SWINDON Town will be without Nile Ranger for the rest of the 2013/14 campaign but how much of a blow is the enigmatic striker’s long-term absence? Can the Robins cope without him? And can Michael Smith shoulder the burden of being Mark Cooper’s go-to man?
Since signing for Swindon in August on a one-year deal Ranger has exhibited brilliance and brutish ignorance in almost identical measure.
The 22-year-old has baffled and frustrated Cooper off the pitch and endeared himself to many fans with a series of stand-out performances on it but he saw his season curtailed early on Valentine’s Day after tearing a hamstring during the goalless draw with Colchester United.
On paper, Ranger’s long-term injury looks incredibly significant.
From the 23 league games he has played this season, Swindon have taken 40 points at an average of 1.74 per game, scoring 43 goals in the process at an average of 1.87 per game.
In contrast, when Ranger has not been available - for whatever reason - Town have found life a lot harder.
The former Newcastle frontman has missed eight league games in 2013/14, during which time Town have averaged just 0.75 goals per game and one point per game.
The sample size might be small but the statistics jump off the page. Smith, who has only made 44 starts as a professional, has huge boots to fill and not a lot of time to fit into them.
Both players have a similar style but Cooper has accepted that Town will struggle to fill the subsequent void. However, he doesn’t want to dwell on Ranger’s absence.
Instead, he’d rather focus on what Smith can bring to his side as they look to close down sixth-placed Peterborough United, who are currently four points better off than Town in the table.
“We haven’t got him and we’re not going to have him for the rest of the season so there’s no point in us talking about it,” Cooper told the Advertiser.
“We have to use what we’ve got and what we have got is a young boy, who we’ve brought into the football club for the future who we think is a decent acquisition for us. We have to work with him and give him every opportunity to get better and better.
“That will take time. He’s done alright so far. He’s scored three goals and we have to, somewhere along the line, turn him into our own Nile Ranger.”
Ranger’s performances have peaked and troughed during his brief time in Wiltshire. Such is the complex psyche of the 22-year-old, it is impossible to know which Nile Ranger is going to pitch up on a matchday.
On as many occasions as he has dominated opposition defences and put himself about with dedication and desire, Ranger has looked as disinterested as an adolescent at their grandmother’s 65th birthday bash.
During his time at the County Ground, the troubled former England age-group international has missed numerous training sessions, written off his car on Christmas Day, come within hours of seeing his contract cancelled and been caught up in controversy following his arrest on suspicion of breaching his bail conditions in Newcastle - he was eventually found not to have.
Smith, in contrast, is the anti-Ranger when it comes to life away from football. He is just six months younger than his teammate but has a modicum of the personal baggage.
Unassuming and, by reputation, incredibly hard working, Smith will give his manager no unnecessary aggravation.
“The one thing I know with this one is he’s not going to give me any problems off the pitch,” said Cooper. “I know he’s going to go to bed at 10 o’clock - on a night, not a morning - I know he’s going to train every day. I know he’ll run through that wall for his teammates and the fans, and that’s what we need.
“He’s a quiet lad and from a really tough area of Newcastle and it won’t faze him.
“He’ll work as hard as he can and sometimes it will be good enough, sometimes it won’t be but it won’t affect him.”
Statistically, Smith has shown he has something about him in front of goal. He’s found the net three times in five appearances for Town and has 18 goals from 46 appearances for Football League clubs overall.
Given that those goals have been spread over spells with five different clubs, it must be noted that Smith settles quickly into a new team - perhaps largely due to his work ethic.
Equally, Ranger’s trial on a rape charge, which he denies, begins in Newcastle on Monday - a process which could have led to him missing several matches anyway, during which time Smith would have deputised.
“I don’t think you can ever replace Nile Ranger because he shouldn’t be playing at this level. He’s a Premier League player in his ability but not the rest of what comes with him,” said Cooper.
“We’ve got a Premier League player playing for us when he’s fit so by law of averages you would say that when he is in the team we’re going to be a better team.
“That’s why the players and myself decided to give him another chance - because we know we’re a better team with him.”
Over the next 15 games Swindon fans will find out if Nile Ranger really is irreplaceable.
THE TASK FACING MICHAEL SMITH
SWINDON TOWN’S LEAGUE ONE RECORD WITH RANGER
Played: 23 (W 12, D 4, L 7)
Points: 40 (1.74 per game)
Goals: 43 (1.87 per game)
SWINDON TOWN’S LEAGUE ONE RECORD WITHOUT RANGER
Played: 8 (W2, D2, L4)
Points: 8 (1 per game)
Goals: 6 (0.75 per game)
NILE RANGER’S INDIVIDUAL CONTRIBUTION IN 13/14
League One goals: 8
Total goals: 10
League One assists: 2
Points secured by goals: 7
MICHAEL SMITH’S CAREER GOALSCORING RECORD
Football League appearances: 46