Rochdale 2-2 Swindon: Henry the King of Spotland
Adam Tanner headed to Rochdale, hoping to see the hosts’ playoff hopes beheaded by Swindon Town
Despite a tame FA Cup defeat in November, Town had never lost in eight previous league visits to Spotland. Upholding that record would be difficult against a Rochdale side that had managed 39 goals in its previous 22 home games; the division’s second highest total. The hosts went into the match in tenth place and, although they still had very faint playoff prospects, another season in League One looked almost inevitable. Surely a friendly, low-key tussle would be on the cards…
Three changes were made to the Swindon team that had secured its safety by beating Chesterfield last weekend. Goalkeeper Jake Kean, who conceded just twice in three matches on loan from Norwich, had returned to his parent club, apparently due to injury. He was replaced by 17-year-old debutant Will Henry, meaning that Town had used four goalkeepers in a season for the first time since 1999-2000.
The right wing-back slot of Brad Barry, who had started every game since 10 October, was taken by Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill, appearing for the first time since 5 March after being disciplined by the club. Yaser Kasim, a key figure in the previous two strong performances, was replaced in midfield by Anton Rodgers. Scott Twine made the bench for the first time, and I know how proud his late granddad, Stan, would have been to see him involved.
Town had recently struggled for goals on the road, with only one in five fixtures since February, but took the lead here inside 90 seconds. After receiving a simple pass from Raphael Rossi-Branco, BO-O carried the ball 20 yards forward, cut inside from the right, and released Jon Obika into the area with a tidy through ball. The forward produced a neat finish across the ‘keeper to score his third away goal of the season, and the first since November. Whilst I appreciate his value to the team, Obika will need to increase that number next season if he ends up alongside a less prolific partner.
Rochdale responded by getting a grip on midfield, and managed three major chances inside the opening stages. Shortly after Town’s opener, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, scorer of a hat-trick in the November tie, bore down on Henry’s goal and carried the ball wide into the area, beyond the advancing ‘keeper’s dive. Fortunately, enough red shirts recovered in time to crowd him out and clear the danger.
In the 14th minute, Nathan Thompson took a touch of a loose ball inside the area and, while he weighed up a clearance, an opponent drifted in front of him and drew a foul. Ian Henderson’s penalty was firmly struck, but debutant Henry threw himself to his left to push the ball wide; a great save. Finally, in the 27th minute, Joe Bunney looked set to equalise when, unmarked, he met a ball from the right six yards from goal, but Henry somehow managed to spread his body and push the ball wide.
Despite a good deal of Rochdale pressure, Town had continued to threaten in spells. Michael Doughty, a persistent threat, had combined nicely with James Brophy, whose cut back to Obika was blazed over the stand. Soon afterwards, Rodgers, without a goal since September, produced a tidy curling free-kick towards the top corner, which was well saved.
And, as the first half moved into stoppage time, Town impressively doubled their lead. Doughty’s free-kick from the left was acrobatically headed in at the near post by a very unlikely source – Nathan Thompson marked his 150th appearance for the club with just his second goal. Once again, Swindon have struggled for goals from the back, and this was only the third time all season that a defender or wing back had found the target.
Unfortunately, moments later, the single-goal margin was restored when midfielder Jamie Allen was given too much space in midfield, and cracked a 20-yard strike into the top corner. And, early in the second half, Town’s lead looked endangered when, further to an initial yellow card moments earlier, Louis Thompson’s clumsy 57th minute challenge saw him dismissed.
This threw Swindon out of synch for a while, and it came as little surprise when Matthew Lund equalised by squeezing in a near post header. Although Henry could perhaps have done better with that one, a flying save minutes later from goalscorer Lund left little doubt that this was a super debut. Despite being a man down, Swindon still offered an attacking threat in dispatches, most notably when a fine Nicky Ajose free kick hit the outside of the post.
Having seen a replay of matters in the 87th minute, I, like Luke Williams, am struggling to figure why BO-O was sent off following some kind of tussle with the vile and substantial figure of Rochdale substitute Grant Holt, who always seems to incite trouble. Anyway, having received just one red card during the initial 44 league games, Town’s seasonal tally had trebled inside half an hour.
It seemed inevitable that the six added minutes would be an ordeal, but full credit to Swindon, who saw time out comfortably for a credible draw.
Here are some reflections:
Yesterday’s point leaves Swindon with a total of 25 points from the season’s 23 away trips, a standard tally for a team in 16th place.
Results have been quite logical; a modest five points have been managed against current top half sides, each of them through battling draws, whereas a respectable 20 have been taken from our bottom half rivals. Despite leaking 6 at Scunthorpe and 5 at Fleetwood, we’ve conceded less goals on the road than at home, thanks largely to five of the season’s seven clean sheets coming away from the County Ground.
Yesterday, in the 82nd minute, Luke Williams made a substitution. This might not seem worthy of comment, but now only three of a possible 15 changes have been made by Swindon during the last five matches. To put that into context, our opponents during those games have made 13 substitutions.
It’s easy to see the logic behind the lack of movement. After Jamie Sendles-White made it onto the pitch yesterday, the bench contained five lads aged 16-18, and the unimpressive Jeremy Balmy. Although yesterday was fairly unimportant, this has been a frequent theme throughout the season; for example, at Port Vale in February, 21-year-old ‘keeper Tyrell Belford was the veteran on the bench. Although Williams may comment about the merits of a small squad, it’s difficult to dispute that the extremity of this one has held us back.
The season hasn’t been a disaster, far from it; however, with the highest average attendances in the bottom half of League One, we have underachieved, and there are definite lessons to be learned.
We have been on two substantial winless runs, of 10 and 9 games respectively, during which we have managed a total of 6 points; an average of 0.31 per game. During the remaining 26 games, we’ve needed 50 points to keep our heads comfortably above water; an average of 1.92 per game which, taken over the season, would leave us tussling with Wigan for the title.
Quite simply, we have a strong first team, which can compete with anyone in the division, and a very weak underlayer, meaning that the absence of just 2 or 3 first choice regulars can cause serious issues. To take just one area of the pitch, the capable first choice strikers Obika and Ajose have scored 35 goals between them, whilst their deputy, Jermaine Hylton, has failed to score at all. Hylton has needed a regular reserve team, or a loan move, to build some momentum, but we’ve offered him neither. Consequently, when called upon, he’s been lacking in match fitness and confidence. It isn’t realistic to expect every low-key signing to be immediately ‘oven-ready’, and some slightly more established cover is needed to give the likes of Hylton a fair opportunity to develop properly… and to enable us to cope better with injuries and suspensions that arise.
If Kasim and Ajose are to leave as expected, alongside four capable loanees, plenty of work will be required to restore the squad to the necessary level by August. In the meantime, let’s enjoy a rare ‘dead rubber’ at the County Ground next Sunday, and appreciate the role of the players in making this stage of the season a lot more comfortable than it might have been.
Follow Adam Tanner on Twitter @AdamTanner87