Swindon Town 0-2 Sheffield Utd: Blunted by the Blades

Adam Tanner headed to the County Ground hoping for the usual five-star performance against Sheffield United…

As Sheffield United’s two most recent visits to the County Ground had yielded an incredible 17 goals, it seemed fair to approach this one with high expectations.

Unfortunately, however, Swindon’s increasingly fragile squad had taken a further two hits during the preceding week, with Nathan Thompson and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill ruled out through injury and illness. Consequently, Kevin Stewart was drafted in at right back, Jordan Turnbull slid across to left back, to accommodate Jordan Williams moving back into central defence, and Drissa Traore was recalled to start in midfield.

This didn’t bode well for Swindon’s bench, upon which the six outfield players consisted of three recent signings without a minute’s Football League experience between them, two first-year pros, and the estranged Miles Storey.

Despite this, the starting eleven had proved their worth during the season’s early stages, and the game started well. The general pace was slow, with the visitors content to sit deep and allow Swindon to knock the ball around the defence. Town managed to create the first serious chance inside ten minutes when Jordan Turnbull, playing in an unfamiliar left back role, did a great job of advancing down the wing, cutting inside and laying off the ball to Nathan Byrne, unmarked 20 yards from goal. A tame shot, straight at the ‘keeper, was disappointing and, for all Swindon’s neat and positive play in an enjoyable first half, a failure to seriously look like scoring persisted.

The best chance came when Raphael Rossi Branco, whose strong start to the season was reinforced with another good performance, broke forward from defence and drew a foul. Anton Rodgers can be a touch erratic but, for every wayward shot or pass, he can also produce a brilliant one, and if only the unmarked Branco had managed to apply a touch to his excellent free kick, we would have been celebrating a goal.

The visitors also posed a threat, and Lawrence Vigouroux needed every inch of his big, agile frame to push behind a long-range shot from Louis Reed. The resulting corner caused even greater concern and, following a scramble, a Connor Sammon shot hit the underside of the bar. Still, a goalless first half was fair enough. Swindon had generally looked steady, thanks in no small part to the energy and vision of Drissa Traore, a very valid man of the match, at the base of midfield.

Throughout August, Town had generally found the second half more fruitful than the first, but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case this time. The eager and industrious Fabien Robert couldn’t quite turn a neat Byrne cross towards goal in the early stages, but that was about as good as it got. The home team’s failure to win a corner all afternoon is an unfortunate, albeit quite telling, stat.

On 70 minutes, the deadlock was broken. There were certainly enough red shirts to deal with an incoming corner, but the bounce of a relatively tame Neil Collins header into the ground deceived everyone, and it looped into the top corner.

It must be said that the goal knocked the stuffing out of Town, and, five minutes later, the failure of Jordan Williams to intercept a through ball enabled Billy Sharp a clear run on goal, which, coupled with our lack of options from the bench, ended the game as a contest. Things could have got worse for Swindon but, fortunately, the referee showed leniency in only producing a yellow card after Vigouroux foolishly fouled Sharp, well outside his area. Our keeper is clearly a valuable asset, and I wouldn’t fancy being forced to cope without him.

Here are some further thoughts:

Nathan Byrne’s last game?

I hope that it wasn’t Byrne’s last game for Swindon, but his prolonged lap of the pitch at the end reinforced the view that it might be. He played virtually every minute of last season in a demanding wing back role, and coped extremely well.

He’s a much better player than the one we signed back in Spring 2013, and is a great example of what two or three years at Swindon can do for a player’s development. I’m confident that a player with his attitude will go on to fulfil his potential.

Forward options?

For much of the summer, it looked as if strikers represented the one position which we didn’t need to worry about.

Whereas we weren’t blessed with any star-studded talent, Michael Smith had managed a very respectable 26 goals in 57 starts for the club, Jon Obika had a strong track record at this level, and was looking sharp in pre-season, and Jermaine Hylton had seemed capable of taking the major step up from Redditch United in his stride.

Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out, and Town’s respectable record of nine league goals to date masks the fact that eight have been scored by midfielders. Hylton and Obika were soon struck by injury and, although the stats prove that Smith is perfectly capable of scoring at this level, that’s only as part of a pair.

Playing as a lone striker is clearly not easy, and I wouldn’t fancy any of our current strikers to thrive in such a role. Unfortunately, every ounce of confidence has drained from Smith, and, despite our lack of options, Mark Cooper’s decision to replace him after an hour yesterday was understandable.

Sections of the crowd may still be keen on Storey, but I’m afraid I don’t share the love, and his anonymous appearance was unsurprising. Over four years have passed since his debut, and a total of six goals for the club suggests that a fresh start might benefit both parties.

I have no problem with him, and fully accept that, under the current circumstances, it would be senseless to keep freezing him out of the squad. But there are clearly interested parties, and Lee Power’s apparent intention to complicate his departure, with unrealistic requests for transfer fees or loan fees, seems frustrating.

Transfer Policy

This leads me on to my final point. There is no doubt that, under Cooper’s management, the club has generally done a very good job of recruitment. Modest, sensible transfer fees have routinely been paid for players who have proved successful, and have ultimately developed into far more valuable assets. Free transfers are obviously more difficult to get right, but I certainly have no complaints regarding the signings of Yaser Kasim or, more recently, Traore and Robert. The same sentiment extends to loanees, of which far more have been good than bad.

This summer, however, the squad has been left looking precariously thin; yes, having five simultaneous injuries is unfortunate, but the impact shouldn’t be so great that there isn’t a single substitute who the manager would, under normal circumstances, wish to use. Next week, three players will be on international duty and others could well have been sold. Perhaps I should take my boots, just in case.

What frustrates, and slightly puzzles, me is the apparent unwillingness of Lee Power to sanction any transfer funds.

I’m not for a moment expecting the club to spend silly money on players who don’t suit our structure. But surely, following the recent healthy income, not to mention the wage bill almost certainly hitting its lowest level for several years, a couple more shrewd investments could be accounted for?

I have no issue with Power wishing to recoup some of the money that he has previously invested, to cover the final few contracts of his predecessors. But surely Cooper has proved his ability to justify virtually all of the investments that have previously been made, meaning that, ultimately, there would be a high chance of any incomers yielding more profit? A weary old cynic might suggest that Power’s stance indicates a lack of long-term commitment. And I sincerely hope that, by Tuesday evening, such a cynic might look a tad silly. We’ll soon find out.

The early signs indicate that, once again, Town might be better suited to playing away than at home. How fortunate, then, that we now face three consecutive journeys, to venues at which we managed two wins and a draw last season. Anything similar would help to suggest that, once again, we are a force to be reckoned with – regardless of who wears the shirt.

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