Thompson continued to be sidelined with a dead leg meaning Town would once again name just six substitutes.

A return to the favoured 3-5-2 was greeted by many Town fans. Saturday saw the fluidity and incisiveness of Town’s play being somewhat stifled by an overcrowded 3-6-1. However, it was the decision to bench Andy Williams, who had appeared a rather isolated as a lone striker on Saturday, that was met with bemusement.

The Oldham side were more rigid in their set-up, former Blackburn ‘keeper Jake Kean was protected by a strong back four that was marshalled by the monstrous George Elokobi. The Latics had further steel in midfield in the form of Liam Kelly and also boasted the services of the 14 goal Jonathan Forte, who notably is the player closest on the heels of Andy Williams at the top of the League One goalscoring charts.

My personal journey over from Sheffield marked my first trip to Oldham and upon entering Boundary Park it was hard not to be drawn to the redevelopment to the North Stand to our right which acted as a rather significant eye-sore. The ground, although niche in its features, appeared tired and struggled to develop an atmosphere. Although this said, much of this may have been influenced by the bitter conditions sweeping in from the Pennines adjacent and the sour taste left in the mouths of the faithful Swindon supporters after the game, who must be credited for making such a journey for a Weekday fixture.

Lights through a "stand". Whatever next...  - Photo Joe Young

Lights through a “stand”. Whatever next… – Photo Joe Young

As the match kicked off it became clear that the playing surface was also vastly different to the majestic conditions this Swindon side are treated to at the County Ground. Town struggled to retain control and possession like they are so used to doing. The absurd chants of ‘dodgy keeper’ one minute in by the home support next to us were only heightened as Wes Foderingham sliced or over-hit a number of clearances on the bobbly pitch. The pressure on Foderingham and the rest of the side when in possession was intense, with Oldham appearing well-drilled and motivated in their pressing and Town appearing somewhat flustered in response. Perhaps a sign of things to come.

The first goal came in strange fashion. Swindon gave the ball away cheaply at a throw-in on the left and the simplest of through balls caught the Swindon defence static allowing Conor Wilkinson to stroll to the byline without a defender in close pursuit. Wilkinson preceded to cut the ball back for Mike Jones who placed a composed finish to Foderingham’s right. The goal seemed to happen in slow motion, with the Swindon players reacting languidly to a sloppy loss of possession and paying the price.

Before the West Country following had even digested what had just gone on Wilkinson was clean through and bearing down on goal once again. As Harry Toffolo and Cooper tried to unpick how the Latics had so easily breezed down the Swindon left moments earlier, Massimo Luongo aimed a weak pass directly from kick off in Jack Stephens direction. However this ball was intercepted by Wilkinson, who cruised 30 yards before calmly slotting past Foderingham.

The Swindon side, for all their brilliant football this season, momentarily appeared unsettled with the young players looking somewhat bemused. A Nathan Thompson shaped hole, in defensive quality and in leadership, was at this moment extremely pertinent. Both goals resulted from mental lapses in concentration or indecisiveness. This is perhaps a psychological feature inherent to young loan players or perhaps this was just a hangover from a complacence inducing win against Barnsley on Saturday? Either way, despite the occasional heart-stopping moment, it was hard to blame the current style of play for either of the goals that lead to Swindon trailing 2-0 with just 11 minutes on the clock.

From this point Town began to take control of the game, yet still not with the same authority with which they have dismissed so many sides this season. Oldham, now content with a two-goal lead, stood off town only pressing in dangerous central areas. Despite the occasional scare, with a luckily mistimed shot being nodded in by an offside Jonathan Forte, Town began to fashion half-chances. Ben Gladwin tested the Oldham ‘keeper and Michael Smith perhaps needing to do better with a flicked header. Despite this, Elokobi and co. were robust in their defence and consistently won the battles against Town strikers Jon Obika and Michael Smith, who both struggled to be effective on the night.

The second half saw a return of a spectacle much more familiar to the travelling Town fans as Oldham sat back resisting the increasing amount of territory and control Swindon began to hold over the game. While I may not go as far to say Swindon performed well, as Manager Cooper has insisted, Town certainly showed their talent in the second half without creating many clear cut opportunities.

Louis Thompson, who had a surprisingly quiet game, fired wide from the edge of the box and Massimo Luongo eventually pulled a goal back as his strike from distance dipped on the Oldham ‘keeper Kean and found the bottom corner of the net. Even despite this, the Town players appeared subdued with their celebrations, the early sucker punch had wounded Town’s determination and the feeling was not the same as at the comebacks against Fleetwood and Walsall.

This approach was noticeable as the half wore on. There were more moments of concern for Town who saw Foderingham relied upon to twice to produce very good saves to deny Rhys Murphy and Carl Winchester, who both found space behind the Swindon defence at the expense of the positioning of Raphael Rossi Branco. The Brazilian centre back showed some good ability to bring the ball out from the back in the second half, and produced a delightful flick to set up Toffolo late in the game. But this was one of those performances from Branco more akin to the David Luiz vs. Germany than that of the all round defender worth £50m.

In search for an equalizer Cooper sent on 18-goal man Andy Williams, Chelsea loanee John Swift and youngster Jermain Hylton, replacing both the strikers and the muted Yaser Kasim. Despite Williams squandering the best chance offered to the three substitutes, a stooping header from a fizzing Toffolo cross, Hylton looked the brightest, with his link up play and electric pace causing problems without reward.

Swift was often guilty of overplaying, but did wriggle into the box late in game allowing Branco to set up Toffolo for the defining moment of the second half. In acres of space Toffolo fearfully hit his shot straight at Kean and Town were forced to face a second away defeat in succession, and another fruitless return from a cold night in the North.

With Bristol City winning and MK Dons losing Swindon stay 2nd but lose ground on leaders City. The gap is by no means unrecoverable, and those calling the league to City this early are almost certainly premature in their predictions but Town’s young players have a lot to learn in order to challenge the experience of the other three contenders. Nevertheless, and in-keeping with perspective, this is an immensely gifted set of players and staff who have performed brilliantly home and away this season.

Town travel next to the wonders of Scunthorpe on Valentines Day. Good luck to those going and I hope you’re not in too much trouble with your other halves.

Ross Barrett – @Barrett2293

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