IN NILE Ranger, Swindon Town have found their own Mario Balotelli. An archetypal anti-hero whose every absurd move is scrutinised, criticised, abhorred and adored.
On Wednesday it seemed as though the striker’s eventful stay at the County Ground was all over. Chairman Lee Power had spoken openly about how the 22-year-old had tried the club’s patience once too often, meetings had taken place to lay the groundwork for Ranger’s departure and Town fans were readied for life without their enigmatic number nine.
Three days later, 28 minutes into a blistering clash between the Robins and Peterborough United, the stories which had raged for the best part of a fortnight slinked off into the ether without a trace.
Ranger, restored to the Swindon starting line-up after apologising to his teammates at a team meeting on Thursday, had produced a sublime header to steer Town in front and put down the foundations for a crucial victory which keeps his side in contention for a play-off place.
For the man who has come back from the dead enough times to qualify as part-zombie, it was yet another extraordinary, unscriptable moment.
Against a thoroughbred Posh outfit, Ranger’s dynamic performance up front was complemented by supreme displays of resolve from Raphael Rossi Branco and Darren Ward at the heart of Town’s defence.
Branco, making his full league debut, was immense. The Brazilian kept Britt Assombalonga – all £1.5million of him – quiet throughout, guided by an old head in Ward who produced his most impressive individual performance of the campaign.
Yaser Kasim got the all-important second in the 70th minute despite Posh taking total control of the game after half-time and, though Nathaniel Knight-Percival crashed home a stunning volley to reduce arrears, Peterborough couldn’t fight back.
The visitors weren’t helped by a late red card for Lee Tomlin, who needlessly picked up a second booking for pushing Kasim to the floor, and would perhaps rightly feel aggrieved not to have taken at least a point from a game they contributed plenty to by way of entertainment.
But Swindon Town, and their bizarre yet brilliant striker, had just enough. Ranger is here to stay for the immediate future – on a moral basis that decision can be disputed, when it comes down to pure talent the Robins may have made the wise choice. Why always him?
The return of Ranger was the major talking point around the County Ground pre-match but there was also a full league debut for Branco, while Dany N’Guessan was restored to the starting line-up by Cooper.
Nicky Ajose, who scored 10 goals in 21 appearances on loan at Swindon earlier in the campaign, began alongside Assombalonga up front for Posh, while Tomlin made his comeback from injury.
Ajose had the game’s first sight of goal in the eighth minute, heading straight at Wes Foderingham after Town failed to clear a Peterborough corner, before Alex Pritchard crashed a fizzing cross-shot over the Posh bar at the other end 60 seconds later.
Branco, playing in the heart of defence with Ward as Grant Hall moved to left-back, came up with a superb block in the 17th minute to keep out Assombalonga after Nathan Thompson and Kasim contrived to lose possession carelessly in midfield, while Massimo Luongo and Kasim both saw efforts blocked by Posh defenders before the Robins went ahead in the 28th minute.
Luongo’s delicate cross floated into the Peterborough box and Ranger seemed to hang in the air like a hummingbird before delivering a perfect header past Olejnik, who was rooted to the spot.
Peterborough struggled to find a reply in what time remained of the opening period, with Mark Little flashing into the sidenetting in the 36th minute, while Pritchard went close to doubling Swindon’s advantage with eight minutes to go before the break as he wriggled through three tackles to fire at Olejnik from 20 yards.
Ranger’s excellent hold-up play gave Kasim a sight of goal in the 40th minute but he dragged his shot into the sidenetting before Tomlin curled a wayward free-kick into the Stratton Bank in added time as Swindon took a lead into the break.
Posh came out after the break looking like they’d been given the full Ferguson hairdryer treatment. In the first 15 minutes after half-time the home side were barely able to keep hold of the ball for more than five or six passes as Peterborough cranked up the style.
Their quarterback, Tomlin, came within inches of providing a sensational equaliser in the 55th minute, curling a terrific first-time effort against the angle between crossbar and post following Ajose’s lay-off, while the latter then saw a goalbound attempt blocked by Branco.
At the other end, N’Guessan latched onto a loose ball after Jack Payne’s header fell into No Man’s Land, but when he burst into the Posh area he could only shoot straight at Olejnik.
Town were given another let-off in the 61st minute as Assombalonga slid home to tap Ajose’s volley into the back of the Swindon net, only for the Posh frontman’s effort to be ruled out for offside, while Michael Bostwick headed over from six yards out and sliced wide from range.
The Robins seemed to be hanging on desperately to their slender lead but, completely against the run of play, they managed to find a second in the 70th minute.
Kasim did it all himself, picking up possession just inside the Peterborough half and driving on a diagonal run across goal into the vacant left-back position before sliding the ball beyond Olejnik.
Cooper responded to the strike by swapping N’Guessan for Nathan Byrne in an effort to shore up at the back but the substitute almost managed to score with his first touch. Only Olejnik’s excellent save, low down to his left, kept out Byrne’s volley.
Posh found a route back into the game with 12 minutes remaining as Knight-Percival was given the time to bring down a high ball and power home a tremendous volley. Spurred on by the goal, Peterborough seemed destined to turn their game around but their quest was knocked off course when Tomlin received his second yellow card of the match for pushing Kasim to the floor.
Still there was plenty of drama to come in the dying moments. Posh goalkeeping coach Jimmy Walker was sent to the stands following a 20-man ruck in front of the dug-outs and somehow Jermaine Anderson managed to nod over the top from four yards out and without a Swindon man challenging him.
Cooper said after the game: “It was not one of our best performances.
“It was very resolute against what I thought was a very good Peterborough side. I thought they played particularly well, especially in the second half, and pushed us back a lot.
“Their possession was that good that we couldn’t get out and when we got the ball back we couldn’t keep it. It wasn’t one of our most fluent performances but we ground the result out and dug it out when we probably shouldn’t have done.
“I said afterwards I thought the back four and the goalkeeper kept us in it, I thought they were immense. Young Branco was outstanding, as was Darren Ward and the whole back four and the goalkeeper.
“We ground it out, we had to dig deep. Peterborough played very well second half but we dug it out and when you’re trying to get somewhere you have to fight and that’s what we did today.
“With our team you can always see a goal coming because we’ve got that ability in the team. When they score with 10 minutes to go you start thinking panic stations but to be fair to the back four and the goalkeeper, they were excellent.”