When Swindon won at the Valley in early January, Robins’ supporters hoped that the manner of victory would finally be the catalyst for a rise up the table. Three consecutive defeats later, including losses to fellow West Country strugglers Yeovil and Bristol Rovers, such notions have come crashing back to earth and rendered any play-off challenge difficult at the very least.
How times change. Last season, the crowd expected to celebrate three points after every game, but it was simply relief with which fans left the County Ground crowd after Tuesday night’s draw with Tranmere Rovers. Not only had the team secured a solitary point but also an extremely positive, much-coveted clean sheet, their first in the league since way back in September.
Making several changes following the hugely disappointing trip to Bristol, Danny Wilson hoped to freshen things up right across the pitch. Andy Frampton returned to partner Scott Cuthbert in the centre of defence, captain Jonathan Douglas and Michael Timlin, making his first start since November, were charged with controlling the midfield, and Thomas Dossevi supported Charlie Austin up front.
Whether this latest round of squad-tinkering had completely the desired effect is certainly a matter for debate but the manager was at least rewarded with a committed, battling performance that, whilst short of attacking ideas, certainly limited their opponents’ offensive potency. Rovers did hit the post before the break but, other than a late, dipping effort from substitute Adam McGurk, the evening was pretty comfortable for Phil Smith in the Robins’ goal.
Never quite hitting top gear themselves, Wilson’s men nevertheless dominated for large periods of the game and had the lion’s share of the chances, including a first half penalty that Austin inexplicably and uncharacteristically wasted. This head-in-hands moment, symptomatic of a team struggling for confidence as well as consistency, was shared by his stunned, disbelieving fans.
Certainly the winning formula is not quite there yet. Apart from Austin’s frustrating night and mini goal drought, questions remain about the defence. Indeed, whoever takes their place in the back four continues to appear nervous in possession, anxious not to make yet another costly mistake.
Against Tranmere, sloppy passes were clearly in evidence to keep the pressure on and ensure the home crowd lingered on the edges of their seats, nibbled fingers a-plenty, but at least these were countered with telling tackles by Frampton and Kevin Amankwaah, and, on occasions, some rather assured defensive quality from Lecsinel Jean-Francois.
Timlin was busy throughout, producing intelligent runs and neat, target-finding passes that rightly earned him a man-of-the-match accolade. Unsung, he outshone his more sought-after team-mates and the young, tricky teenager Dale Jennings whom the 125 travelling faithful were desperate to cheer.
Swindon could have won. They probably should have won; as the clock ticked into time added on Austin hit a right-foot shot inches past the post, spun and crashed another off the underside of the bar and forced Warner into another save.
Perhaps it isn’t the showpiece triumphs over the likes of Charlton, Huddersfield and Southampton that will shape Swindon’s season after all. Maybe instead, it is the hard-fought draws on cold, wet winter nights that, ultimately, will define their year.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.