Swindon Town 5-5 Sheffield Utd: Wem-ber-leee…
Adam Tanner witnessed a night at The County Ground which won’t be forgotten in a hurry as Town secured a place at Wembley…
Nathan Byrne’s late winner on Thursday night meant that, if Swindon could avoid a first home defeat to Sheffield United since 1994, Wembley would beckon. Mark Cooper stuck with the team which had started at Bramall Lane, though injuries to John Swift and Andy Williams meant that Will Randall and Rafa Rossi-Branco were recalled to the bench. There was still no sign of either Harry Toffolo or Louis Thompson.
I had been busy telling anyone who would listen before the game that, if Swindon managed the first goal, we would surely cruise through to the final. After all, we hadn’t surrendered a lead in a home match since October. So when, in the fourth minute, a menacing Byrne cross was only half cleared, and Ben Gladwin met the loose ball with an absolute screamer from 18-yards, which would probably still be moving now had the net not intervened, the omens looked good.
And they soon began to look better still. Six minutes later, the relentless Byrne made it to a loose ball inside the area that he had no right to reach just before it drifted out for a goal kick. His cutback was perfect, and our man of the moment, Gladwin, arrived unmarked at the back post for a tap-in. Although his defensive game still needs some work, what an outstanding signing he has become. He’s now managed eight goals from his last six appearances.
The players were visibly loving the occasion and, amazingly, a third goal soon arrived. In the 18th minute, a dangerous ball from the right wasn’t properly cleared. The architect, needless to say, was Byrne – clearly not satisfied with his goal, assist and penalty award four days earlier. Michael Smith still had a lot to do with the loose ball 12-yards out and with his back to goal. But his controlled run across the box, followed by a calm slotted finish into the far corner, bore resemblances to the winner versus Bristol City in November. He is proving once again what an effective footballer he can be when playing with self-belief.
Despite this remarkable start, Swindon had endured narrow escapes at the back moments after each of the opening two goals, and fortune deserted us within seconds of the third. Jamie Murphy, a traditional nemesis of ours, was found in space towards the left of the Swindon area, and Nathan Thompson deflected Murphy’s shot into his own net.
Swindon soon recovered some composure after a breathless 20 minutes, and continued to attack. Massimo Luongo, a class act as usual, had the visiting defence spellbound as he glided effortlessly into the Sheffield area. Sadly he held onto the ball for a split second too long, which enabled a slight deflection to carry his powerful shot narrowly wide. I totally refuse to accept any theory that Luongo has sold us short in recent months. It’s been a privilege to watch such a quality footballer play for my team, and I hope that he goes on to have the career that he deserves.
In the 38th minute, things took another negative twist for Town when a cross was whipped in from the left, and Chris Basham had far too much space in the box to power in a diving header from 8-yards. In case, like me, you’re struggling to keep count, this left us 3-2 ahead at half-time, and 5-3 up on aggregate.
A two-goal overall advantage now looked a lot less comfortable than in the earlier stages, and it seemed that Swindon might need a fourth. It came in the 59th minute via the pretty unlikely source of a long Wes Foderingham clearance. In challenging to win it, Smith was, for the umpteenth time in the tie, causing problems in the air. This enabled the lively Jermaine Hylton to speed on to a loose ball, before being upended by the keeper just inside the box. The team has become pretty good at winning penalties (that’s now nine in 14 matches), but less adept at scoring them, with five having been missed since mid-December. Smith had the nerve to take this one, and smashed an excellent kick into the bottom left corner, beyond the ‘keeper’s dive. 4-2.
There was plenty more to follow. On 65 minutes, Town’s failure to learn from mistakes cost them again; yet another hopeful ball into the box from the left was met by yet another unmarked close-range header. 4-3. By now, Nathan Thompson had suffered a suspected hamstring injury, to be replaced by Jon Obika as part of a reshuffle. In the 84th minute, Obika played a one-two with Luongo, before carrying the ball another 30-yards and placing a gentle shot inside the far post; an excellent goal from a tidy player who has needed to be patient, but has never let us down. Last night represented the first time in 53 games this season that Andy Williams has failed to appear in a Swindon match, and it’s worth noting that, in his absence, the team produced by far its best attacking display, with all three strikers contributing a great deal. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Surely, with just a few minutes to play, a three-goal advantage would make life comfortable? Not in this tie. In the 88th minute, two Foderingham saves in quick succession weren’t enough, and Swindon’s failure to clear the loose ball resulted in a simple close-range finish. 5-4. In the 90th minute some very casual defending towards the left of the Swindon midfield allowed an opponent to break into the area and, astonishingly, Swindon had managed to concede five goals at home for the first time this century.
The addition of seven minutes (which ended up being closer to nine) was unwelcome, but thankfully the game had finally run out of twists and we saw out time relatively comfortably. That must beat off some pretty stiff competition to go down as the most remarkable Swindon game I’ve ever seen. It’s unsurprising to hear that, with a grand total of 13 goals, this has become the highest scoring tie in playoff history.
That’ll do for now; I think I need another lie down. I’ll be back with some further thoughts ahead of the final.
Follow Adam Tanner on Twitter @Adamtanner87
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