THE PLAY-OFFS may well remain the target for Swindon Town but this felt like two midtable teams stuttering their way through a dead rubber tie.
Victory would have taken Town within four points of the top six with 13 games of the season remaining – a manageable task despite the calibre of the side the Robins still have to face – and even the point gained against Crawley Town last night leaves Mark Cooper’s men with a task which, mathematically, isn’t too daunting.
But there’s more to it than maths. Last night proved that. Across 90 minutes, Swindon never looked like a team that could seriously challenge for a place in the end-of-season lottery knockout for a spot in the Championship.
In a lethargic first half, individual errors outweighed moments of brilliance by a factor of what felt like five to one. It could have been more. Passes went astray, possession was relinquished like a weedy five-year-old staring down the spotty nose of the year six bully and rare chances weren’t converted.
Town did steal a second-half lead through Joe Walsh’s unfortunate own goal but they failed to exhibit another crucial character trait of sides who really, truly are destined for a play-off place – resolve.
Swindon’s defence was breached with 10 minutes remaining by Matt Tubbs, who had barely touched the ball for much of the game, and there was no time left for a second.
The Robins were better after the break, with Ryan Harley and Nathan Byrne particularly impressive, but didn’t do enough to warrant victory. The play-offs remain in reach for those blessed with a calculator. But it takes more than that.
Cooper made five changes to the Town side which lost 2-0 at Leyton Orient on Saturday. Troy Archibald-Henville and Massimo Luongo were rested, with Jay McEveley and Louis Thompson taking their places, while Jamie Reckord was dropped out of the matchday 18 in favour of Jack Barthram.
Nathan Thompson returned from a ban and replaced Ben Gladwin while Dany N’Guessan came in for Jacob Murphy, who started on the bench.
With Wes Foderingham ruled out through injury, Tyrell Belford made his home league debut in between the sticks for Swindon and Town’s number two was almost called into his first save of the match within a minute of kick-off.
McEveley’s errant pass fell straight to the feet of Andy Drury on the edge of the area but the Crawley midfielder’s first-time effort fizzed past Belford’s left-hand post.
It was an uncertain start for the Robins but soon they were on the offensive and, after turning his marker neatly in midfield, Byrne dragged a 20-yard shot wide to Crawley keeper Paul Jones’s right.
In a frenetic opening to the game, the visitors worked Belford for the first time in the sixth minute. Jamie Proctor found space on the edge of the area to fizz a whistling shot at goal and Belford leapt to his right to push the ball out for a corner.
After an energetic first seven minutes, however, the game died a slow and gruesome death. Town’s fans got on their own players’ backs as passes went astray and play got stuck in a loop between midfield and defence.
Jamie Proctor steered Michael Jones’ left-wing cross wide for Crawley, while Harley’s ferocious drive was blocked en route to goal, but otherwise there was very little for either set of supporters to get excited about.
Instead, all the meagre crowd had to talk about were two peculiar refereeing decisions. Firstly, Drury could count himself lucky not to be sent off for a lunge on Thompson which left the Town defender requiring treatment while, six minutes later, Swindon were the beneficiaries of a howler when referee Steve Rushton failed to award a penalty when Darren Ward appeared to slide straight through Proctor eight yards from goal.
Town, whose performance was littered with individual mistakes which drew sarcastic jeers from pockets of home fans, did enjoy a brief spell of pressure late in the first half, as N’Guessan first called Jones into pushing his shot over the bar and then tapped a gentle effort straight at the Red Devils’ stopper when Barthram’s cross evaded the entire Crawley defence.
Crawley started the second half looking to make the most of the space Town afforded their guests on the counter-attack, and Jones dragged a shot wide within two minutes of the restart, but Swindon took the lead in fortunate circumstances in the 48th minute.
Patient build-up play from Town, involving Kasim, N’Guessan and Barthram, ended with the latter swinging a dangerous cross into the area and, under pressure from Byrne at the near post, Walsh somehow contrived to bundle the ball past his own keeper from a tight angle.
It was the stroke of good luck the Robins have been missing in recent weeks and provided the perfect platform to go on and secure an important victory.
N’Guessan missed the chance to double the hosts’ lead 10 minutes later, flashing a shot wide of Jones’s right-hand post at the end of a swift counter-attack, started by Byrne’s tidy work in his own half, but Crawley soon found their footing once again.
Gary Dicker wasted a gilt-edged opportunity to level matters just after the hour, heading straight at Belford from close range when Jones’s looping cross from the left floated over Ward and McEveley, before Sully Kaikai – on for the injured Drury – bent a 20-yard free-kick wide.
After another flash-bang spell of entertainment, the game reverted to type for much of the second period. A classy moment from Harley set substitute Murphy free with 15 minutes to go but the on-loan Norwich winger saw his shot blocked before Byrne’s brilliant pass down the line put N’Guessan clear, only for the striker to see his shot saved by Jones.
Within 30 seconds of that save, Crawley clawed level. Robbie Simpson crossed low from the right and Tubbs, who had been anonymous for 80 minutes to that point, tapped home from close range.
A dull draw.