IT’S not often this season that Swindon Town have played badly at home.
This weekend was perhaps the Robins’ poorest effort at the County Ground In 2013/14. Somehow, they still won.
Two late goals – from Nile Ranger and new signing Michael Smith – put a very superficial gloss on a performance that matched the weather in SN1, at times drab, on occasion downright miserable.
Shrewsbury Town, well drilled given their awful recent form and the fact they lost their manager Graham Turner in the days leading up to the game, will feel rightly aggrieved not to have returned to Shropshire without at least a point. They probably deserved all three.
But if Swindon are to make the League One play-offs, and this victory left them five points off the top six, Lady Luck is going to have to treat them favourably. Good fortune certainly helped the home side, with Asa Hall hitting the crossbar with a free header six yards out, while Town goalkeeper Wes Foderingham produced a heroic display of shot-stopping to keep his team level after Paul Parry’s thunderbolt free-kick had cancelled out Smith’s 30th-minute opener.
The Shrews battled hard but Swindon still prevailed in heavy rain and high winds that had the Arkell’s Stand roof bouncing up and down like a panlid concealing a boiling broth.
Town fans’ tempers certainly simmered and many vented their frustrations at a midfield that lost their way in difficult conditions and a central defensive pairing that dillied and dallied recklessly in their own final third.
Nevertheless, three points was still the outcome. Somehow. A minor miracle, perhaps, but one gleefully received.
Swindon manager Mark Cooper made two changes to his starting line-up handing Smith a full debut in place of Ranger, who had been struggling during the week with illness. Ranger dropped to the bench, where he was joined by latest signing Jamie Reckord. Nathan Byrne replaced the injured Grant Hall and joined Smith and Alex Pritchard in a front three.
Smith looked a handful during the opening exchanges and he created the game’s first sight of goal for himself in the eighth minute, barging his way to the near post to head Pritchard’s corner over the Shrewsbury crossbar.
Within two minutes the visitors had tested Foderingham for the first time. Darren Ward’s slapdash pass led to a Shrews corner, from which Parry found Joe Jacobson and the left-back’s looping header was easily saved by Foderingham.
The game was leaping and bounding from end to end in the first quarter of an hour. In the 12th minute, Swindon were presented with a terrific opportunity to nudge in front when Ryan Mason was tripped on the edge of the Shrewsbury area but Pritchard could only send the resulting free-kick into the Town End.
Despite having lost their manager Turner during the week, Shrewsbury were well organised and Swindon, much to the home crowd’s discontent, struggled to break them down in midfield.
With the ball bouncing between the halfway line and the edge of their own D, Town looked a little bereft of ideas and, though they had control of possession, territorially they were making little progress.
Shrewsbury may have only got hold of the ball for short spells but during those isolated periods they looked dangerous. Jon Taylor forced Foderingham into a good save at his near post in the 23rd minute and, 60 seconds later, Smith hacked Tom Eaves’s flicked header off the line as Town hang on to parity.
It took Town 28 minutes to muster their first effort on target, Byrne cutting in from the right to fire at Weale, but two minutes later they found a way in front.
Yaser Kasim and Pritchard worked a short corner on the right and when Kasim eventually got the ball across goal Smith was there to pounce on a bouncing ball and hook it past Weale. It was a poacher’s finish from Smith, who had looked lively throughout the first half.
Eaves resorted to the spectacular in an attempt to bring the Shrews back into the game within a minute of the restart and Foderingham was rooted to the spot as he watched the striker’s volleyed snapshot fizz inches over his crossbar.
Although they had barely had a ration of the possession, Shrewsbury’s performance was such that they fully deserved to be on level terms at the break and they clawed their way back into the contest with a minute of the opening period remaining.
Town were livid that Raphael Branco was penalised for an alleged foul on Taylor on the edge of the box but Parry didn’t care about the home side’s qualms and he crashed a fierce drive past Foderingham to equalise for the Shrews.
With the rain lashing down and high winds threatening to lift the top of the Arkell’s Stand and the Town End, Swindon almost hit straight back, only for Weale to paw the ball away from the feet of the onrushing Smith after he spilled Pritchard’s initial shot.
Neither side could get into a rhythm after the break and it took 17 minutes for the game to rediscover any of its entertainment value.
Town were the beneficiaries of a massive let-off just after the hour mark, when Hall somehow contrived to nod a free header onto the crossbar from six yards out, and then had Foderingham to thank five minutes later as the home keeper leapt to his right to push Parry’s ferocious drive against a post.
Swindon were struggling to find any sort of fluency and, with their own fans starting to get on their backs, Ranger was introduced by Cooper as he tried to inspire his team.
Luongo flashed an effort past Weale’s right-hand post in the 71st minute as the Robins pushed hard for a second and sent an almost identical attempt wide again moments later, but while Swindon were having to resort to speculative shots at goal, Shrewsbury were carving out real opportunities.
When Ward dallied on the ball inside his own box, Eaves robbed him of the ball and only an excellent save by Foderingham, one on one with the Shrews striker, kept Town on level terms.
At the other end Pritchard curled at Weale as the home fans started to settle for a point. Thankfully, Ranger didn’t.
In the 89th minute Weale failed to get a full connection to his punch from a Pritchard corner, the ball shot high into the air inside the Shrews’ box and Ranger jumped highest to nod home.
With Shrewsbury’s resolve flattened, Town rubbed salt into their guests’ wounds with another goal in stoppage time. Ranger turned creator, selflessly playing in Smith to slide the ball underneath Weale.
It was flattery of the highest order and didn’t the home crowd enjoy it.
Cooper said after the game: “I’m pleased to get three points. It was an atrocious day for football, especially with the way we try to play. The most frustrating part for me was letting them score a goal just before half-time, when they hadn’t really threatened.
“That made the game more difficult than it should have been. In the second half we had to change it. We changed the shape, put the strikers on and went to a diamond to try to win the game. We weren’t pretty today but we got it done. I know the fans got frustrated but sometimes, when you win nearly every week at home, it’s going to be difficult to do that, but we got it done.
“I thought at times we played some decent stuff, as did Shrewsbury, but there were too many silly mistakes, too many wrong decisions but it was three points. On days like this you’ve just got to get three points.
“I told everybody what Michael was about. He’s honest, he works his socks off and he can score a goal. He’s done that this season already and he’s got two today. I’m pleased he’s got off the mark so quickly and hopefully he’ll go from strength to strength.”