BARTOSZ Bialkowski produced his very best Jan Tomaszewski impression to keep Swindon Town at bay and hand Notts County all three points in Saturday’s saturated clash at Meadow Lane.
Like his compatriot, who in 1973 almost single-handedly held England at bay as Poland won 1-0 at Wembley, the goalkeeper enjoyed an afternoon during which he gave off the aura of a man who, for 90 minutes at least, was practically unbeatable.
There were jokes in the Meadow Lane press box in the hours building up to kick-off revolving around the Pole’s ability – with particular reference to his howler in Southampton colours almost a year ago when he let Callum McManaman’s weak shot squirm through his legs to hand Blackpool a gift-wrapped goal.
It was daft to judge the guy before either team had taken to the Nottingham rain to warm up, we know that now, but it’s hardly inexcusable. Brian Clough dubbed Tomaszewski “The Clown” before the World Cup qualifier in ‘73 and that came back to haunt him.
A little less than 40 years on Swindon’s travelling media were given the same treatment, as Bialkowski pulled off save after sensational save to shut out the Robins and lift his own team above their guests in the League One table.
The 25-year-old turned a James Collins flick onto a post, pushed Andy Williams’ low effort out for a corner, forced Matt Ritchie’s quick turn and shot to safety and somehow clawed Darren Ward’s header away from the Notts goal as Swindon did everything right but score in retaliation to Alan Judge’s 27th-minute strike for the home side.
It was a masterclass in the art of goalkeeping - assured, athletic and as stubborn as a particularly lazy donkey. Nothing was going to get past Bart on Saturday. End of.
Ninety-odd yards away, Wes Foderingham put in a shift of similar quality. The Swindon stopper could do little to prevent Judge’s sizzling winner from all of 20 yards but he did pull off a brilliant save early in the second half to deny Chris Iwelumo’s point-blank header.
For 60 minutes or so Town were creative and enthusiastic. Against a Notts County team of some evident class they engineered chance after chance, taking their time to prise open the Magpies’ defence only to come unstuck when a killer finish was needed.
In the final third of the game the Robins lost a little of that fluency, perhaps undone by ineffective substitutes, but Bialkowski still had to be on hand to save twice in stoppage time as Swindon refused to give up the fight.
It may be two defeats in a row, and no goals in the process, but this was a performance not to be scoffed at. League One is so tight, and a chunk of teams so evenly matched, that any result is possible on any given day.
On this evidence Town have a squad more than capable of a top-six finish. Let’s not be forced to settle for midtable just yet, these boys have got plenty to offer.
Notts County shot out of the traps and within two minutes Foderingham had to be alert to get down to save Judge’s effort from 12 yards while, at the other end three minutes later, Collins narrowly failed to direct Raffa De Vita’s headed cross home from close range.
Town enjoyed a let off in the seventh minute when Judge blocked teammate Neal Bishop’s rasping drive from finding the top corner and Foderingham was on hand once again to push Alan Sheehan’s free-kick over the crossbar as the Magpies raced into the ascendancy early on.
Jeff Hughes’ deflected effort looped into Foderingham’s arms in the 15th minute before the Swindon keeper made another excellent save, this time from Bishop from close range. It was one-way traffic.
Soon, however, the traffic was diverted. Town out of nowhere found their feet and the passing and movement returned.
Bialkowski got one of his paws to Williams’ low, right-footed effort in the 20th minute before the Notts keeper pushed Collins’ flicked attempt from De Vita’s cross onto his right-hand post moments later.
Now it seemed Swindon were the most likely to take the lead, and perhaps they should had Williams not fluffed his lines when he tried to find Collins free in the box in the 26th minute.
Less than 60 seconds later the Robins were behind.
Notts countered, Judge was allowed to run freely at the Swindon defence and the midfielder made the most of the space offered to him as he produced a sublime finish into Foderingham’s bottom right-hand corner.
Stung, Town quickly looked to get back into the contest. They thought they had when Collins headed home Alan McCormack’s cross but he was quite rightly flagged as being offside.
Bialkowski made two more routine saves, both from Matt Ritchie, before the sides headed in for the interval.
Seven minutes after the break the hosts should have given themselves a two-goal cushion. Iwelumo, making his debut after moving to Nottingham on loan from Charlton, found space in the box to meet a cross from the right but his close-range header was brilliantly saved by the scrambling Foderingham.
The stop encouraged Swindon to push on and find an equaliser. Bialkowski got down brilliantly to his right to parry Ritchie’s effort after the winger had neatly turned Gary Liddle inside the area, while the Pole seemed to defy physics as he stretched behind himself to fumble clear Ward’s header from less than a yard out following Ritchie’s corner.
From 65 minutes in a frantic game lost a lot of its hectic energy. The introductions of Danny Hollands and Chris Martin muted Town’s performance more than igniting it further and it took until three minutes from time for the visitors to test Bialkowski once more.
Again the Notts keeper was equal to it, saving comfortably from Ritchie and pushing Jay McEveley’s cross-cum-shot over for a corner as time whittled away and Swindon were unable to find a way past the inspired Pole.
“I’m disappointed because obviously we dominated for most of the game and once again we go out with nothing, thinking that we conceded one shot from 30 yards and another shot from seven yards from a rebound in the whole game,” said Town boss Paolo Di Canio afterwards.
“We created, in my opinion, a minimum of five or six clear chances. I called 20 potential chances where only four were not good delivery or good decisions.
“That proves what I told you during the week. I am top manager. This year I have told everybody we are middle or low table with our mechanism and today we could see once again the team never gave the sensation that they could sink completely.
“We were on top but we lost 1-0. The system brought my players close there but in the final action it is individual action and I can’t put my hand or my foot, unfortunately, in the game.
“I’m a little bit disappointed but my staff’s job and my job is clear on the field, and this is the only way to have a comfortable season without dreaming.
“Every game we create seven or eight clear chances and sometimes we don’t score. Then when we go down the character of more than a few of my players unfortunately goes down. It’s difficult to give character and heart.
“I try to improve and speak to persuade but it’s not easy. I’m a bit sad but the fact that we dominated once again away from home is a little consolation. It means that our job is clear; we dominated.”