LINK Sport’s Sam Morshead has had just about enough time to compose himself after the madness of the West Country derby between Swindon Town and Bristol City, and he’s come up with five lessons we can learn from the hosts’ 1-0 win.
Cheltenham really was an anomaly
Anyone at Whaddon Road last weekend would have been seriously concerned ahead of kick-off. The performance in that FA Cup catastrophe was dire – from front to back – with precious little on show to inspire hope ahead of the biggest game of the season at the County Ground.
There were rather large question marks hovering menacingly over Town’s ability to defend against opposition forwards willing to take them on down the flanks, worries about how this young squad (yes, I said it) would react to the mauling. In the event, with the glorious benefit of our friend hindsight, we can laugh at our former selves’ cynicism.
This wasn’t Swindon’s finest performance of the campaign by any stretch – City, down to 10 men ridiculously early on became a compact defensive unit, well organised and difficult to break down. In response, Town had to play chess, moving their pieces about with great patience. Waiting to pounce like a seasoned lioness, they put one of a handful of chances away. The game itself was wonderful theatre but not for its free-flowing football, dynamic passing or wow moments.
In fact, football almost became a sideshow. This was a battle of wits and minds – completely the opposite when compared to what took place seven days previously in that slapstick headache at Cheltenham. But that’s all in the past now, thankfully, and Swindon are in the top two.
Jack of all trades proves a point
So Jack Stephens can cut it in midfield, apparently. We knew Mark Cooper might have been tempted to use the Southampton loanee as cover for Yaser Kasim, given he played in the same position in a pre-season friendly at the County Ground for his parent club in the summer, but we certainly weren’t sure whether he was in the right state of mind to do so.
Stephens has struggled in patches of late – at MK Dons and, most notably, during an abject personal afternoon at Cheltenham – but he was brilliant against Preston and, in a different role, he was superb again today.
For a centre-back, the youngster has an uncanny knack of running around challenges, darting in meandering lines between opposing defenders with an elegance and grace which would have old school enforcers baffled.
He was brilliantly assured today, picking passes off with confidence and swagger and keeping play ticking over like a traffic marshal at rush hour. There was no panic, no hesitation, repetition or deviation from the plan. It was a tactically astute move from Cooper and a wholehearted vote of thanks from his player.
Smith’s price keeps going up
Okay, so I know in this column I’ve banged on previously about Michael Smith’s improvement this term but, after another display of energy, quality and delivery, it didn’t seem right not to bring it up again.
The Geordie was the subject of some fairly miserly bids from Coventry over the summer. Any future approaches – and oh dear isn’t January far too close for comfort – will have to be astronomical if they are to entice Lee Power into selling what is rapidly becoming his second most valuable asset (after Massimo Luongo).
That’s no stain on Nathan Byrne’s CV – the wing-back, though off-colour in the first half today, has been in remarkable form – but as a striker, you command big bucks. Smith is scoring goals, chasing down lost causes and suddenly making them no longer lost and maintaining possession like Shylock would his pound of flesh.
So, hate me for saying it but this guy is valuable. The trouble is, he’s also invaluable. Town would be so much worse off for losing him. Let’s hope that’s a moot thought.
What goes around, comes around
I, like Mark Cooper, have yet to see a re-run of the incident which earnt Wade Elliott his red card today. Some have said it was harsh, others have said his actions verged on assault. Without the benefit of a Football League Show – again not gracing our screens tonight thanks to the absurd rights agreement which states Manish & Co will only be called upon should the Championship be in action – we’ll have to wait until one or both clubs post it on YouTube.
However, it’s interesting that Elliott suffered the fate he did after playing his part in goading Alex Pritchard into a daft reaction at Ashton Gate in March, which ended with the Tottenham loanee being sent for an early bath (or shower, or facial, or whatever is actually applicable in modern football).
Swindon Town have now proved – regardless of what opposing fans might say tonight – that they fully merit their place in the top two of League One.
They have beaten the team places first, third and fifth in the division at the County Ground, scoring seven and conceding twice in those matches. They have played attractive football, showed maturity that totally belies their tender years and generally given the proverbial finger to those nay-sayers (myself included) who predicted mediocrity or worse at the start of the campaign.
Of course, they still have to go away from home to face all those teams in the second half of the campaign but in this writer’s opinion at least, Swindon play better football on their travels. There is more dynamism, more creativity, more awe-inducing wonderfulness – perhaps a product of less pressure from fans, perhaps because they are incentivised by opposition supporters.
The future’s bright for this young team. Personally, I still can’t get used to that. But I’m going to have to soon.