SWINDON Town recorded successive League One victories for the first time since mid-November after riding their good fortune at Tranmere Rovers.
Having taken the lead through Alex Smith’s blistering strike after just 11 minutes, Town were pegged back by Max Power’s superb equaliser for the home side on the quarter-hour mark, before Miles Storey’s delicate right-wing cross looped over Tranmere keeper Owain Fon Williams midway through the second period to send Swindon to within four points of the League One play-offs.
Town required more than just the one helping hand from Lady Luck, however. On a night where the Robins so obviously missed the calming qualities of Troy Archibald-Henville at the back, Wes Foderingham was called into at least three important saves, while Ryan Lowe and Power both hit the crossbar for Rovers in the second period.
But, at the end of it all, Swindon could come out smiling. Maybe this season isn’t that bad after all.
Manager Mark Cooper made just one change to the Town side which beat Preston North End 1-0 at the County Ground on Saturday. Archibald-Henville was rested, with Raphael Branco filling in in a back three alongside Jay McEveley and Jack Stephens.
Lee Cox was given a spot among the substitutes and Connor Waldon, recently returned from a loan stint at Gloucester City, also started from the bench.
On a slippy surface, which was only getting wetter with the falling rain on Merseyside, neither side started the game with any great composure. It took 11 minutes for either team to muster a shot on goal but when it came it was worth waiting for.
Ben Gladwin got a foot on a loose ball on the edge of the Tranmere penalty area after the hosts clown-like defending and, when possession ran the way of Alex Smith 18 yards from goal the wing-back crashed home a thunderous strike off the crossbar.
On a quiet night at Prenton Park it was a moment to lift the gloom for the 100 or so traveling Town fans and deepen the despair for Rovers. Not that those feelings lasted very long.
Within four minutes the home side were level. Town, perhaps missing the direction of Archibald-Henville at the heart of their defence, stood and stared as a left-wing cross fell the way of Power 15 yards from goal.
Moments earlier the midfielder had skewed a right-footed effort wide but this time, on his left-hand side, he produced a clinical finish to beat Wes Foderingham high to the goalkeeper’s right.
Having plunged the home fans into deathly silence with their opener, now Swindon were struggling against the weight of a crowd with hope in their hearts.
The equaliser inspired confidence in Tranmere, so much so that centre-back Ash Taylor had the inclination to try an acrobatic overhead kick in the 18th minute. It almost worked but bounced agonisingly wide of Foderingham’s left-hand upright.
Michael Smith wasted a glorious chance to steer Swindon back in front in the 23rd minute. Massimo Luongo’s scything pass saw Miles Storey in down the left flank and he picked out his strike partner with a delicate chipped centre, only for Smith to slice off-target from six yards out.
Rovers were next to go close. With the visitors’ defensive shape looking more like a zig-zag than a flat backline, Jake Cassidy snuck in at the near post to volley powerfully at Foderingham from a right-wing cross. The Town stopper was equal to the effort, snatching to his right to push the ball out for a corner, but the warning shots were being fired. And with some increasing regularity.
Swindon’s defence failed to deal with a regulation long ball in the final minute before the break and, after Branco allowed Lowe to nip in behind him unchallenged, the Town centre-back had Foderingham to thank for sparing his blushes, as the keeper leapt to his right to make the save.
As if that wasn’t close enough, Swindon were given yet another shot in the arm inside the first minute of the second period. They backed off Lowe 25 yards from goal and he made the most of the visitors’ generosity by looping an audacious chip over Foderingham.
It seemed destined for the back of the net but bounced back off the crossbar before Jake Kirby curled wide from the edge of the box.
Still Town didn’t learn. In the 49th minute Nathan Thompson was left to mark two men wide on the left and could do little to prevent Power from cutting inside onto his right foot and sending a fizzing shot narrowly wide, with Foderingham rooted to the spot.
Swindon finally threatened the Rovers goal once again in the 55th minute but Gladwin could only fire high and wide from 20 yards out, while Luongo dragged a tame shot wide eight minutes later as they stuttered and stumbled their way through the early exchanges after the break.
Tranmere struck the frame of the goal for a second time in the 65th minute. Danny Holmes’ ranging long-ball picked out Power, as the Town defence parted like the Red Sea, and the midfielder’s thunder-cracker half-volley cannoned away to safety off the crossbar.
It seemed it was only a matter of time before the next goal went in and, as it happened, that turned out to be fairly accurate. Though few could have predicted it would have been Owain Fon Williams fishing the ball out of his net.
Storey picked up possession midway inside his own half in the 67th minute and darted down the left flank before lifting in a cross – it had to be a cross – which drifted over Fon Williams, lifting the hardy away support to their feet.
The rest of the game meandered somewhat, as Tranmere’s frustrated crowd – after briefly getting behind their side – got on their own team’s backs. Storey saw a deflected shot easily saved by Fon Williams with eight minutes remaining, while too many Town passes missed their target as the visitors failed to capitalise on their hosts’ own wastefulness.
But ultimately none of that mattered. Can we start to dream again?