ACCORDING to their manager, the play-offs remain an unrealistic goal for Swindon Town’s players this season. His squad are sure doing their darnedest to prove him wrong.
This was a performance that didn’t hit dizzy heights in terms of breathtaking forward-play or silky smooth passing through midfield. It wasn’t a display that oozed the wow factor. It didn’t leave you open-mouthed.
Instead it took the German route. It was efficient, effective and devastatingly dominant. And by the end of the game Walsall had been taught a footballing lesson.
Built on the foundation of a strong and impressive central defensive pairing of Joe Devera and Darren Ward, Town had the security to manipulate possession safe in the knowledge that their backline was able to mop up their hosts’ attacks as if they were minor spills on laminate flooring.
There was an air of disdain about Ward and Devera as much as there was a pathetic lack of incisiveness amongst the Walsall frontline, whose fans must have been left worrying where their season is headed.
It took less than a minute for the Robins to go in front, courtesy of the now free-scoring Simon Ferry, and the tone was set for 90 minutes during which Town were dictatorial in their control of the game.
Once Ferry smashed home the opener there was not a second that passed in which a Swindon win looked anything but guaranteed.
In reality, Town could and perhaps should have been three goals to the good before the half-hour mark but, even though they failed to build on their lead until the 63rd minute, they were so superior to the Saddlers that any profligacy was rendered trivial.
Ritchie thrashed home the second from the edge of the box and the game was as good as over. Walsall were impotent, Town were dominant and, despite the insistence of Di Canio that a top-six place come the end of the term remains a pipe-dream, the Robins bounced back into a play-off spot.
The game could hardly have got off to a better start from a Swindon perspective.
Roberts broke down the right and crossed, Walsall failed to clear and Ferry lashed a volley into the roof of the net beyond David Grof.
In the first 10 minutes the home side were unable to cope with the movement and invention of Town going forward.
Andy Williams fired high and wide before James Collins forced a fantastic save out of Grof from Ritchie’s cross as the Robins turned up the heat and the Saddlers sprinted from the kitchen.
Walsall’s only chance of note early on was Jamie Paterson’s weak effort from the edge of the area, and in the 27th minute they came within a whisker of falling further behind.
Ferry crossed to the back post where Roberts cushioned the ball into Collins’ path and only the diving body of Taundry prevented the striker from doubling Swindon’s lead.
Walsall’s meek response was a Sam Mantom effort from range which summed up their performance – aimless and desperate.
At the other end, Town were continuing to create.
With two minutes remaining of the first half, Roberts danced through the middle of the Saddlers’ defence and bore down on goal.
His shot looked destined for the bottom corner, only for Grof to get down low to his left and push the ball out of play via an upright for a Town corner.
That Walsall did not find themselves on the end of a first-half hiding was in itself verging on the miraculous.
After the break, the same rhythm was re-established.
Adam Chambers volleyed over in the 47th minute but the Swindon Town snowball started rolling again quickly after.
Devera’s header from Jay McEveley’s deep cross couldn’t pick out a teammate; neither could Williams’ delicate pull-back from the bye-line after he waltzed through two challenges. Ritchie and Collins collided when both were well set to head at goal.
It was so one-sided you feared the entire game could topple over.
Ferry and John Bostock had shots blocked but a second goal was close to inevitable and it came with 27 minutes remaining.
McEveley’s drilled cross couldn’t find a killer touch courtesy of Miles Storey, but when it broke to the edge of the area Ritchie made no mistake, firing a precision drive into the bottom left-hand corner.
It was a fabulous finish and gave Town the luxury of a two-goal cushion that they didn’t really need.
In the 70th minute, Ritchie’s fabulous through ball picked out Roberts’ run through the middle. The winger, who looks on track to recover the sort of form which has been so devastating at times during his career, saw his shot blocked by Grof before Williams couldn’t beat the Saddlers stopper from range.
Jamie Paterson saw his free-kick saved by Foderingham at the other end but Walsall couldn’t break down the Robins’ rearguard and the visitors should have put a big dollop of icing on an extremely tasty cake when Williams sauntered into the box late on – but Grof was quick again to snuff out the danger.
After the game, Di Canio once again reiterated that he doesn’t feel Swindon can realistically expect to maintain their top-six challenge, but he was delighted with the performance.
He said: “It wasn’t the best but we dominated. This is the game you have to win, even a draw would be good, even a defeat would be normal in our situation but we were professional, we came here and we did our job.
“The players were very good. When they are focused and really concentrated in what they have to do we can win these games.
“Every time you have to start well and quick and fast but especially here we came with the intention to press forward, press higher and it was a different approach than against Sheffield United.
“We wanted to emphasise their bad moment. We thought if we came here and pressed forward and regained two or three balls straight away we could damage them.
“Fortunately, but thanks to the players, we went like that straight away. The start was good from us.”