SWINDON Town produced one of their best away performances of the season to come from 2-0 down to finish the first leg of their Johnstone’s Paint Trophy area final clash with Peterborough level, but a pulsating encounter was overshadowed by concerns for a fan who collapsed late on at London Road.
The Robins defended with reckless abandon in the first 20 minutes of the game and found themselves two goals behind before they had the chance to draw breath. Raphael Branco planted a bullet header past his own goalkeeper and Kyle Vassell shot home from the edge of the box, but they found in themselves a gritty resolve that has so often been missing on the road this season to fight back into the game.
Nile Ranger raced onto Yaser Kasim’s pass to slide past Bobby Olejnik in the 31st minute and, despite losing Jay McEveley to a straight red card for a high challenge on Britt Assombalonga four minutes later, Shaun Brisley’s own goal hauled Town level at the break.
In the second period, both sides went hammer and tongs to net a crucial third but neither could breach the other’s defences. A simmering atmosphere inside London Road was sobered with five minutes of the match remaining after a home supporter was taken ill on the sidelines.
Posh fans quickly made the players and match officials aware of the situation and the two teams were taken back to the changing rooms while the fan received urgent medical treatment on the touchline before being taken to hospital via ambulance.
The two sides emerged again to play the final few moments of the game but by then football seemed of little consequence. Perspective was needed and, while Town have put themselves in a terrific position to reach Wembley, thoughts were elsewhere as journeys home were made.
Mark Cooper made five changes to the side which lost 1-0 to Oldham four days previously. Nile Ranger partnered Dany N’Guessan in a front two, with Michael Smith cup-tied, and Ben Gladwin came into a four-man midfield that also featured the returning Kasim. Having got over his knee injury, McEveley replaced the ineligible Jamie Reckord.
From the first kick of the game it became apparent that the mud-covered playing surface, combined with blustery winds, would make tidy, passing football nigh-on impossible.
Cooper had taken the common sense approach to the conditions, selecting bulk and physical presence over raw pace and skill on the ball, but the Robins fell behind to Posh’s first period of concerted pressure in the ninth minute.
A corner was swung in from the right and Branco stooped low in his own six-yard box to head beyond Foderingham. It was an excellent finish.
Swindon had started the match with relative composure but they were rattled by falling behind and, as quick as a flash, Posh were two goals to the good.
Branco and Ward ran into each other inside the Town area in their efforts to clear a loose ball and Vassell was on hand to mop up the chance, sweeping past Foderingham from 15 yards out. While the finish was clinical, Swindon’s defending was comical.
Danny Swanson curled a free-kick narrowly over the Town crossbar in the 19th minute while Vassell pitching wedged over from 15 yards after Robins players had failed to clear their lines on three separate occasions. The visitors, defending like Laurel & Hardy after a heavy duty night on the town, were clinging on to a two-goal deficit.
Gladwin had Town’s first effort in anger in the 23rd minute, jinking his way into the Posh box from right to left before firing over the bar, but within 60 seconds Peterborough were threatening again and Foderingham saved well low down after his defence afforded Vassell far too much time to strike at goal.
The Robins thought they had scored in the 28th minute when Grant McCann sliced a corner towards his own net, only for Olejnik to claim, but Swindon managed to find themselves a route back into the contest just after the half-hour mark. Louis Thompson broke free of his shackles in midfield and picked out Kasim, whose tidy throughball left Ranger to bear down on goal.
The striker showed tremendous coolness to open up his body and tuck the ball past Olejnik.
By now the Robins were showing real signs of intent going forward. In horrible conditions, Kasim and Massimo Luongo pulled the strings in the middle of midfield and Gladwin showed plenty of good touches wide on the right.
However, their chances of restoring parity were dealt a major blow in the 35th minute when full-back McEveley was sent off after a collision with Assombalonga. The dismissal looked harsh, though McEveley had raised his boot there seemed to intent to go at the Posh striker.
Nevertheless, Swindon were down to 10 men and an equaliser looked a long way off. Perhaps the travelling fans would have settled for 2-1 at the break. In the end they were dancing in the aisles as the half-time whistle blew.
Luongo teed up Gladwin down the right and former Marlow man sent a low cross in the box, which Brisley somehow contrived to slice past his own goalkeeper. It was the perfect finish.
Both teams came out after half-time looking for the goal that would nudge them in front in the tie. Swindon came close in the 54th minute when Ward’s 20-yard header floated narrowly wide of Olejnik’s left-hand post.
Nine minutes later, after Town withstood another period of concerted Posh pressure, Gladwin found himself in another goalscoring position after Luongo broke into the box, but the midfielder could only shoot high over the crossbar.
Louis Thompson was next to try his luck, but the teenager dragged an effort well wide, but with a man disadvantage Swindon were more than matching their hosts, who had lost all the spark they showed in the first 20 minutes.
In contrast, Town had hurdled their own incompetence in the early stages and were playing with a fluency the pitch and weather didn’t really afford to them.
Nathaniel Knight-Percival, who scored in Posh’s 2-1 defeat at the County Ground last month, had a glorious chance to steer Peterborough back into the lead with 10 minutes remaining but headed Danny Kearns’s right-wing corner from inside six yards.
The ground fell silent late in the game, and the players were escorted down the tunnel for a short period, after a fan collapsed in the home section of the crowd. Paramedics attended the supporter for around 15 minutes, conducting CPR, before the fan left London Road by ambulance.
When the players emerged again to complete the game the atmosphere had become sombre, practically silent. It was understandable.