GIVEN the circumstances, a point was not a bad result.
There can’t be many footballers around, come to think of it there can’t be many footballers in the history of the game who have had the kind of week Swindon Town’s players had leading up to the visit of Preston.
The manager had walked out of the club on the eve of the biggest match of the season, his entire backroom team were quickly added to the list of deserters, the players were given the responsibility of preparing themselves, an interim coaching staff was assembled on a whim and a prayer and – just for good measure – everyone had a new boss after Seebeck 87 Limited finally completed their takeover of the club.
Quite frankly, looking back on the past seven days, the whole situation is simply ludicrous. Despite it all, however, the Town players managed to grind out a result which keeps them in the automatic promotion places in League One.
It wasn’t pretty, in fact in patches it was downright ugly, but Preston are undergoing a post-Graham Westley renaissance and were never likely to roll over at the behest of their high-flying hosts.
In time we will discover whether the balance Tommy Miller and Darren Ward are trying to achieve between playing and managing the team actually works – on first glance the dynamic is flawed on a matchday - but for now a point, though on first glances unsatisfactory, is a positive outcome.
That Preston only managed two shots on target over the course of 90 minutes at the County Ground shows how compact Swindon’s defence remains, even if on occasion they appeared to lose all shape along the back four, but Town will be cursing their luck in front of goal once again.
Bartosz Bialkowski and Scott Flinders have already produced sensational performances to deny Swindon points in previous games this campaign, now the name Declan Rudd can be added to that list of goalkeepers in inspired form against Town.
The Norwich loanee made at least three fine saves to keep the Robins at bay on Saturday, denying Tommy Miller, Alan McCormack and Aden Flint as North End almost snatched all three points.
Will Hayhurst took advantage of some slapdash defending to lash home Preston’s opener after 50 minutes but Adam Rooney came off the bench to score with his first touch and extend Swindon’s unbeaten run to a lucky 13.
Bury come calling at the County Ground on Tuesday as another week in the life of Swindon Town beckons. It can safely be said that it will be nothing quite like the last.
Town started quickly, as has become the norm this season, and could have taken an early lead in the sixth minute.
Andy Williams got away from his marker down the right and floated in a delightful cross which Miller did well to rise and meet, only to see Rudd leap to his left to push the midfielder’s header out for a corner.
Two minutes later, Flint nodded straight at Rudd and, having survived the initial onslaught, Preston were now able to coax the game into a turgid tedium.
Too many long aerial balls were flying down the channels, leaving Williams and James Collins to feed on scraps. The crowd grew restless as Swindon struggled to get the ball down and play. When they did, they looked dangerous.
Gary Roberts’ free-kick was saved by Rudd in the 21st minute before Williams was presented with a golden chance to score in front of the Stratton Bank when Keith Keane’s meek clearing header fell to his feet 12 yards from goal. Frustratingly, the striker thrashed the ball wide.
Thirty-three minutes had passed before Preston had their first sight of goal, and on the counter Nicky Wroe should have done better than fizz his effort over the crossbar, and the match limped towards half-time with all the elegance of a giraffe on ice.
After the break Swindon were again quicker out of the traps. In the 49th minute, McCormack’s barnstorming run down the right saw him beat two defenders and burst into the box only to see his right-footed cannonball turned over by Rudd at his near post.
Two minutes later, the hosts were behind. Preston were given time and space on the counter, Stuart Beavon crossed from the right, Jack King headed into the path of Hayhurst and the forward had time to control the ball and volley beyond Wes Foderingham as the Robins’ backline struggled to rediscover their shape.
Swindon fought back well. Roberts fired over from range, as did Collins, before Rudd got down well to his left to keep out the latter’s daisy-cutting half-volley from the edge of the box.
It was starting to feel like one of those days. Town had possession for long spells only to make a mistake at the crucial moment, and the home side needed a dollop of good fortune if they were to get themselves back on level terms.
As it happened, they received the gift they were so desperate for with quarter-of-an-hour remaining.
David Buchanan’s lazy backpass ran perfectly for substitute Rooney, who had been on the pitch for less than a minute, to bear down on goal. The Birmingham loanee made no mistake in sliding the ball beneath Rudd.
For the final 10 minutes Town pushed hard for a winner. With the County Ground crowd baying for blood, Preston were reduced to sponge-like defending, soaking up the pressure with tremendous resolve.
Rudd was the hero once again when he turned away Flint’s close-range header with a fantastic reflex save and, when the follow-up was smashed over by Alan Navarro, Swindon knew they’d have to settle for a point.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game. Preston have got a new manager, they’ve got some decent players, they had a great result last week against Bournemouth so we knew it was going to be hard,” said joint player caretaker manager Miller after the game.
“I thought we deserved to win the game, I thought we had the better chances. We started the game very well, especially the first 20 or 25 minutes. I had a good chance with my head and the keeper’s made a good save but I thought we were the better team early on.
“Then we got a bit sloppy and Preston didn’t create much. The second half started really well then they got a goal and we were very sloppy, we got a bit stretched and out of position and we’re disappointed with that.
“We got back into the game, good substitution, and we pressed and I think there was only going to be one team that was going to win it. I’ve just got to thank the lads, I thought they were outstanding. They gave it their lot for us and that’s all we can ask.
“In any game the first goal is always crucial and it knocked us a little bit. We got caught out, we lost a bit of shape and it was very disappointing. Credit to the lads, they kept on going. Adam Rooney’s had the composure to stick it in the corner and we pressed after that.
“Aden Flint had a header which the keeper’s saved and we had chances. We pressed and that’s all we can ask. If there was another five minutes I think we might have got another goal.”