Sheffield Utd 1-2 Swindon Town: Sharper than the Blades
Ross Barrett reports on the League One play-off semi-final 1st leg, as Swindon Town secure a first win at Bramall Lane since 1970 and are one step closer to Wembley…
Swindon Town fans have grown to find the play-offs a tortuous experience. And when Town were overrun in the opening quarter, and then preceded to miss another penalty, the all-too-common sickening feeling was building. But Swindon rose against a tiring Sheffield United side to equalise and then scored a last-gasp winner to send the away following into ecstasy as Swindon claimed a vital lead going into the second leg on Monday night.
With Town’s fate set in the play-offs for the past few weeks, manager Mark Cooper had been able to rest numerous first-team players before the first leg. His decision was warranted though as a fresh starting 11, only missing Harry Toffolo, were able to come strong against Sheffield United in a frantic game. Sam Ricketts adopted the left wing-back role, while the other selection argument was boldly resolved by Mark Cooper’s starting both Michael Smith and Jermaine Hylton up-front ahead of top goalscorer Andy Williams.
Swindon’s destiny in the play-offs had been inevitable and the tension of this seemed to be released by the players as the game kicked off. Town struggled to display the same composure and control to which we’ve become accustomed, with passes going astray and Sheffield pressuring Swindon with long balls and flick-ons aimed at both Nathan Thompson and Nathan Byrne.
These were to prove troublesome for Town all night with United’s physical advantage telling, yet it was some neat interplay down the left flank that resulted in Town going behind in the tie. The Blades had already come close three times with a significant penalty appeal turned down and both Murphy and Davies squandering chances before a cutback from Ryan Flynn found Kieran Freeman who swept the ball past Wes Foderingham for a worryingly deserved opener.
But from this point Town settled and began to cause Sheffield United problems of their own. They appeared back in the game when a typically jinky run from Nathan Byrne resulted in a penalty for Town. Despite his occasional defensive flaws, Byrne tormented his opposite number in one-on-one situations time and again. He was this time upended by the Blades’ left back Bob Harris in the area to give Ben Gladwin the chance to put Town level.
The agonising wait for the kick seemed to affect Gladwin who, under the pressure of the occasion, saw his low penalty saved by the burly Howard. But this did not take the wind out of Swindon’s sails with more astute direct passing allowing the sprightly Hylton to burst in behind former Town man Jay McEveley and force a Nathan Byrne chance to be smartly blocked by Blades’ ‘keeper Howard. As half time beckoned Town held the momentum of the tie; after surviving the opening tirade from Sheffield for the loss of just one goal the Robins now looked the far more likely to score.
As the pressure built, with both Smith and Hylton having chances without troubling the ‘keeper. The away following became ever more yearning for a deserved Town equaliser and they were given their wish when Sam Ricketts rose and bulleted in a perfectly angled header from a whipped Nathan Byrne corner.
Pandemonium ensued in the away end as the Swindon-born loanee redeemed himself among sections of fans who were remarkably critical of his first- half performance considering he was playing completely out of position.
Swindon now began to show the style of football that had thrilled so many supporters this season, with Yaser Kasim controlling the tempo of the game and showing unparalleled composure in the frenzied play-off atmosphere.
Fans nerves were still shredded though as Swindon’s back three often became exposed. Our defenders seeming more susceptible to diving in to challenges than usual, with two half chances gifted to Flynn and Davies before the Swindon captain fortuitously gained a free kick attempting to shield the ball from the onrushing Done in unique Thompson fashion. The Swindon defence had the rub of the green again moments later as Davies missed a free header with the goal gaping as the steel city crowd realised they may need a winner to take to Wiltshire from the final 10 minutes.
With the game heading towards a draw, but certainly not petering out, Jack Stephens showed the frailties in the United defence, surging forward but spurning the opportunity to set up a team-mate. Considering the nature of the game and the occasion, as well as Swindon’s record at Bramall Lane, that draw would have been wholeheartedly welcomed by many of the Town faithful.
But as the the 4th minute of injury time ticked over Swindon were to mount one final attack. An unremarkable goal kick was brought down by Smith who’s lay off allowed Luongo to find Byrne in space. One-on-one with Harris again, he drove straight at the retreating defender before arrowing a strike from 25-yards that somehow bobbled over Howard’s despairing hands and nestled in the corner of the net.
Cue absolute delirium.
Swindon had won it. And while we should all stay grounded in the fact that it is essentially only half time, the psychological impact was clear. As the United players sank to the floor and the Swindon fans raised their arms to the heavens it just felt like, this time, at least for now, things were going our way.
The efforts of the players had been rewarded and desires of the fans had been realised and with the same performance and atmosphere Monday night it can happen again. Donate to Jay Collett’s display fund here – https://firstname.lastname@example.org – and lets make Monday night one to remember.