THIS performance felt like Swindon Town’s coming of age.
The Robins, so often the unruly teenager of League One - undeniably talented but inconsistent and often hugely frustrating - defied their own stereotype on a stormy afternoon in the Potteries.
Port Vale were blown apart by their upstart guests, who showed tremendous maturity to turn around a quite frankly unbelievable two-goal half-time deficit to record their first victory on the road since November 12.
Town disposed of their pubescent angst to put together a display of impressive calmness, quality and - perhaps most importantly - dedication. Though they found themselves chasing a game, they didn’t let their minds drift and there was collective purpose. It was fantastic to watch.
At times this bunch of young, enthusiastic footballers played like the Burslem Globetrotters. Vale couldn’t touch them.
Doug Loft and Tom Pope might have put the hosts in a commanding position at the break but it was entirely undeserved.
Swindon dominated this clash from first whistle to last, passing the ball around a quagmire of a pitch with consummate ease, running channels which left the home defenders tying themselves in knots, tracking back with undying energy and making tackle after tackle after tackle.
This wasn’t just a brilliant away performance, from a team who ‘don’t do’ brilliant away performances, this was the kind of show they put on for fans at the County Ground on a regular basis.
Town’s travelling fanbase has dwindled in recent weeks and perhaps justifiably so.
Up until the 1-1 draw at Walsall at the end of last month, it seemed as though making the trip even a yard out of SN1 presented the Robins with a mental block. It ‘wasn’t fair’.
But those were the performances of stroppy teenagers not getting their own way. This was an educated effort - these players seem to be starting to understand what they need to do to get results away from home. And at the end of it all they got what they absolutely deserved. Consequently, 284 hardy fans got what they deserved, too.
Nile Ranger headed home in the 51st minute from a delicate Alex Pritchard cross before Pritchard curled home another humdinger free-kick 14 minutes later to bring the visitors level.
The Spurs winger, back after a two-match ban, was utterly insatiable. Gone were the headless runs with little end product; Pritchard’s evolution from prospect to real deal this term has been there for all to see and now the diminutive playmaker really is playing below his level.
He had a hand in Town’s winner, in the 68th minute, releasing Michael Smith down the right flank. Smith’s cross was perfect, picking out Nathan Byrne at the back post and, at perhaps the third, fourth or even fifth attempt, the full-back bundled home from within six inches.
They’ve matured, this Swindon Town team. That’s credit to the players, to a management set-up who have tried more formulas than Pythagoras’s notebook, to an owner’s astute eye for talent and to the fans who have persevered with the dross they’ve been served up away from home for so long.
Keep it up please, boys. It will leave a town smiling.
Robins boss Mark Cooper opted for an attacking line-up at Vale Park, restoring Pritchard and Smith in place of Ben Gladwin and Yaser Kasim, while Troy Archibald-Henville made his first Swindon start of the season as Raphael Rossi Branco dropped to the bench. The suspended Jay McEveley was replaced by Byrne, while new signing Jacob Murphy had a place amongst the substitutes.
Town started brightly, with Vale keeper Chris Neal punching the ball off Dany N’Guessan’s forehead as he was primed to nod home, before Loft fired a wild volley over at the other end in the seventh minute.
Massimo Luongo fired a shot into the travelling fans six minutes later, while Pritchard volleyed wide at the back post from Nathan Thompson’s tidy cross as Swindon seemed to be closing in on the opener.
Despite their early ascendancy, Town found themselves behind in the 20th minute. Jennison Myrie-Williams turned Darren Ward inside out on the right and his cross was turned home at the near post by Loft, who nipped in front of his marker to tap home.
It was unjust on Swindon but they didn’t throw a hissy fit at having to chase the game. Pritchard flashed a volley wide in the 28th minute before curling straight at Neal and then crossing for Smith to head tamely at the Vale stopper.
Town were again in charge, yet again the lost a goal in almost comical circumstance four minutes before the break.
One defender cleared the ball into another and Pope was on hand to force his effort past Wes Foderingham. It was a travesty.
But Swindon didn’t change the way they were playing and their perseverance paid dividends within six minutes of the second half. Smith clipped the ball back to Pritchard on the right flank and the winger obliged with a deft delivery to the back post. Ranger did what Ranger does best.
The Robins smelled blood. They surged forward with intent and Smith flashed a savage 20-yard drive against an upright. Moments later, Ranger galloped clear one on one with Neal following Anthony Griffith’s slip but the frontman could only strike the crossbar.
With 25 minutes remaining, Town drew level through Pritchard’s excellent set-piece, from fully 25 yards, and now there seemed to only be one winner. A third goal in 17 crazy minutes was enough to hand Swindon all three points, as Pritchard fed Smith, who picked out Byrne at the back post. Delirium.
Luongo almost made it four to the visitors with 19 minutes remaining but Pope cleared the Australian midfielder’s effort off the line, Louis Thompson ran around two tackles to poke wide and substitute Jacob Murphy – impressive following his introduction just after the hours – forced a good save out of Neal from range.
Swindon shut up shop in the final 10 minutes and had to withstand some form of Vale pressure but Foderingham wasn’t forced into a save, to the great credit of the Robins’ backline.
Three points away from home. I’d forgotten how that feels. More of the same, please.
Cooper said after the game: “We were 2-0 down without doing an awful lot wrong. We had numerous chances, we didn't take them. We said at half-time, if we get an early goal, it’s game on.
“Once we got the first one we went from strength to strength. We were outstanding again in the second half and totally dominated.
“We knew the conditions weren't going to be great and it wasn't ideal for the way we play from the back, so we knew if we had a target to hit we could play off it.”