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SWINDON TOWN: Belford's shootout heroics secure JPT victory
SWINDON Town advanced to the area final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with a penalty shootout victory over Stevenage at the County Ground last night.
Tyrell Belford saved two Boro spot-kicks in the shootout to propel Town into the next round of the competition, where they will face manager Mark Cooper’s old side Peterborough over two legs after Posh beat Newport in the other regional semi-final.
Earlier in the game, Nicky Ajose had given the Robins the lead with a clever deflection of Ryan Harley’s long-range striker, but Town – who had dominated the first half – took their foot off the gas in the second period and allowed their guests back into the game.
Francois Zoko headed home an equaliser 11 minutes from time to force the shootout, but Swindon showed the bottle and the class to prevail.
Cooper chose an attacking line-up for the clash, the Swindon manager shoehorning Ryan Mason, Massimo Luongo, Alex Pritchard, Dany N’Guessan, Harley and Ajose into the same team from the offset.
Belford started in goal, with Wes Foderingham dropping to the bench as he had done in the Robins’ previous two JPT outings this term, while Jack Barthram was installed at right-back.
Barthram was easily beaten down the outside by Luke Freeman in the third minute but, when Freeman cut the ball neatly inside to Michael Doughty the midfielder fluffed his lines and skewed his shot wide.
In an action-packed first five minutes, Stevenage somehow survived going a goal behind when Nicky Ajose was the subject of a blatant push in the back after Darren Ward’s initial header hit the crossbar. Ajose ended up in the back of the net – from a standing start – with such force that he broke the goal but somehow referee Stephen Martin failed to pick out the foul on the striker and waved away Town’s penalty appeals.
Mason, who started the game like a puppy seeing an open field for the first time, tested Chris Day with a skidding daisy-cutter which the Stevenage keeper did well to hold on to, before Jay McEveley crashed a left-footed shot into the sidenetting on the quarter-hour.
The Robins quickly assumed total control of proceedings, looking rejuvenated for their mini break from competitive action, and midway through the opening period the hosts took the lead.
A tidy short corner routine found its way to Harley 25 yards from goal and the former Exeter man’s low strike was cleverly diverted past Day by Ajose.
After nudging in front, Swindon were more willing to sit back and toy with their opponents. The surging runs forward – a regular feature of the opening 20 minutes – were replaced by intelligent passing in midfield and, with Stevenage offering very little going forward, the hosts seemed increasingly comfortable.
Only Freeman looked like causing Town problems, as the visitors resorted to efforts from distance – with Filipe Morais firing over in the 39th minute and Doughty calling Belford into a simple save 60 seconds later.
But it was distinctly unimpressive stuff from Stevenage, who looked completely bereft of ideas and floated through the first half with the air of a beaten side.
Swindon came out a little lethargically after the break and Stevenage almost punished the home side in the 49th minute when Parrett stole past McEveley on the right and flashed a cross into the six-yard box, where Morais’ header hit Belford in the chest before Grant Hall cleared.
A stale start to the second period only came to life in the 65th minute. Pritchard collected Ajose’s lay-off 20 yards from goal and saw his thumping drive rebound off the bar and away to safety.
The winger, quiet for much of the game, came close again in the 72nd minute, collecting the ball on the edge of the box, turning his marker and curling just wide of Day’s right-hand post.
The visitors were not out of the game, however, and in the 76th minute Swindon were warned how fragile their lead was. Lucas Akins, a second-half substitute for Stevenage, somehow ghosted through the middle and was only denied an equaliser by Belford’s outstretched fist.
Akins then appeared to be brought down by Yaser Kasim in the area, only for Stephens to once again shy away from awarding a penalty, but Boro found their way through with 10 minutes remaining in the game.
A corner from the left was Town’s undoing, as Zoko somehow stole in at the near post to squeeze a header past Belford. It was no more than Stevenage deserved for a second-half display full of character. For Swindon, who didn’t heed various warning shots, it was fitting punishment.
Ajose almost sneaked a winner with the final kick of the game for Town, but his delicate curling effort flirted with the outside of Day’s left-hand post before dribbling wide, and the game was destined to be decided by spot-kicks.
Kasim, Pritchard and Mohamed El Gabas all found the net with classy penalties for the Robins, but Belford saved from Freeman and Ben Chorley lashed over the crossbar, meaning that when Town’s keeper kept out Morais’s effort Swindon were through.