ON Saturday, Swindon Town’s man of the match was a half-time substitute who was sent off for two bookable offences.
That sums up succinctly a turgid performance in difficult conditions which left 7,000 home fans disillusioned at the final whistle.
It shouldn’t take away from Troy Archibald-Henville’s individual effort. The central defender came off the bench to make his first Swindon appearance since November 2012 after a long spell out of the game through injury and slotted almost seamlessly into the back four, looking composed on the ball and willing to make up the hard yards for the sake of the team.
But, aside from a couple of other exceptions, the Robins were abject. Unexceptional, physical, robust Oldham didn’t stifle their hosts, they didn’t stop them from playing – Swindon did all that themselves.
The majority of Town’s players could have been mistaken for patients emerging from a lobotomy clinic, such was their lack of imagination and creativity in and out of possession on a dark and blustery Wiltshire afternoon. But perhaps more worryingly was an almost total absence of inspiration, motivation and heart.
The County Ground crowd isn’t used to this kind of lifeless display. Even on the more difficult days this season, Swindon have at least battled to force some kind of result, even when they haven’t been able to pass the ball with rhythm or fluency.
Not on Saturday. Not even slightly.
Town’s only effort on target came in the 12th minute and even that was a speculative long-range drive from Ryan Harley. Without Yaser Kasim, who was rested, the injured Ryan Mason and the suspended Alex Pritchard, Swindon’s midfield coughed and choked like a rusty engine.
Up front, George Barker and Nathan Byrne offered Michael Smith the kind of service that you’d expect from adolescent waitresses – careless, inconsistent, invariably wrong.
Jonathan Grounds’ 72nd-minute strike for the visitors gave Oldham a victory that, on reflection, they probably deserved. Without Wes Foderingham’s saves – from Danny Philliskirk and Jon Stead – frustration could have given way to embarrassment. Perhaps it did anyway.
Archibald-Henville picked up his first yellow card in the 69th minute for a clumsy challenge and was harshly given a second booking in the dying moments for his second foul of the game. It was a petty decision by referee Tim Robinson but ultimately it did not affect the result.
Peterborough are next for Town in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. If the prospect of Wembley can’t pull the Robins out of a mini slump, will anything?
Mark Cooper made three changes to his starting line-up, dropping Nile Ranger to the bench in favour of Barker, who made his full Swindon debut, and including Ryan Harley and Byrne. Kasim was rested, while Pritchard missed out through suspension.
A miserable opening 10 minutes, during which neither side was able to retain possession, didn’t bode well for fans who’d made the trek to the County Ground in search of entertaining, free-flowing football.
The tedium was momentarily broken in the 12th minute, as Harley forced Mark Oxley into an uncomfortable save low down to his right with a drive from long range.
Oldham took 20 minutes to muster an effort on goal, with James Wesolowski slashing over the Town crossbar from the edge of the box, but the Latics felt they should have been awarded a penalty 12 minutes later when Nathan Thompson appeared to barge Philliskirk to the floor inside the Swindon penalty area. Referee Robinson, whose performance – along with those of his assistants – fluctuated between poor and confusing – turned away Oldham’s shouts.
An appalling first period gave way to a slightly improved second, though neither side showed any real signs of quality.
Gary Harkins was afforded far too much time and space on the edge of the box in the 50th minute and Town were relieved to see the midfielder’s shot skid past Foderingham’s right-hand post, before Smith couldn’t quite reach Byrne’s raking cross at the other end of the pitch.
Massimo Luongo almost gifted Oldham the opener in the 56th minute. The Australian midfielder gave possession away in leading to Philliskirk turning neatly in the box to force Foderingham to make a fine save at his near post.
The Swindon goalkeeper was once again to thank for keeping his team level with 20 minutes remaining. He had to backpedal quickly to push Stead’s header over the bar after the Town backline had allowed the on-loan frontman to ghost in behind them from a long free-kick.
The warning signs were there to be heeded by Town. But either they ignored them or didn’t take them seriously. Within three minutes of Foderingham’s second impressive save of the second half, Oldham took the lead.
Swindon’s back four tripped over their own feet trying to hack clear a loose ball in the box but Grounds was quickest and thrashed his shot through the legs of Raphael Branco and beyond Foderingham.
Philliskirk almost put Oldham out of sight with 10 minutes left but his audacious 35-yard chip landed on the roof of Foderingham’s net and, despite being behind, Town simply could not create a thing.
Archibald-Henville did his best to gee up his team, picking up possession deep in his own half, finding teammates with crisp passes and running 60 yards to join up with his forwards. But Swindon lost the ball almost immediately on almost every occasion and the former Exeter man could only jog back into his own half – the most unnecessary of shuttle runs.
As the game entered stoppage time, Archibald-Henville was fractionally late in a tackle in midfield and was punished by referee Robinson. His face was a picture of frustration but, as he walked off, he would have seen another 7,000 mirroring his own.
Cooper said after the game: “We needed to compete, it wasn’t a day for pretty football, but I would suggest the only difference is they wanted it a little more than us.
“The only positive for me was Troy, who was outstanding when he came on, but the disappointment is he is now suspended.
“I thought the referee was very, very poor again and it was baffling, it was never a red card, but that isn’t an excuse because it was awful for both teams.
“Today has taught me that one or two players can talk a good game but can’t back it up.
“We started playing at 1-0 down and if we’d played like we did in the last 15 minutes from the beginning then we would have won.
“It was a day for grinding out a result like we did against Shrewsbury, Coventry and Peterborough but we didn’t do it today.”