IT WAS Groundhog Day for Swindon Town at the Priestfield Stadium – another shallow away performance ending in defeat.
It’s becoming predictable now. Town, so brilliant on so many occasions on home turf, just cannot find a rhythm or flow on their travels. Such was the nature of this loss, to a direct but unexceptional Gillingham, that it would have been possible to reproduce the match report from the 2-0 defeat at Stevenage on Tuesday night and discrepancies would have been few and far between.
Swindon weren’t awful but they were sloppy, careless, unimaginative and indecisive – hardly a combination of qualities that you need to grind out crucial points on rutted pitches in far away outposts as the season reaches its business end.
There was isolated displays of encouragement – Alex Pritchard’s tricky, energetic display drew noticeable praise from the 372 hardy souls who made the trip to Gillingham, while Jay McEveley returned at left-back and showed how important an experienced head can be when times are tough.
The omens all pointed to defeat. Swindon had not won at the Priestfield for more than 26 years, the man in charge of the game – referee Andy Madley – had presided over the debacle at Macclesfield in the FA Cup and Town were winless on the road in more than two months, and perhaps some were expecting another loss. Maybe that’s the problem. Psychology.
Whatever’s the matter, Swindon fell behind in the most basic of fashions within 20 minutes as they failed to mark Leon Legge – who Nathan Byrne revealed after the game had been earmarked by Town as the Gills’ dangerman in the air – and the defender nodded home from a free-kick.
Michael Harriman added a second for the hosts seven minutes before the end and Gillingham were good value for their three points. Town’s next away day is next Tuesday at Walsall, let’s hope it’s not a repeat all over again.
Robins manager Mark Cooper made one change to the XI which started at Stevenage, with McEveley replacing Dany N’Guessan, while the Town boss changed to a 3-5-2 formation as Alex Pritchard supported Nile Ranger up front.
Gillingham’s sizeable striker Adebayo Akinfenwa had the game’s first sight of goal in the second minute but, having outmuscled Grant Hall at the back post, the former Swansea and Northampton man could only steer his volley wide.
Though Swindon looked comfortable with ball at feet on a difficult playing surface, littered as it was with ruts and divots, Gillingham were almost exclusively carving out the goalscoring chances in the first 15 minutes.
Legge’s attempt was blocked by Darren Ward en route to goal and Stephen Gregory sliced wide as the Gills looked to make early inroads. Town enjoyed their first shot in the 14th minute but Ryan Mason lashed over the hosts’ crossbar from range.
Within 18 minutes, however, Gillingham had found a way in front. It didn’t require any great skill or precision – a lofted free-kick into the area wasn’t properly dealt with and Legge nipped in front of Ranger to head past Wes Foderingham.
Swindon tried to rally and McEveley headed narrowly wide of the far post from Pritchard’s corner on the 20th minute before Ranger toe-poked tamely at Stuart Nelson from Nathan Thompson’s cross but Gillingham still looked the more dangerous in attack, as Town’s three centre-backs struggled to hold a strong defensive line.
Ward played McDonald onside in the 28th minute and the Gills striker should have done much better than drag his shot wide when clean through on goal while Adam Barrett crashed a volley against the advertising hoarding’s behind Foderingham as Town kept on failing to track the runs of their opposite numbers.
Swindon had half-chances that came and went – Kasim thrashed wide from range in the 29th minute – but Gillingham seemed to be getting closer and closer to a second of the afternoon. Only inches separated Michael Harriman and a stunning strike with 13 minutes remaining before the break.
Joe Martin was next to try his luck for the home side in the 40th minute but his speculative effort from range drifted wide before Town had their golden chance to go into half-time level.
Pritchard wriggled free of a couple of tackles on the right-hand side of the penalty area and his pinpoint cross picked out Kasim who did well to control his sidefooted shot on target. It appeared destined to find the bottom corner but Nelson stuck out a leg to deflect it wide for a corner.
It would have been an unfair representation of what had come before had Town been level at half-time. Gillingham – direct but far from fluent – had bossed much of the match and once against Swindon were homesick.
Town came out with more desire in the second period but both teams took quarter of an hour to settle into their stride. In the 60th minute Akinfenwa came within a whisker of putting the hosts two goals in front when his header drifted wide of Foderingham’s right-hand post.
But Swindon found a spark in the shape of substitute Barker, thrown on to replace the stricken Hall in the 53rd minute. The former Brighton man latched onto Ranger’s tidy flick-on only to dally in possession inside the box and watch a good chance go to waste before winning a free-kick right on the edge of the area, from which Pritchard fired straight at Nelson.
Only a superb backtracking block from Legge prevented Pritchard from testing Nelson with 20 minutes remaining of the contest, while Branco walloped a wild effort into the Town fans behind the Gillingham goal from the resulting corner.
At the other end Foderingham was quick off his line to keep out McDonald while, seconds later, Luongo handed Nelson a comfortable save with a fairly tame curling effort when a pass to the unmarked Ranger was perhaps the better option.
But Swindon couldn’t keep their opponents to a single goal and, with seven minutes remaining, the Gills breached the visitors’ defences again.
This time it was not so much about bad defending but intelligent forward play as Bradley Dack found Joe Martin behind enemy lines and when his cross picked out the unmarked Harriman there was only going to be one result.