IT’S not often Swindon Town fans have something to cheer about on their trips away from the County Ground but last night the Robins bucked the losing trend.
Defeats at Stevenage and Gillingham had left supporters trudging up the M5 to Walsall almost expecting another loss but Michael Smith’s tidy header 20 minutes from time gave those 400-odd hardy souls a new feeling. A good feeling. A trip worth making.
Romaine Sawyers had earlier given the Saddlers the lead on a chilly night in the Midlands, sliding the ball beneath Foderingham from Craig Westcarr’s pass, but Town didn’t fall apart like they have on previous away days.
Nor did they look out of ideas, out of their depth or out of luck. Any psychological block that has prevented them from forcing points out of losing positions has been proven to be just that now, psychological.
Given the meek and almost pathetic nature of Swindon’s recent displays at home, this was a welcome and refreshing change. Town weren’t fluent for long passages of the game at the Banks’s Stadium but they more than made up for a lack of quality on the ball with an abundance of resolve.
Walsall brought pace and trickery to the party and the Saddlers’ frontline of Craig Westcarr, Febian Brandy, Milan Lalkovic and Romaine Sawyers would be a test for any League One defence.
Between them, Darren Ward and Raphael Rossi Branco stood firm in the face of that challenge – with the exception of one or two heart-beat-skipping moments and a classy move which tore a hole in the Town backline’s midriff to free up the space for Sawyers to fire Walsall in front nine minutes before half-time.
And Smith’s nodded goal, his third in two matches since joining from Charlton, was just rewards for a committed, never-say-die display. Pleasing if not pulsating.
Manager Mark Cooper made three changes to his starting line-up, two of which were enforced. Ryan Mason and Jay McEveley failed to recover from respective side and knee injuries and were replaced by Louis Thompson and Jamie Reckord.
The Town boss tweaked his formation accordingly, reverting to a midfield diamond and pairing Nile Ranger with Smith up front, as Nathan Byrne dropped to the bench.
Walsall started the game the brighter and, after Milan Lalkovic’s shot was blocked by Ward, only Massimo Luongo’s last-ditch tackle deflected Andy Butler’s goalbound effort over the top of the crossbar.
In the eighth minute Sam Mantom released Febian Brandy with a beautifully weighted chipped through ball and Brandy’s first-time, dipping volley had Foderingham grasping at thin air, but the forward’s shot landed wide of the Town goalkeeper’s right-hand post.
Next to go close for the Saddlers was Westcarr, who got up easily above Ward and in front of Foderingham, only to nod powerful over the crossbar.
At the other end, Swindon had their first sight of goal in the 10th minute but Luongo could only shoot tamely at Richard O’Donnell from the edge of the Walsall penalty area.
The Saddlers continued to threaten with every breaking foray into Town territory but, slowly and surely, Swindon found their feet. Alex Pritchard darted in from the left touchline to fire tentatively at O’Donnell before Luongo won possession in midfield, burst forward and lashed over the bar when a gentle pass to the unmarked Ranger was perhaps the better option.
In the 24th minute, Smith got his head to Pritchard’s ranging free-kick but couldn’t quite test O’Donnell before Romaine Sawyers picked out Westcarr with a delicious reverse pass but the big frontman could only find the crowd from the edge of the box.
Town had seemed to reach a level of some comfort in the moments before Walsall took the lead nine minutes before the break. Adam Chambers found Westcarr with his back to goal, 20 yards out, and the striker picked out the untracked run of Sawyers, who slid clinically beneath Foderingham.
Having fallen behind Swindon didn’t crumble but they certainly found it hard to find a way back into proceedings. Ranger’s errant header from another Pritchard free-kick was their best chance to draw level before half-time.
Meanwhile, Foderingham’s diving save, low to his right, prevented Brandy from doubling Walsall’s lead seconds before the break.
Neither side settled quickly after the interval and it took until the 53rd minute for either to manage a shot on goal. Even then Malvind Benning scuffed his effort straight at Foderingham after bombing forward 60 yards to catch up with play.
Walsall opened Swindon up in the 58th minute, Ward left the ball to Sawyers who found Chambers but when Brandy received the ball inside the area he could only shoot at Foderingham.
Cooper shook things up after an hour, swapping Pritchard – who had just been booked – for Jack Barthram and turning to a 3-5-2 formation, and the replacement was soon in on the action as he dragged a weak attempt wide from 20 yards out.
Town found an equaliser with 20 minutes remaining. A Kasim corner from the right found its way to the back post, where Ward dinked in a delicate cross and Smith rose highest to head tidily past O’Donnell.
The goal sparked Walsall into action. First Westcarr crashed a wild effort wide in the 72nd minute then Sawyers failed to the find the target 60 seconds later as the game finally came alive after a period of hibernation early in the second half.
Sawyers sent a free-kick into the Swindon wall, while at the other end Louis Thompson saw a speculative 30-yard strike comfortably saved by O’Donnell before Benning thrashed a shot wide from the corner of the Town penalty area.
In the final minute of stoppage time, substitute Ashley Hemmings struck the top of the crossbar with a curling effort from range but Swindon survived.
A point and, more importantly, an improvement on the road. Something to savour on a bitter Midlands evening.
In last night’s Southern League action, Premier Division Chippenham claimed a 2-1 win at home to St Neots Town while Swindon Supermarine’s trip to local rivals Cirencester was postponed because of a waterlogged pitch.