IT was a perplexing end to a perplexing campaign for Swindon Town.
Meadow Lane, for a good four minutes, stood still and gawped with wide-eyed wonder as 20 players squared up face-to-face and eye-to-eye on the edge of the Town box, as the game entered second-half stoppage time.
Referee Richard Clark, looking like a substitute teacher trying to separate warring adolescents, took the unorthodox approach and just let the melee run its course. Then, as Swindon manager Mark Cooper put it, he chose to play ‘card bingo’. Five yellows. Two reds. A full house.
Swindon, already a goal behind following Alan Sheehan’s ninth-minute strike, were reduced to nine men with the dismissals of Troy Archibald-Henville – for a push on Jimmy Spencer – and captain Nathan Thompson, after his second bookable offence.
The visitors would go on to lose 2-0, as Callum McGregor made the most of Wes Foderingham being on halfway to tap home Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s cross into an empty net in the ninth minute of time added on, and it was a deserved win for the relegation-haunted hosts.
For Alex Pritchard, always striving to produce one final moment of brilliance, it was a frustrating way to say goodbye. For many of his teammates, it was an afternoon to forget.
Everyone associated with Swindon Town know all too well that rarely is anything simple at the County Ground. That Peterborough won at Shrewsbury meant that, whatever the result at Meadow Lane, the coveted sixth spot would always be unreachable. But this is Swindon Town, and they still had to have the final say.
The showdown charade in the dying moments of a turgid game shouldn’t provide any excuse or reason for Swindon’s loss. They were below-par, impotent, lacking in quality on the ball and, while they never stopped working for each other, nothing would work for them.
On a rotten pitch that could quite reasonably have been mistaken for a Somerset back garden after the recent floods, the visitors simply couldn’t adapt to the bobbles. But that was no cause for routine passes to miss their intended targets but a couple of dozen feet, or for the front three to show a total absence of creativity that made you wonder whether they’d been given a footballing lobotomy after the excellent victories over Coventry and Bradford at Easter.
Archibald-Henville was rock solid, until Spencer got on his nerves in stoppage time, while Massimo Luongo showed occasional glimpses of intent, running the ball out of midfield only to be spectacularly slide-tackled by a grassy rivet, but there was nothing for the travelling fans to put their voices behind. There was barely anything to applaud.
Notts, spurred on by a boisterous home crowd, were better than their league position suggests. They manipulated home advantage by practically drowning their playing surface before kick-off and at half-time, and used the physicality of Spencer to rough up Raphael Branco and draw space for the impressive Campbell-Ryce to deliver consistent quality from the right wing.
Swindon couldn’t cope. They only had one shot on target – a swinging effort from range from Pritchard – while Michael Smith volleyed wide from six yards when served a delicious cross by Nathan Thompson in the first half.
And that was pretty much it. Well, apart from the 20-man dust-up that forced 14 minutes of added time, that is. But it’s probably best if we forget that.
Notts started the game brightly and should have had the lead inside five minutes, when Spencer got in front of Jack Stephens but only managed to head wide from Campbell-Ryce’s cross.
The home side made up for their striker’s profligacy four minutes later, however. Two Town defenders converged on Jack Grealish on the left flank and he found the composure to pick out Sheehan who, with the freedom of Nottingham to pick his spot, beat Foderingham to his bottom right-hand corner.
With route one football the flavour of the day for the hosts, Town took until the 26th minute to fashion a scoring chance of their own. Thompson played in a delicate cross from the right and Smith muscled past Haydn Hollis only to volley wide from six yards out.
Archibald-Henville headed wide just after the half-hour, as Swindon briefly threatened to claw their way back into the match, but Notts resumed control in the immediate minutes before the break.
Jay McEveley cleared Spencer’s flick as it headed towards the Town net, while Ronan Murray should have done better than drag wide when his strike partner fought off Branco to nod down into his path.
Stephens’ long-range effort was well off-target as Swindon began the second period knowing they had to turn the game around if they were to stand any chance of clawing back Peterborough in sixth, but soon they were catching themselves out defensively.
Luongo’s errant header played in Murray, who was sloppy when one on one with Foderingham, though the Town keeper must be given his dues for an excellent save.
Branco’s last-ditch block stopped Campbell-Ryce from blasting home in the 58th minute and it seemed that it was only a matter of time before the home team doubled their lead.
However, with 68 minutes on the clock, Swindon opened up the Notts defence for the first time. Louis Thompson played a gorgeous pass in behind the hosts’ rearguard but Luongo, who had options in the middle, sidefooted into the sidenetting.
It took until the 85th minute for Pritchard to muster his team’s only shot on target, but Bartosz Bialkowski saved well from the Spurs loanee’s dipping, swerving, long-range drive.
And so the game entered stoppage time, and all hell broke loose. Archibald-Henville pushed over Spencer, both sets of players got involved and by the time referee Clark had figured out what was going on there were 20 bodies pushing and shoving like fashionistas at a Versace sale.
Clark opted to give Archibald-Henville and Nathan Thompson their marching orders, while two further players from each side were also handed yellows.
With nine men on the pitch, Swindon threw everyone forward for a late free-kick, County cleared and Campbell-Ryce gave McGregor a tap-in on a plate. It was an absurd end to another absurd season.
Rotherham visit the County Ground for the official final game of the term on Saturday and after that, maybe we’ll all be able to take a breath.