FOR 15 second-half minutes of this Capital One Cup first-round tie, Swindon Town looked as though they’d learned nothing from their away-day woes of last season.
How refreshing it was, then, that the Robins came from behind to win on their travels for only the third time under manager Marl Cooper, at a tricky ground in front of a passionate and hostile home crowd.
It was a performance that oozed maturity from the Robins, whose starting line-up featured an eldest statesman, at 24 years of age, in the shape of Raphael Branco, as well as three teenagers.
They bossed the opening half-hour, lost their way towards the break and, when Luke Rooney slotted a 54th-minute penalty for hosts, after a debatable handball decision against Nathan Thompson, they showed all the worrying characteristics that caused them to crumble and fall too often on the road last season.
For a few seconds they forgot to think on the ball, rushed passes, lost their shape and threatened to implode. It was disconcerting. It brought back the odd memory many of the regular traveling fans would have been more than happy to forget.
But they stopped the rot, hit back through Michael Smith’s penalty – won by Nathan Byrne – and then edged in front thanks to Smith’s fourth in two games, beautifully crafted by Massimo Luongo.
Learning lessons, playing attractive football, grinding out results. Hmm. Things are looking up.
Town started with a composure on the ball that was a major factor in their opening-day victory over Scunthorpe United three days previously. Within five minutes they’d created two sights of goal, though Byrne’s looping, first-time cross couldn’t find a man inside the six-yard box and Ben Gladwin fired high and wide from the edge of the area.
Swindon were happy to pop the ball about in tight spaces and, in the seventh minute, they almost fashioned a chance from nothing when Gladwin, Luongo and Michael Smith exchanged passes in an area no larger than a Persian rug, only for Luongo to skew over.
Then Luongo’s back-flick teed up Byrne but the full-bac k sliced his left-footed shot wide. Luton were left to feed balls down the channels and they did manage to get the ball in the back of the net within the opening quarter-hour, only for linesman’s flag to cancel out Paul Benson’s strike.
Soon the visitors were back in the attack, keeping the ball like Shylocks in red and white, not letting their orange-clad hosts enjoy even the promise of an extended spell in possession.
Byrne crossed for Gladwin in the 20th minute and the midfielder, employed once again as a number 10 behind Michael Smith, forced Mark Tyler into an unconvincing parry. Yaser Kasim was next to try his luck, miscuing a 20-yard free-kick over the top, and it took until the 29th minute for Luton to shoot at goal in anger. Even then, Andy Drury could only drill his half-volley wide from the edge.
Scott Griffiths had a 25-yard swinging effort moments later, which had Wes Foderingham worried, but the full-back couldn’t hit the target.
After such a bright opening, Swindon had started to developed rising damp. The midfield went stagnant, delaying distribution like striking postmen, hesitating when before they had operated with a rhythm and flow.
You knew something wasn’t right when Louis Thompson got booked for diving.
The Kenilworth Road crowd were growing audibly more and more confident and that translated into the performance of their players. Fraser Franks released a bullet drive in the 40th minute, which had Foderingham doing his best Superman impression, diving to his left, but ultimately fizzed wide, and the hosts were the better side through to the break.
The game’s flashpoint came in the 52nd minute. Nathan Thompson leaned into a Luton throughball to bring the ball down on his chest, appeared to do so legitimately, and looked on in horror as the referee’s assistant flagged for a penalty.
Rooney stepped up to bury the spot-kick, despite Foderingham guessing the right way, and immediately Swindon started showing symptoms of the away day fever that they so badly suffered from in 2013/14.
With the home crowd boisterous, in the five minutes after the Hatters took the lead, Town were anxious on the ball and confused in their shape off it. It wasn’t pleasant to watch. And, in a timely exhibition of pathetic fallacy, the heavens opened – to Swindon’s detriment, too, as Byrne slipped on the freshly watered turf to break up a tidy counter-attack.
Luongo tested Tyler in on the hour mark with a daisy-cutter, which was easily gathered by the Luton stopper, while Cooper introduced Andy Williams to add know-how up front, but the striker could only fire a 68th-minute volley well wide.
Jack Barthram, sporting a Terry Butcher-esque head bandage after a second-half clash of heads, skidded a long-range attempt into the arms of Tyler with a little over 15 minutes to go, and then, in the 76th minute, Town found a way back into the tie.
Byrne, again impressive down the right, danced around Drury and had his legs taken from under him. Smith stepped up to find the bottom right-hand corner of Tyler’s goal with a calm, side-footed finish.
Having calmed themselves down, Swindon hit back again within five minutes. Luongo was the architect, sliding a perfect pass into the feet of Smith, with all the timing of an international scrum-half, allowing his striker to break the line, take a touch and clip over Tyler.
Now Town were rampant. Williams took on Franks for pace down the left, knackered his marker, cut inside and only Tyler’s outstretched right arm prevented the hosts from falling further behind.
Rooney was sent off for the hosts, against his former club, in the second minute of injury time – his second yellow card received for an alleged dive, but it didn’t impact the result.
A coming of age showing from Swindon Town.