JUST a few days before Swindon Town’s heart-wrenching defeat to Port Vale, the footballing world was enraptured by one of the greatest comeback stories of the modern era.
Naturally, it’s no great leap of faith to assume that, last Wednesday, many players currently under contract at the County Ground would have kicked off their boots after another day spent working towards battling to League One safety and unwound by drinking in what unfolded at the Nou Camp.
Now, Nicky Ajose, Jonathan Obika and Luke Norris are not Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar and even if Vale Park’s expansive playing surface has earned it the nickname ‘the Wembley of the North’, the Champions League is a far cry from League One but from here on out, Luke Williams’ troops require a rescue effort as daring as they come.
Despite looking by far the most dangerous side for much of the first half against fellow strugglers Port Vale on Saturday, Town would go on to fall to a 3-2 defeat that left them still entrenched in the relegation zone.
The four-point gap between Swindon and 20th-placed Oldham Athletic suddenly represents a yawning chasm when you consider that Williams’ men must take on five of the current top six – Sheffield United, Fleetwood Town, Bradford City, Scunthorpe United and Millwall before the season is out.
MK Dons, AFC Wimbledon and Charlton Athletic, whom Town visit on the final day of the current campaign, are the other three teams that they must go into battle against.
Additionally, their conquerors Vale may only have moved two points ahead of Swindon but they still boast three games in hand on the sides around them.
The task at hand looks gargantuan, and truly, Town could well do with some of that Barcelona spirit.
Nicky Ajose returned from injury to face Port Vale
Striking talisman Ajose and midfielder Charlie Colkett returned from the injuries that kept them out of Town’s 1-0 loss to Chesterfield seven days previously – 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 him to depart at half-time of the defeat to the Spireites while 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 Norris and Anton Rodgers dropping to the bench.
Swindon Town's coaching team at Vale Park
When the action got under way, the hosts initially started brighter 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 ball, 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 his shot 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, 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, although there was more than a hint of good fortune about it.
Ajose wheels away in celebration after getting Town off the mark
Brophy and Obika linked up, the ball eventually falling to Ajose on the edge of the area. The striker’s pot-shot took a deflection off Smith and wrong-footed 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.
Williams revealed post-match that Vigouroux was playing with a broken thumb, an injury which seemed to play its part in the leveller.
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 sliding a low pass towards the near post, with the Swindon defence anticipating an aerial ball.
That allowed JJ Hooper to ghost in and, despite not getting the cleanest of contact, he was able to force the ball home past Vigouroux to make it 2-1.
Lawrence Vigouroux looks dejected as Swindon concede
Just moments later, Eagles burst forward from just inside the Town half and with Raphael Branco in 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 the 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.
Bradley Barry receives his marching orders
Further insult was added as, directly from that foul, Hooper dusted himself down and fired home an unstoppable 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 kept an eye on Colkett’s sweeping aerial pass before tucking into the net on the stretch.
Luke Norris scores late for Swindon
However, there was to be no comeback in the manner of what had transpired in Spain within the six minutes of added time that followed.
Improbable yet not impossible; an inspired resurgence is what will be needed.