SWINDON Town’s League One survival chances suffered a hammer blow as they were beaten at fellow strugglers Port Vale this afternoon.
After failing to take a number of chances in the opening throes of their trip to Vale Park, Luke Williams’ side slipped to a 3-2 defeat and now find themselves behind their conquerors and four points from safety.
Striking talisman Nicky Ajose and midfielder Charlie Colkett returned from the injuries that kept them out of Town’s 1-0 loss to Chesterfield – hamstring and thigh problems respectively – to hand Williams a line-up more closely resembling full-strength.
Ben Gladwin also shook off the knee knock that forced to depart at half-time of Swindon’s defeat to the Spireites but defender Lloyd Jones had to be content beginning on the bench for a second game in succession.
Fankaty Dabo, who has also recently returned to training following a hamstring issue, was left out, along with fellow Chelsea loanee Islam Feruz, while Jordan Stewart joined Jermaine Hylton and Yaser Kasim in missing out through illness, with Luke Norris and Anton Rodgers dropping to the bench.
When the action got under way, the hosts started the brighter of the two teams but in the fifth minute, Ajose latched on to a lofted pass forward from Colkett before cutting the ball back for Gladwin on the edge of the area.
Midfielder Gladwin found a few yards of space to take aim but opted for placement rather than power, and could only watch on as his curling right-footed effort sailed harmlessly over the bar.
Moments later, Town were guilty of passing up an even more welcoming opportunity as James Brophy dummied a pass, allowing Bradley Barry to drive down the right flank.
The Swindon full-back got to the byline before picking out Brophy with a low pass, but having been allowed the freedom of the Vale area, the 22-year-old let the hosts off the hook, skewing horribly wide.
Town continued to create opportunities, Ajose blasting into the stand from an ever-tightening angle after being played in by Brophy, while just past the 20-minute mark, the home side threatened for the first time through Sam Foley but he cracked an effort high over the Swindon goal.
The lively Brophy continued to carve out shooting opportunities, the wide-man firing high over the crossbar in the 24th minute after being fed by Rohan Ince, and four minutes later, Jonathan Obika rose to meet a Colkett corner but his header was blocked by Vale’s highly-rated defender Nathan Smith.
With 35 minutes on the clock, Town finally got the opening goal their dominance deserved and there was more than a hint of good fortune about it.
Brophy and Obika linked up the ball eventually fell to Ajose on the edge of the area, the striker’s pot-shot taking a deflection off Smith and wrong-footing goalie Leonardo Fasan as it skewed into the bottom corner.
However, Swindon’s joy proved short-lived as the hosts attacked down the right flank and Lawrence Vigouroux spilled an Olmide Shodipo cross, with the Town defence unable to recover quickly enough to prevent former Manchester United and Burnley man Chris Eagles from stealing in to tap home the equaliser just a minute after his team had gone behind.
It took until the second half for the visitors to seemingly shake off the frustration of having their wings clipped so immediately after going in front but five minutes after the break, their frustration turned to despair.
Vale won a free-kick on the right flank and Portuguese full-back Kiko out-foxed the men in red by, with the Swindon defence anticipating an aerial ball, sliding a low pass towards the near post.
JJ Hooper ghosted in and despite not getting the cleanest of contact, he was able to force the ball home past Vigouroux to make it 2-1.
Then, just moments later, Eagles burst forward from just inside the Town half and with Raphael Branco inn hot pursuit, the winger moved into the area before hitting the deck, with referee Geoff Eltringham pointing to the penalty spot.
Justice was perhaps done, however, as Anton Forrester passed up the opportunity to hand Swindon a mountain to climb by wildly blazing the ensuing penalty over the crossbar.
The visitors’ earlier dominance of the game seemed a lifetime ago as they attempted to put a lid on a Valiants outfit rejuvenated by their comeback and at the other end, inspiration was sorely-lacking, characterised by strike partners Obika and Ajose getting in each other’s way when they attempted to work an opening in the 72nd minute.
Luke Norris and John Goddard were introduced as Williams rolled the dice but a lifeline never materialised, and with five minutes to go, substitute Billy Reeves carved open the Town defence to send Hooper clear and he was tripped by Barry, who was shown a straight red card for his troubles.
Further insult was added as, directly from that foul, Hooper dusted himself down and looped home an inch-perfect free-kick to put the cherry on top of a rather unpalatable cake.
Despite going down to 10 men, Swindon did manage to tee up a nervy finish when Norris guided an effort home from a sweeping Colkett pass but there was to be no Barcelona-esque recovery from Williams’ troops within the six minutes of added time that followed.
Swindon Town: Lawrence Vigouroux, Bradley Barry, Nathan Thompson (C), Raphael Branco, James Brophy, Brandon Oromonde-Ottewill, Rohan Ince, Charlie Colkett, Ben Gladwin (John Goddard 74), Jonathan Obika, Nicky Ajose (Luke Norris 74).
Subs not used: Will Henry, Dion Conroy, Lloyd Jones, Conor Thomas, Anton Rodgers.
Attendance: 4510 (424 away supporters)