SWINDON Town might not make the play-offs this season but whichever position they occupy on May 4, the 2013/14 campaign should be seen as an unquestionable success.
This victory over a physical and well-drilled Bradford City oufit, who were unbeaten in three on the road going into the game – including trips to Leyton Orient and Rotherham – was their sixth in seven matches.
That’s impressive in itself. Thrown in the fact that Sheffield United, Preston North End, Brentford and Coventry City have also been on the receiving end of defeat to the Robins since the beginning of March and we’re heading towards minor miracle territory.
Manager Mark Cooper and his coaching staff, his young players and experienced pros, deserve the credit now – regardless of whether they lie sixth (highly unlikely), seventh (very likely), eighth or ninth in two weeks’ time.
They’ve battled against squads assembled at three or four times the cost of their own, against seasoned pros with fine pedigree, and, though the top six would require a nuclear meltdown by Peterborough United, they can hold their heads high for more than holding their own in the English third tier.
Even Bradford, struggling in midtable, could name amongst their squad the likes of Jon Stead and Aaron McLean – men who have commanded seven figures in transfer fees in the past. But the Bantams barely got a word in at the County Ground on Easter Monday.
Swindon bossed this game from start to finish, with the exception of the odd blemish, and that Wes Foderingham only had one save of note to make – from a free-kick midway through the first half – speaks volumes of the strength of Town’s backline.
It should have been a more handsome win. Jon McLaughlin was in fine form in between the sticks for Bradford, saving from Michael Smith and Miles Storey, while the excellent Alex Pritchard missed perhaps his easiest chance of the campaign to double the hosts’ advantage after Lee Cox had steered home his first goal for Swindon.
One goal was enough, however, and while Peterborough won to all but make safe sixth spot, it’s about time we looked on the bright side. This was a talented Swindon team, playing entertaining, dominant football – let’s hope for the same next term.
Cooper made two changes to his starting XI following the 2-1 win at Coventry City on Good Friday. Lee Cox came into the middle of midfield for Ben Gladwin while Miles Storey replaced the ill Nathan Byrne, as Cooper reverted to a 3-5-2 formation.
Town enjoyed much the better of the early possession and, for the opening 10 minutes, Bradford could barely get a sniff of the ball.
But the home side struggled to fashion any meaningful sights of goal and, in the 14th minute, it was the visitors who came close to breaking the deadlock.
Jones whipped in a free-kick from a tight angle on the left wing and Foderingham had to get down quickly to his right to push the skipper’s effort out for a corner.
Again, Swindon settled into a comfortable rhythm, passing the ball about midfield with ease and composure, but a lack of movement up front or foresight from the creative hub of the team left the home crowd frustrated by the slow tempo of the game.
Pritchard wriggled free in the area and shot wide after Storey had taken the ball off the feet of Rory McArdle but otherwise chances were few and far between.
With Town content to manipulate possession at a laid-back pace around halfway, the home fans became more and more irritable. Smith almost pulled them back onside when he latched onto Troy Archibald-Henville’s knock-down in the box to turn and volley at goal.
The ex-Charlton man seemed destined to wheel away in celebration, only for Jones get in a late block.
Ex-Town midfielder Raffa De Vita crashed a wild half-volley wide in the 35th minute, before Smith tested McLaughlin at the other end with a volley of his own and Nathan Thompson burst into the box only to slip as he shot and watch as the ball flew into the Stratton Bank.
Swindon gently applied the accelerator in the minutes before the interval. The speed of their passing intensified, Smith’s first touch improved and Pritchard began to find more and more space.
Smith and Pritchard combined nicely in the 43rd minute to give the former a sight of goal, but McArdle got across the striker to take the pace out of his shot, which dribbled through to McLaughlin.
Town pushed themselves onto the front foot from the early moments of the second half. Pritchard sliced wide from 20 yards, McEveley saw his effort from Luongo’s cross deflected over by Stephen Darby and Smith was denied at point-blank range by McLaughlin after meeting Storey’s sumptuous cross.
The Robins took a deserved lead in the 64th minute. McEveley headed into the path of Pritchard and, when neither he nor Storey could control the ball in the box, Cox found himself in the right place at the right time and composed himself well before firing beyond McLaughlin.
It was Cox’s first goal for the club and the first Bradford had conceded on their travels for a month.
Town immediately pushed on for a second. Pritchard played in Storey with a delicate throughball but McLaughlin saved from the 20-year-old at his near post. Then Pritchard wasted a golden chance, as he failed to hit the target after being given a clear run on goal by Luongo’s pass.
Pritchard was back to his exciting best, popping up all over the place and running at Bradford defenders. In the 73rd minute his free-kick forced McLaughlin to leap to his right to turn the ball to safety. It was the last chance of note, as Town eased to victory in the final quarter.
Season over? Maybe. But, if this model stays in place, perhaps the best is yet to come.