ANGUISH and torment has greeted the final whistle from all associated with Swindon Town in each of their last four matches.
On Saturday, however, the agony felt a lot more definitive.
They say it is hope that kills you and if Town’s 2-1 defeat away at Bradford City is to be the proverbial final nail in their League One coffin, it was hammered home in the cruellest way possible.
With just five minutes to go, it seemed that Nicky Ajose’s cool finish from 10 minutes earlier had done enough to breathe new life into Swindon’s battle to beat the drop.
Although they would still remain in the relegation zone, the Town team would have laid a substantial foundation on which to build a survival fight over the final seven games having claimed the notable scalp of a promotion-chasing side away from home.
Town skipper Nathan Thompson receives treatment after a clash of head at Bradford
However, those five minutes are likely to be the most painful for Swindon of all in this gut-wrenching season as panic-stricken defending saw the rug pulled from beneath their feet as the visitors conspired to surrender all three points to two Charlie Wyke goals.
The bare facts say Town’s predicament at the final whistle at Valley Parade is no worse than it had been at kick-off as the remain seven points adrift of safety.
However – even though mathematically their race is not run yet – the sense of devastation from the players on the pitch and sombre mood portrayed by head coach Luke Williams post-match gave an impression that this will be just one heartbreak too many to recover from.
Ben Gladwin looks to launch an attack for Town
Williams made just one change to the side that were beaten in similarly painful fashion at home by leaders Sheffield United five days earlier as goalkeeper Lawrence Vigouroux returned to replace teenager Will Henry.
Vigouroux was just one of the quartet of Town players fined for a break of discipline ahead of the Blades clash to come back into the matchday 18, with James Brophy, Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill and Jordan Stewart omitted once again.
Meanwhile, Bradley Barry was back amongst the substitutes for the visitors after he had been forced to sit out the previous game through suspension.
Bradford headed into the game having not lost at home in the league all season and showed their intentions to hang onto that record by having their first sight of goal in the opening minute when they were awarded a free-kick high on the right after Dion Conroy clattered Mark Marshall little more than 20 seconds after the kick-off.
Nicky Ajose squeezes the ball under Bradford keeper Colin Doyle
Balls into the box would cause the visitors problems throughout the opening 45 minutes and from this first instance, centre back Rory McArdle headed Tony McMahon’s set-piece over the top.
Swindon were playing largely on the counter and they had their first effort after 10 minutes when John Goddard pulled the ball back for Ben Gladwin to shoot from the edge of the box but his effort sailed safely wide.
Soon afterwards, the Town defence were rocking at another McMahon set-piece. Romain Vincelot was the Bantams man to meet it this time, although he could not get a clean strike and it looped out for corner which from the resulting kick McArdle headed over.
The woodwork then came to Swindon’s rescue when the ball next came into the box, with the lively Marshall swinging over a cross to Wyke but he headed against the post and Fankaty Dabo was able to hack clear.
Town still offered the odd glimmer of attacking promise and good determination from Gladwin saw him nick the ball off Vincelot just outside the Bradford box. Although he was not quite able to make room for a clean shot, the ball broke nicely for Charlie Colkett who blasted an effort straight at home keeper Colin Doyle.
Ajose celebrates his goal
Marshall caused problems for the visiting back-line all afternoon and made room to have a shot from 20 yards that flew wide, before then skipping away from Town captain Nathan Thompson to drill in a low cross that visiting stopper Vigouroux gathered at the feet of Jordy Hiwula.
McMahon’s foul on Jonathan Obika on the edge of the Bradford box gave the visitors a rare sight of goal 10 minutes before the break but Goddard’s free-kick did not quite dip in time as it curled towards the top corner.
The hosts were demanding a penalty soon afterwards when Dabo shoved Marshall over as he looked to sneak into the box but thankfully for Town, referee Sebastian Stockbridge deemed the offence took place just outside the area and the resulting free-kick was safely ushered away.
Bradford threatened twice more before the interval when Timothee Dieng threw himself at a McMahon cross but Vigouroux pushed clear, with the Town keeper than pulling off another save from McMahon’s follow-up as the visitors survived to the break with the deadlock still intact.
Town head coach Williams made a tactical switch at the break, withdrawing the booked Dabo for Barry and shifting from a 4-4-2 to a 5-3-2 formation in an effort to stiffen up the back-line.
Rohan Ince puts in a challenge
However, it took the Bantams just six second-half minutes to threaten again, with another set-piece causing problems for Town. McArdle once again met McMahon’s ball in but a superb save from Vigouroux tipped the header over the top.
The contest began to peter out for a while and it took until the 70-minute mark for the next real chance to arrive, although unsurprisingly it came the way of the hosts once more. The ball fell nicely to Marshall in the box and although his effort was deflected, it dropped to substitute Alex Jones, whose shot on the turn sailed narrowly wide.
Williams rolled the dice in the closing stages, sending on a third striker in the shape of Luke Norris at the expense of Gladwin and it had an instant impact.
Having not had a sniff of goal all second half, Town unexpectedly broke the deadlock with their first attack since the restart with 15 minutes to go. Norris headed down to Obika, who drove forward from halfway before releasing Ajose into the box and he planted the ball under the advancing Doyle to put the visitors ahead.
The Bantams threatened an immediate reply when Jones drilled the ball in from the right but no one was there to meet it and it bobbled narrowly wide at the far post, much to the visitors’ relief.
Bradford continued to press and Marshall darted into the box but was unable to pick out a team-mate, allowing Thompson to gratefully hack it behind.
Lawrence Vigouroux trudges off the Valley Parade pitch after the final whistle
Town then had the chance to put the game to bed seven minutes from time when Colkett found himself with a free header eight yards out but he looped Goddard’s ball into the box over the top.
That was to prove costly as the goal the hosts had threatened all afternoon finally arrived shortly afterwards when Marshall floated the ball into the box and Wyke powered home a header despite the despairing efforts of Vigouroux.
Things then went from bad to worse for Town in the final of normal time as Wyke poked home from close range after Marshall powered up the left and drilled in the cross to complete a heart-breaking day for the visitors and leave a bleak sense of inevitability about their fate lingering painfully in the air.