THIS was Swindon Town providing entertainment value once again after a three-week hiatus.
Following dire home draws against Colchester United and Crawley Town, a hugely forgettable defeat at Leyton Orient, the abhorrence that was the home loss to Oldham Athletic and the heartbreak of Johnstone’s Paint Trophy defeat to Peterborough United, it seemed Swindon finally rediscovered their mojo at Gresty Road.
Sure, it might not have brought the Robins all three points and, with 12 games remaining and a five-point gap to bridge to Peterborough in sixth, Town’s League One play-offs are now dangling by the thinnest of threads, but that doesn’t mean fans can’t appreciate a good performance when they see one.
The 288 hardy souls who plodded up the M6 from Wiltshire on Saturday got just that, as Swindon passed the ball about with speed, flair and gusto and, for 70 minutes, had Crewe chasing shadows like a hyperactive Peter Pan.
They enjoyed a touch of good fortune, too, as Chuks Aneke missed a 43rd-minute penalty – harshly given by referee Rob Lewis for a handball by Ryan Harley – while the same Alex striker also struck the crossbar in the second period.
Harley made amends for the penalty incident to smash home the opener three minutes after half-time but Town probably should have been out of sight well before then.
Michael Smith and Nathan Thompson both spurned glorious chances when set clear one on one with Crewe goalkeeper Ben Garratt, as Swindon prised open the home defence with as much panache and regularity as a seasoned cat burglar.
However, the visitors’ profligacy in front of goal meant all they could steal from their trip to Cheshire was a point, as Vadaine Oliver came off the bench to fire home a 25-yard half-volley with 14 minutes remaining to earn Alex a share of the spoils.
It was a little harsh on Town. Their midfield four of Harley, Massimo Luongio, Louis Thompson and Yaser Kasim – operating in a tight diamond – manipulated possession with aplomb throughout, Luongo particularly impressing on his return from a midweek rest.
The lay-off appeared to do the Australian a world of good, as he picked up the ball deep and drove at the Crewe defence, popped up all over the pitch like a Bash-A-Mole and repeatedly found his man with a series of intricate passes.
Thompson and Kasim battled well, winning back possession on numerous occasions and spreading play coolly, calmly and more frequently forward than sideways or backwards. It was effective football the Swindon Town way and, perhaps most importantly, it was enjoyable to watch.
Evidently the display was not flawless. Again the Robins didn’t have the killer touch in front of goal, which can be put down as much to nerve and bottle as it can to age and relative inexperience, while manager Mark Cooper questioned keeper Tyrell Belford for the Crewe equaliser.
But, after a month of misery, they were tiny gripes. With Posh, Walsall and Port Vale all losing, Town actually closed the gap to the play-offs and moved up a place to seventh with this draw. The top six may still be a long jump – nine wins are probably needed from the final 12 matches of the campaign - but, for now at least, it seems Cooper and his players are at least trying to entertain.
Cooper made three changes to his starting line-up at Gresty Road. Jay McEveley was forced out of the side through injury, with Troy Archibald-Henville returning to take his place, while Jacob Murphy replaced Dany N’Guessan, who dropped to the bench.
After being rested for the 1-1 draw with Crawley Town last Tuesday, Luongo was restored to the middle of midfield, as Jack Barthram made way.
Town survived an early moment of the jitters in the 11th minute when Nathan Byrne and Archibald-Henville left the ball to one another on the edge of their own area but Aneke couldn’t seize the moment, firing wide from 18 yards.
The chance gave Swindon the kick they needed. Soon they were reaching something close to top gear, passing around their Crewe opponents neatly, as Alex seemed happy to back off and give them space to think.
Byrne drove wide from range in the 13th minute before Murphy’s scything reverse pass picked out the run of Michael Smith 60 seconds later, only for the former Charlton Athletic striker to see his shot smothered by Garrett after he’d galloped clear of the home defence.
In the 17th minute, Luongo headed wide from Harley’s left-wing cross before Byrne burrowed his way to the byeline in the 20th minute and his low ball into the six-yard box was cleared by Harry Davis before it could be knocked home by Smith.
Swindon got in behind their hosts again in the 23rd minute. Kasim’s raking pass picked out Nathan Thompson, who had the freedom of Gresty Road to compose himself as he bore down on goal. With Smith making himself available at the back post for a tap-in, however, Thompson found himself caught in two minds and sent the ball wide.
Ten minutes later, Harley curled wide from the edge of the area and Nathan Thompson’s fizzing effort from range flew off-target, as Swindon huffed and puffed like an asthmatic Big Bad Wolf without blowing Crewe’s house down.
The visitors lost their way in the final 10 minutes of the first half and almost found themselves behind at the break when, with two minutes to go of the 45, Cameron Park crossed from the right and a sliding Harley blocked the ball with his trailing arm.
Referee Lewis pointed to the spot and Aneke had the chance to put Alex a goal up against the run of play.
The forward somehow managed to balloon his spot-kick high over the crossbar, however, and Swindon survived. It would have been a grave injustice if they’d trailed at half-time.
Three minutes into the second period the Robins made the most of their good fortune. Byrne embarked on a weaving run from right to left, across the area, pirouetting gracefully on the edge of the box before laying off to Harley, whose cannonball strike almost ripped the net from its stanchions.
It was exactly what Town deserved for their patience, perseverance and quality, and they immediately went in search of number two.
Luongo won back possession on the edge of the Crewe box in the 53rd minute but couldn’t quite direct his curling effort on target, while Smith snatched at a volley from a similar position three minutes later, hooking it wide.
Crewe survived the onslaught and, with 20 minutes to go, finally realised that they, too, were allowed to pass the ball at speed and make inroads towards the Swindon goal.
It resulted in 10 minutes of heavy pressure. Belford saved well from Aneke at close range in the 75th minute and, within 60 seconds, Aneke had hit the crossbar with a wonderful attempt from fully 25 yards.
As Town struggled to regroup and restructure defensively, Alex found their leveller. Oliver, who’d only been on the pitch a little over two minutes, latched onto Kasim’s loose header and volleyed past Belford from 25 yards.
It was a stunning strike but utterly deflating for Town, who couldn’t find a way to restore their lead.
Cooper said after the game: “It’s very, very frustrating. I thought it was maybe one of our best performances. I thought we totally dominated the game for 80 minutes and we gave them a little bit of a lift and they finished a little bit stronger, but the game should have been dead,” he said.
“It should have been over. You can’t have that much play in and around the final third and still be only winning 1-0. That’s something we had to get right but the forward players are still young lads and they’re still learning their trade.”