Phil Smith made a match-winning return to the Swindon Town team last night as the Robins keeper saved three of AFC Wimbledon’s penalties to send his side through to the area semi-finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy last night.
A stunning strike by Oliver Risser midway through the second half had put Town on course to win the game inside 90 minutes but a late leveller by Rashid Yussuff meant penalties were needed to separate the two sides.
Top scorers Mehdi Kerrouche and Matt Ritchie had both been substituted during normal time, prompting some concerns that Town could see their hopes of playing at Wembley ended.
But Smith, in for the rested Wes Foderingham, had other ideas as he saved spot kicks by Lee Minshull, Ricky Wellard and Chris Bush while Alan Connell, Oliver Risser and Etienne Esajas all scored for Town to seal a 3-1 victory and ensure Town’s name is in the hat for the next stage of the competition.
“There was a collaboration between Phil Smith and our goalkeeper coach Domenico Doardo before the game because AFC Wimbledon went through in the last round by penalties,” revealed Town boss Paolo Di Canio.
“Most of the penalties (last night) were by the same players so the two discussed what they did and where to dive. It was intelligent from Phil Smith, he took on board what they talked about and what he did was fantastic.
“All the credit goes to Phil Smith because he made fantastic saves so now I am very happy because I have very good goalkeepers.”
Smith also directed some of the plaudits to Doardo, adding: “I felt we were the better team and deserved to go through so the goal at the end was disappointing. The lads heads could have gone down after that but they stepped up and scored great penalties to send us through.
“We (myself and Doardo) had a good idea of where they would put them and it turned out correct. It is no coincidence that the one I didn’t save was from someone who didn’t take one last time so the goalkeeper coach has done fantastically.
“He heped me out fantastically and that is the reason we did well.”
Di Canio made six changes to the side that beat Port Vale on Saturday, bringing Risser into midfield while Alan Connell partnered Mehdi Kerrouche in attack. Joe Devera, Raffaele De Vita and Phil Smith were also handed starts.
AFC Wimbledon had also made a number of changes and unsurprisingly the game got off to a scrappy start, with much of the play being contested in midfield.
However, it was the home side who were first to threaten after eight minutes when Matt Ritchie fed a pass aimed for Risser on the edge of their opponents area, but the Namibia international let the ball run through to Connell, who saw an opportunity to shoot but his effort was harmlessly wide.
Town had another chance seven minutes later when they were awarded a free kick some 35 yards from goal but skipper Paul Caddis sends a powerful effort over the bar.
AFC Wimbledon always looked dangerous going forward, with the tricky duo of James Mulley and Christian Jolley always looking to open up chances and it was the former who had the visitors’ first real effort midway through the half, but his shot flew comfortably wide of Smith’s goal.
But as half time approached the pace of the game picked up and the best chance from either side arrived in the 37th minute when Kerrouche did well to wrong-foot a defender on the left before whipping in a cross that Connell got his head to and Dons keeper Seb Brown did well to palm the ball away.
After a half-chance for Kerrouche early in the second half, Di Canio decided to replace Town’s top scorer with Etienne Esajas, and the Dutchman was clearly determined to make an impression as he tested Brown with a couple of well-struck shots from distance.
But it was Risser, who had been quiet for much of the game, who stole the show with another stunning goal to break the deadlock in the 68th minute, pouncing on a loose ball some 25 yards from goal to launch an unstoppable drive into the back of the net.
Town pressed for a second after that and Esajas went close when a stunning shot from almost 40 yards bounced back off the crossbar.
That near miss looked to have proved costly as AFC Wimbledon equalised eight minutes from time when a Minshull shot deflected off a Town player to leave Yussuff with the simple task of prodding the ball into the empty net.
Consequently, penalties were needed to determine a winner and Smith stepped up to the plate to deny three of AFC Wimbledon’s four while Town’s players scored theirs to seal their passage to the area semi-finals.
The win means Town are just three games away from realising Di Canio’s dream of leading his side out at Wembley.
The Italian indicated that he is not bothered who Town get in the area semi-finals as long as they are drawn at home.
“I will be happy with anyone as long as play at home because the atmosphere (last night) was amazing,” he added.
“It is not important who we draw because I know we will give our best whoever we play.”