Swindon Town 3-2 Blackpool: In the Nick of time
Adam Tanner headed to the County Ground hoping to be illuminated by Swindon Town’s performance against Blackpool
History suggested that this game could be close; prior to Blackpool’s 1-0 win over Swindon in October, each of the previous eight meetings between the sides had ended in draws. In fact, Town had beaten their opponents only once in 16 attempts since 1984.
Swindon approached this one on the back of a comfortable away win, having made light work of the disastrous Colchester defence last weekend. For various reasons, a total of four changes were made to the starting line-up; the injured Raphael Rossi Branco was replaced at the back by debutant Jamie Sendles-White, while Drissa Traore covered for Anton Rodgers in midfield, with Louis Thompson still not ready to start. Further to this, Fabien Robert and Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill were fit again, and ready to replace Ellis Iandolo and James Brophy in a 3-5-2 formation, which also differed from last weekend’s 4-4-2.
Last time Swindon kept a clean sheet at The County Ground, Chelsea were top of the Premier League… and Leicester were bottom. A lot can happen in 315 days. Saturday seemed like a decent opportunity to put that right, with Blackpool the division’s second lowest scorers, but within two minutes of kick off Town had already managed to concede. Blackpool’s 6ft 2in centre back Tom Aldred, probably the biggest player on the pitch, arrived unmarked to head a corner into the roof of the net. The fact that only four goals have been conceded in Swindon’s last seven away games makes a mockery of the extreme issues at home.
The situation wasn’t helped by the foul conditions, with strong winds and heavy rain and, although Swindon had the wind behind them in the first half, it seemed counterproductive, as numerous passes were badly overhit into the Stratton Bank. Very little of note had been happening leading up to the 17th minute, in which Jon Obika’s tame 25-yard cross was heading straight at Blackpool ‘keeper Colin Doyle… but Doyle made a hash of a routine catch, and spilt the ball. Usually he would probably have got away with it; not with Nicky Ajose on the pitch. As usual, Ajose was onside and on the money. His reward for following up a likely lost cause was an easy goal, and Town were level.
The rest of the first half was uneventful. Ajose hit one decent left footed strike from 20 yards, which was pushed over. Town had a few opportunities to test the unconvincing Doyle by aiming some balls into the wind, but too often the crosses were poor. A free kick was awarded on the edge of the Blackpool area on the stroke of half time, but Ajose placed it over the bar and we went in level.
As usual, Swindon turned up the pace for the second half. From nowhere, Jordan Turnbull played a great ball in to Obika, who closed in on Doyle but placed his shot straight at the ‘keeper. He could do with a goal after six games without one, but he always perseveres and won’t be waiting for long.
Bradley Barry has become an effective attacking full-back, with plenty of assists to his name, and he added another one here. In the 61st minute, he burst with pace down the right, and drilled a firm ball across the box. It came as no surprise to see Ajose battling his way beyond his marker at the far post, to sniff out yet another ‘striker’s goal’ and put Town in front.
Just three minutes later Barry was the culprit, conceding a penalty for getting too strong a grip on his opponent while a corner was being delivered. Whereas defenders often get away with such things, it didn’t seem like a sensible chance to take. Danny Philliskirk drilled the penalty high into the net to make it 2-2.
Town didn’t allow the momentum to fade, and continued to press for a winner. Ajose was again central to most of what happened, most notably after substitute Iandolo played him in down the left of the area, but he couldn’t get a clean shot away, and this fixture’s draw count looked like increasing further.
That was until the 88th minute. Louis Thompson burst through midfield and played in Obika down the right, who cut inside and hit a firm left footed shot which Doyle pushed away to the left. When Ajose collected the loose ball with his back to goal it looked as if the moment had gone, but our main man was up to the task again. Running away from goal, he skipped past two challenges, found some space on the edge of the box, turned, picked his spot and curled a wonderful shot just inside the far post to become the first Swindon forward to score a hat-trick since James Collins in January 2013 (strangely, three midfielders have managed one in the meantime – a bonus point to anyone who can name them all without cheating). I’ve been fortunate enough to watch some great strikers play for Swindon over the last 20 years but, in terms of finishing alone, I’d say Ajose is second to Charlie Austin. He’s only 24, and still has time to really make something of his career.
There was time for one final defensive set piece panic in the 95th minute, but the 3-2 win was deserved.
Here are some thoughts:
- Home Comforts
Although, as a frequent traveller, I can say with certainty that most of Swindon’s best football this season has come on the road, we have now won six of the last eight home matches. The team has become adept at ‘ticking the box’, even if it’s often in a very roundabout way, and that should be applauded.
During the last ten home games, we’ve also scored seven goals in the 85th minute or later (with five of them coming from Ajose; it’s no wonder that he doesn’t like being substituted). That’s a very healthy habit, and definitely not in keeping with most Swindon teams of my generation.
- The season from here
With 42 points from 32 games, we would probably need to average well over 2 points per game to make the playoffs, and well under 1 to be relegated. Even with nearly a third of the fixtures to go, we do look odds on for the ultimate Swindon Town rarity; a mid-table season.
At this stage in 2013/14, things were very similar. A strong run and an eight place finish kept the fans interested until the end, and set the scene nicely for a promotion push the following year. A repeat would be most welcome.
- Squad Depth
Luke Williams chose to only make two substitutions yesterday. The unused four outfield players consisted of Jeremy Balmy, who is yet to impress me, and three youth team graduates who, rightly or wrongly, seldom make the cut at Swindon.
Yesterday it didn’t matter, and we got the job done. However, several games this season have been forfeited due to our wafer thin squad. At Port Vale earlier this month, for instance, the absence of just five players left us badly exposed at both ends, with an extremely makeshift starting 11. Just hours after the transfer window had closed, we should not have been in that position. It’s wasted opportunities such as this which have left the playoffs seeming, in reality, out of reach.
Despite not having anything like a local derby to boost the numbers (there’s no opponent within 70 miles), we maintain by far the highest average attendance in the bottom half of the league. We are punching below our weight this year, in a relatively weak division, and the onus is on Lee Power to ensure that next season is approached with a sensible sized squad, to avoid further opportunities going to waste.
Of course, things are so much better than they could have been. As things stand, we could overtake Peterborough with a win next weekend; a prospect that would have seemed laughable three short months ago when we were sitting in 23rd place. Luke Williams has quietly made a good start, with 14 points from 8 games, and there’s every chance that further steady progress will be made.