THIS was about the dampest squib of a game you’re ever likely to come across. In every single sense.
Amongst heavy rain and driving winds, Swindon Town and Colchester United cancelled it out like seasoned chess grandmasters. And it was about as thrilling to watch from a spectators’ point of view.
Swindon weren’t poor. In patches they moved the ball around the rutted County Ground pitch with composure and class – but too often those passes went sideways and backwards, incisive movement was rare and at the end of it all a point must be considered not quite good enough.
Colchester didn’t offer much going forward. They were well drilled at the back and offered occasional glimpses of attacking threat but, especially after Sanchez Watt was sent off for an apparent headbutt on Nathan Thompson with 20 minutes remaining, they were left to park the bus.
It could have been a minibus and Town wouldn’t have scored. Only Alex Pritchard tested Sam Walker in the U’s goal in anger and generally half-chances came and half-chances went, ebbing and flowing like the various small streams that had formed on the touchlines.
There was little to report about, other than the wonders worked by the groundstaff to get the match on in the first place. Two points dropped certainly, and perhaps even greater repercussions given Ranger had to come off late in the first half due to injury.
The men and women who’ll take most out of the tie were the 96 hardy souls who’d trekked down from Essex in the wind and rain. For the rest, everything still felt cold at the final whistle.
Mark Cooper kept faith with the same XI which began the 3-2 victory over Port Vale last weekend, while the County Ground pitch was only deemed playable by referee Darren Sheldrake at 6.55pm on his third assessment.
The ball still rolled well enough over the turf in the opening exchanges and, though Town started with rhythm and fluency, passing around with composure in midfield, Colchester had the first sight of goal in the seventh minute.
Troy Archibald-Henville went in late on Marcus Bean on the edge of the area and, from a good position, Ryan Dickson curled the resulting free-kick over the crossbar. Swindon had their first attempt 10 minutes later. Nathan Byrne swung in a cross from the left and Michael Smith’s deft touch couldn’t quite steer the ball inside U’s goalkeeper Sam Walker’s near post.
Pritchard brought a good save out of Walker in the 21st minute, fizzing a shot in from 25 yards which had the former Chelsea stopper reaching high to his left to push the ball out for a corner. Moments later, Dominic Vose came within inches of putting through his own net after Walker deflected Pritchard’s superb low cross onto his shins but the U’s man could breathe a sigh of relief as the ball dribbled behind.
Walker was back in action again in the 25th minute, saving from Dany N’Guessan after his ;loose clearance picked out Massimo Luongo midway inside the Colchester half, but perhaps the most notable moment in the first half came just outside the centre circle four minutes before the break.
Ranger seized possession inside his own half and began a canter towards goal but pulled up within seconds holding his groin and immediately made his way for the treatment room.
The big frontman was replaced by Jacob Murphy in stoppage time at the end of the opening period, while Pritchard again tested Walker after turning nearly in the box, but a pretty uneventful half drew to a quiet close.
Byrne sent a wild shot well wide minutes after the restart, as both teams continued to find it hard to force themselves into a rhythm, while Smith headed well wide from Byrne’s left-wing cross in the 61st minute.
The game was slowly drowning. In front of a depleted crowd, whose enthusiasm had been understandably stifled by the wet weather, both sides lacked the necessary spark to turn scattergun possession into something more tangible.
That looked like it might have come in the 69th minute. Watt, who had been booked in the first half for a foul on Nathan Thompson, took exception to the Swindon full-back confronting him following a challenge on his brother Louis and threw what appeared to be a headbutt in the direction of his opponent.
Referee Sheldrake had no hesitation in reaching for the red card and handing Watt his marching orders. Colchester boss Joe Dunne threw on Gavin Massey and Alex Gilbey in response, unwilling to sacrifice the chance of a victory in favour of shutting up shop, but they barely made tracks into the Town half.
At the other end, Swindon enjoyed plenty of possession and territory but couldn’t find a way around a well-drilled Colchester defensive line. By the time the game reached its final 10 minutes Town were playing at walking pace, trying every key in box to unlock the rearguard in front of them and failing pretty miserably at it.
The attacking unit was static, passes went from left to right and back again. For the spectators, huddled together to shield themselves from the cold, it was like catching a Newton’s Cradle in action. While sat in a fridge.
Pritchard sent a free-kick into the Stratton Bank in the final minute as Swindon simply couldn’t click into anything like top gear, while Byrne sent a fizzing snapshot wide from 15 yards in stoppage time and Nathan Thompson guided Pritchard’s cross wide.
And still the rain kept falling.