IT’S ALL over. Swindon Town’s 2013/14 campaign ended in fitting fashion, with a performance that illustrated their fluent best and disjointed worst.
The Robins, who no one expected to be anywhere near the top half at the start of the campaign, finished eighth in League One after this defeat – in which they seemingly forgot how to play for 35 minutes but totally dominated play-off-bound Rotherham for the rest of the contest.
When put into perspective, this term is an undoubted success for Mark Cooper’s men, who were tipped for a relegation scrap pre-season but ended up as many points off fifth as they did from 21st in the final table.
Given the bench named by Cooper had an average age just a jot over 19, with Tijane Reis and George Barker the seasoned veterans amongst the substitutes at 22 years old, and Jay McEveley was on the only outfield player old enough to rent a van in Europe, the fact they had the in-form Millers on the ropes for long periods was something to savour at the end of a bitter-sweet campaign.
The home side were behind inside 52 seconds, thanks to the right foot of a man they tried to sign three times over the course of the season – Wes Thomas – and, as thoughts perhaps turned to beaches and cocktail bars, the same striker doubled Rotherham’s lead before the first half had reached its halfway point.
But these young players are made of stern stuff and they knuckled down and reminded Town fans just what they can do, despite being significantly depleted by injury and suspension.
Yaser Kasim, Ryan Mason, Troy Archibald-Henville, Nathan Thompson and Alex Pritchard – an impressive five-a-side team in its own right – might have been absent but Swindon still tried to play with an arrogant swagger. That bodes well for next season, when austerity kicks in even more.
Massimo Luongo, installed as captain in Thompson’s absence, was back to something very close to his dynamic best. Leading by example rather than a verbal volley, the Aussie was here there and everywhere; backtracking, making tackles, darting with the ball through midfield and picking out teammates. It made you wonder what a Luongo with a summer’s rest would be capable of, given that he could still muster this sort of display after an almost non-stop season.
Michael Smith up front produced the kind of performance that is required of a target man. His first touch improved and he also got in goalscoring positions, though he would perhaps have been disappointed not to score with a second-half header and a free swipe at goal.
There was also encouragement in the shape of Connor Waldon, who surely showed enough in competing physically against the experienced and bulky Claude Davis to warrant an extended stay at the County Ground. Jack Barthram, too, was energetic and provided quality from the flanks. He deserves a longer contract in SN1.
And then there was Jay McEveley. The unsung hero during a season of over-achievement, the Scouser was typically hyperactive. Evidently hell-bent on scoring his first Town goal on what would turn out to be his final appearance for the Robins, he came as close as he ever has done with a rasping drive in the second half which cannoned back off the crossbar.
From a position after 45 minutes which left fans sneering and disappointed, and quite rightly so, Cooper’s men managed to end the season on a relative high in defeat – no mean feat in itself.
Smith’s penalty on the hour, won by Luongo, dragged the hosts back into the tie and, given the way the game panned out, a draw would perhaps have been a fair result. In the end Town couldn’t find an equaliser but they still finished in the top third. And now we rest.
The summer will no doubt be another manic one, with ownership disputes, contract discussions and potential acquisitions set to litter the pages of this newspaper. But right now, for a brief moment, maybe we can reflect on a job well done. Against a backdrop of chaos, from a foundation built on mayhem, somehow Cooper and his men found stability and consolidation. Well played, gents. Well played.
Cooper handed a first Town start to Waldon up front, while Ben Gladwin returned to midfield and Barthram filled in at right wing-back for the suspended Thompson. McEveley dropped into a central defensive role in place of Troy Archibald-Henville.
Rotherham were in front inside the first minute. A tidy throughball found Thomas with time and space in the box to swing his first touch past Wes Foderingham.
Lee Frecklington should have made it two for the visitors 10 minutes later when Jack Stephens’s loose touch in the Swindon penalty area handed him a chance on a plate but the midfielder ballooned over from 10 yards out.
Tom Hitchcock them blasted over from a tight angle after an error from Raphael Branco as Swindon lived dangerously in the opening quarter-hour.
Town should have heeded the warning shots but, in the 22nd minute, they fell further behind. Stephens gave the ball away in midfield, Ben Pringle darted down the left and crossed for Thomas the back post, and the striker had no problem converting his free header.
Swindon managed their first shot on goal in the 28th minute, with Ben Gladwin teeing up Louis Thompson, who flashed a strike over the bar, while Kari Arnason nodded wide from a corner at the other end.
Finally, with 10 minutes remaining of the first half, Town found their stride. Stephens should have done better than head McEveley’s free-kick straight at Adam Collin in the Rotherham goal from six yards out and Nathan Byrne wanted a penalty that never came after his shot was blocked en route to goal by what appeared to be a Millers arm.
Rotherham were in complete control at half-time, much the better side, but an interval rollocking from Cooper sparked Town into action.
Smith wasted a golden opportunity in the 52nd minute, heading Byrne’s cross at Collin, while the striker then found the Millers’ keeper’s arms with a much more difficult header from a Barthram centre and then saw Collin push his effort wide after he broke into the box.
Still, the former Charlton man was not to be denied his goal and, after Luongo was tripped by Arnason, he sent Collin the wrong way from the spot.
With half-an-hour remaining, there was plenty of time for Swindon to find an equaliser. The hosts retained their control on the game but lost much of their edge.
Byrne’s shot was saved by Collin and McEveley left the bar vibrating with a fizzing effort from a well-worked corner but, other than that, clear-cut chances were few and far between.
Town passed the ball around with composure without really testing their guests and a loss will go down in the record books as the final result of another turbulent season.
In reality, however, this year was a success on the field. Make no mistake about that.