IN Southampton, fans of Swindon Town should find solace that age really might not be everything.
Regardless of the result of tonight’s friendly clash at the County Ground, which the Premier League visitors won 1-0 thanks to Jos Hooiveld’s goal, the visit of Ronald Koeman’s uber-talented creche must act as an important reminder for everyone associated with Town going into the new term. Sometimes, you can win with kids.
Five of the visitors’ starting line-up came through the academy on the south coast, while another seven were on the bench. Having been forced into the sales of Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw over the summer, it seems Koeman is happy to trust in the next generation once again at St Mary’s. Perhaps that might be an indication that, back in Wiltshire, we would be wise to do the same.
Looking at the Swindon substitutes, it was immediately apparent how young this squad is. None could lay claim to being 80s babies as, on the bench, manager Mark Cooper named three scholars, a Samsung Win A Pro champion, a Belgian trialist, Matt Jones, Tyrell Belford, Connor Waldon and George Barker.
They could boast a grand total of zero professional goals between them, while only two – Barker and Jonathan Vandesompele – were alive during Swindon’s sole year in the Premier League two decades ago.
On the pitch there was a little more experience – most had a season or two in the first-team under their belts while, remarkably, Swindon could show off the only player in either squad to have been a part of this summer’s World Cup in the shape of Massimo Luongo – but there was an assurance about the way both teams played that belied their years. Even if at times it was at walking pace, it was good to watch young talent playing football the right way.
While Saints were happy to operate in second or third gear, Town still impressed with their workrate, shape and general calmness on the ball, even if they only got in behind their guests on a handful of occasions.
They were undone by sloppy marking from a corner .... but otherwise there was little for the naysayers to moan about, particularly once the game against a top-flight side was put into context.
Luongo again displayed an uncanny knack to earn himself an extra yard on the ball without touching it, manipulating defenders with his movement time and time again, while Louis Thompson produced a typically full-blooded display, including at least two 60-yard backtracks to slide the ball out from underneath a waiting striker’s feet. Branco, too, though liable to the odd blooper, showed self-belief and calmness that Swindon will rely on in the season proper.
It was encouraging, if not anything close to a spectacle on a warm evening in SN1. The result really doesn’t matter, the lessons that can be learned from it are far more important.
Nathaniel Clyne made Town keeper Wes Foderingham work in the 11th minute. After stealing beyond Nathan Byrne and Raphael Branco, the former Crystal Palace man unleashed a bullet of a right-footed effort which Foderingham did well to get down low to his left and parry away to safety.
Lloyd Isgrove was the next Saints man to have a pop at goal but his side-footed attempt curled wide of Foderingham’s left-hand post after Matt Targett’s initial attempt had broken the way of the Southampton academy graduate.
Town manufactured their first sight of goal in the 17th minute. The perseverance of Louis Thompson and Luongo in midfield allowed the ball to break for Andy Williams, who did well to create space for a shot on the edge of the area but he could only fire tamely at Kelvin Davis.
By the middle of the first half, Swindon were holding their own against a Saints midfield that contained the likes of James Ward Prowse and Jack Cork. Luongo, Louis Thompson and Anton Rodgers were happy to play with a carefree abandon, bordering on reckless at times, but certainly pleasant on the eye.
At the back they looked well drilled and resilient, with Yaser Kasim playing the old-fashioned sweeper role between Nathan Thompson and Branco, and as the game drew closer to half-time the hosts were the more likely to score.
Williams turned his marker but couldn’t pick out his strike partner Michael Smith, while Jack Barthram was slipped in down the right by Luongo only to send his cross on the forehead of Jose Fonte.
At the interval, however, Cooper could only be pleased.
Southampton took five minutes of the second period to nudge in front. Ward Prowse floated over a corner from the right and Hooiveld stole in to prod past Foderingham at the back post. The goal was out of character compared to the rest of the game – scrappy and unrefined as it was, though Saints merited their lead.
Having swapped their entire team for the final half-hour, unsurprisingly the match became more broken up.
There were half-chances for Sam Gallagher, who headed over before slapping a right-footed effort straight at Foderingham, while Swindon cranked up the pressure in the dying moments. Waldon almost went round Paulo Gazzaniga to tap in, with Barker just unable to reach the rebound, while Barthram couldn’t pick out the unmarked Branco with his pull-back after Byrne had found his wing-back with a raking crossfield pass.
Town couldn’t find the late equaliser but they did more than enough to show they deserve a little patience going into the new term.