FOR AS long as we choose to mock Swindon Town manager Mark Cooper when he references the inexperience of his Robins squad as a major factor in defeat, we must praise him and his players when they produce a performance of this magnitude.
Preston North End arrived in Wiltshire on Saturday boasting a 12-match unbeaten run which has all-but guaranteed them a League One play-off place. Between them, the Lilywhites’ starting line-up included 2,538 professional appearances in the Premier League, Football League and Scottish leagues.
Swindon could muster just 876 – almost half of which came courtesy of Jay McEveley – yet they produced a composed, mature, defiant display that exposed those statistics as damned lies.
A top-six finish might remain out of reach for Town, sitting as they are seven points off Peterborough United with eight games of the season remaining, but if this is an indication of what’s in store next season then perhaps we can all be reassured.
Part of a successful campaign in 2014/15 must surely rely on the club keeping hold of Troy Archibald-Henville. Once again a rock at the heart of the Swindon defence, the centre-back marshalled his teammates to a gritty victory over a physical Preston side.
It will also depend on Cooper and owner Lee Power’s increasingly uncanny knack of digging out diamonds in the rough, the latest example of which appears to be Ben Gladwin. Nicked from Marlow in November, the midfielder had shown glimpses of his talent up until the weekend. On Saturday he revealed an exciting potential which, when tapped, could be devastating.
Spraying 50-yard diagonal passes to feet at will isn’t all the rage in the third tier of English football but Gladwin defied the norm to create space for his teammates with a swagger, or at least a lollop. However you described the 21-year-old’s style, you couldn’t fault his creativity.
He won the penalty which effectively settled this tie in the 56th minute, drawing Neil Kilkenny into a clumsy challenge in the box. Michael Smith netted the resulting spot-kick.
The visitors were robust and aggressive, if not hugely technical, but even their flair players – Josh Brownhill in particular – were kept under lock and key by a Swindon midfield which finally rediscovered their bark and bite and used both to maximum effect.
A low-key first half gave way to a compelling second and Town did seem to tire in the latter stages but credit must be given for their willingness to battle away and beat one of the top teams in the division when, in eight weeks’ time, the season may have ended in relative mediocrity.
Preston could afford to throw on 1,200-plus pro appearances from the bench in an effort to change the game on the hour mark, 772 of which belonged to Kevin Davies, but he, Stuart Beavon and John Welsh ran into the same obstacles as their teammates. Archibald-Henville didn’t lose a header, Nathan Thompson led from the front (right of defence) as captain and Yaser Kasim in the middle of the park was back to his Rottweiler best.
There was tenacity, enthusiasm, drive, desire, heart, grit and determination – character traits which have been all too rare in games at the County Ground since the turn of the year. And the crowd responded.
There were the traditional grumbles but, by and large, the atmosphere was the best it has been at a largely hushed SN1 for some time. It felt like home again.
Cooper was right to heap praise on his players after the match, they were superb. But tactically he wasn’t all that bad either. Though partially compelled to make the changes to the midfield that he did – following injuries to Louis Thompson and Ryan Harley – he chose to stick two up front and gave Miles Storey a try.
He opted to focus heavily on monopolising possession in midfield and using the width of the County Ground pitch much more than he has in recent months. He was rewarded. The players were rewarded. The fans were rewarded.
More of the same, please Mark. Much more of the same.
Cooper made four changes to his starting line-up following the goalless draw at Bristol City the previous weekend, drafting in Gladwin and Alex Smith for the injured pair of Louis Thompson and Harley and Storey for the suspended Alex Pritchard, while Kasim was also restored.
Swindon began the game well, with Gladwin curling over from the edge of the box in the fourth minute, before at the other end Joe Garner headed wide from Josh Brownhill’s cross.
In the 10th minute, Foderingham was called into action to push Craig Davies’s cross-shot over the bar, while Garner’s ambitious chip landed on the roof of the Town goal four minutes later.
The first clear sight of goal for either side arrived on the half-hour mark. Massimo Luongo delivered a delicious throughball into the path of Storey but his low, left-footed shot from 12 yards was saved by Declan Rudd.
Foderingham had to be alert to get down and smother Garner’s header before the break, as the two teams went into half-time level.
Swindon flew out of the traps in the second period, with Rudd having to parry Luongo’s 20-yard side-footer, Kasim dragging a volley just wide and Alex Smith seeing his deflected effort fly out for a corner – all within 10 minutes of the restart.
And then came the moment that defined the game.
Gladwin muscled his way past Kilkenny and into the box from the left flank and the Preston midfielder hauled him to the floor with a clumsy tackle. Referee Iain Williamson pointed to the spot and Michael Smith sent Rudd the wrong way.
Preston boss Simon Grayson tried to change the flow of the game with a triple substitution but Swindon continued to rain down on the visitors’ goal.
Alex Smith’s deflected effort was well saved by Rudd and the North End keeper then produced an excellent point-blank stop to keep out Michael Smith’s header as Town refused to sit back on their lead.
Gladwin’s deflected effort looped onto the roof of the net in the 66th minute before the man of the match burst through the Preston defences only to be denied by Rudd moments later and it seemed only a matter of time before Swindon would score again.
They didn’t. And soon it was Preston’s turn to turn the screw with some vigour.
For much of the final 15 minutes of the game, Archibald-Henville and Jack Stephens – again belying his tender years – repelled wave after wave of attack. Foderingham was barely tested, much to his defence’s credit, and when he was – by Kevin Davies – the former Bolton man was offside.
Tom Clarke nodded over, Beavon’s shot was stopped en route to goal by Thompson, Kevin Davies couldn’t direct his header on target and, at the end of it all, Town’s defence stood firm.
Inexperience won the day. Positive signs for the future.
Cooper said: “"I thought we played particularly well when you look at the age of the team.
"The team we put out today was full of energy and desire, so it was a pleasing win.
"I thought we deserved to win by a bigger scoreline. I thought the two up front were good."