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Pritchard grabs the headlines but it's the Town back line who secure a point
GIVEN Swindon Town’s meekness on the road this season, this performance was something of a surprise. A very pleasant surprise, of course, but a surprise nonetheless.
While Alex Pritchard stole the show with a high calibre individual display, capped with a sensational solo strike which drew his team level, the fact Swindon emerged from Valley Parade with a point against a ridiculously physical and direct Bradford side was largely due to the excellent defending of Town’s back four.
Excellent defending? Yes, you heard me right. After months of criticism and concerns, this was the day the Swindon rearguard came good. Perhaps that bodes well for 2014.
After Rory McArdle had headed the hosts in front in the 15th minute, from a corner, the worry was Swindon would collapse under the high ball. But led by Wes Foderingham, Darren Ward and Grant Hall, Town stood up to the task manfully.
This was men playing against men, where before it had been boys.
Town manager Mark Cooper made two changes to his starting line-up, dropping the enigmatic Nile Ranger out of the matchday squad altogether after he once again failed to turn up for training and drafting in Jay McEveley and Louis Thompson. Ryan Mason was named as a substitute.
With Nathan Byrne and Pritchard pushed up to support Nicky Ajose in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Swindon started well and Pritchard had the game’s first sight of goal in the second minute but the Spurs loanee lashed over the crossbar from 20 yards.
The match began at a ridiculously high tempo, with Bradford bombarding the Swindon back four with long, aerial balls for target man James Hanson to latch onto, while Town looked fluent with the ball at feet in midfield.
The visitors knew they were going to have to withstand plenty of high balls to emerge from the trip with anything but sadly they failed to defend Bradford’s first corner of the game in the 15th minute.
Gary Jones swung in the cross from the left and McArdle rose highest to power his header in off the underside of Town’s crossbar.
It was a fairly unjust representation of the way Swindon had held their own in the early exchanges, but hardly the first time Town have been taught a very familiar lesson away from home.
The Robins’ responded well, controlling possession in the middle of the park with aplomb and setting up an opening for Nathan Thompson who could only scuff his shot at Jon McLaughlin, but Bradford continued to hold a massive threat at the other end of the field.
Nahki Wells cut inside Grant Hall to fire into the sidenetting in the 18th minute before Byrne’s diving header bounced narrowly wide with McLaughlin worried.
Ajose’s touch let him down when he was played in by Yaser Kasim, Nathan Thompson scuffed a tame effort straight at McLaughlin and Ajose was denied by a flying block from McArdle as Town dominated the remainder of the half.
Pritchard again tested McLaughlin with seven minutes remaining of the first half and, with Ajose lurking, the Bradford keeper unconvincingly spilt the ball only to hang onto it at the second attempt, while the winger curled a free-kick wide to end the period with Swindon on top.
Town struggled to regain their rhythm in the early minutes of the first half and were fortunate not to go further behind when Hanson headed Mark Yeates’s cross straight at Wes Foderingham in the 52nd minute. A foot either side of the Swindon goalkeeper and the visitors could have found themselves with a mountain to climb.
Pritchard was back in the action in the 59th minute, dragging a shot wide from the edge of the box after Kasim dispossessed Carl McHugh, as Town desperately searched for an equaliser.
They successfully stumbled across just that in the 63rd minute, in the most sensational of styles.
Pritchard picked up possession midway inside the Bradford half and galloped towards goal. The danger seemed minimal until the diminutive trickster had contorted his way around two challenges. When he wriggled free of a third he was inside the Bantams’ box and as he rounded a fourth weary Bradford leg there was nothing left to do but carve his shot beyond McLaughlin.
Play became more and more stretched as the game entered its final quarter. Hanson was only a matter of inches from turning home Garry Thompson’s right-wing cross, Jones saw a goalbound shot deflected wide for a corner and a flying Foderingham save prevented Nathan Doyle’s 20-yard volley from finding the top corner.
At the other end, Swindon found their mojo again in the last 10 minutes, as Pritchard and Byrne both shot narrowly wide, but it was the Bantams who looked more likely to nick a late winner and Yeates wasted a good opportunity in the 88th minute by sending a free-kick well over the bar.
McLaughlin had to make a diving save high to his right to turn Miles Storey’s effort wide late on and the young striker skewed a volley wide with the final kick of the game as the Valley Parade drama refused to let up until the final whistle.
“I thought in the first half we were really good and we felt really hard done by going in 1-0 down,” manager Mark Cooper. “In the second half up until we scored I thought we were really dominant. We got anxious and gave the ball away too many times.
“Bradford’s strength is crosses and they do it very well. It was probably their only attempt of the half but that’s down to an individual error.
“We played with two deeper midfield players and two in front of them and they found it really difficult to deal with. I felt we should have scored at least one or two goals in the first half.
“We know Alex has got that. He’s starting to come into a bit of form. We left him out at Colchester because we didn’t feel he was giving us enough but now away from home he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet.
“I’ve just made the players give Raffa (Branco) a round of applause. To come in in an arena like this when the pressure was on, to play like that he can be really proud of himself. He’s certainly given me something to think about there, if he can replicate those kind of performances we don’t need to bring in a centre-back.
“The thing about Raffa is he’s made of granite.
“Darren and Grant and Raffa and the two Thompsons defended for their lives and you have to do that away from home.”
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