A DEPLETED Swindon Town upped their game to give Sheffield United a run for their money at the County Ground tonight but were ultimately left to rue a pair of crippling individual errors.
Trailing 2-0 following a clinical first-half display from League One’s title favourites, Luke Williams’ troops produced a stirring comeback to haul themselves level but in the end, Town were unable to produce an unlikely boon in their quest to avoid relegation.
Swindon’s teamsheet threw up more than its fair share of surprises, with teenager Will Henry earning his eighth senior start between the sticks in place of regular keeper Lawrence Vigouroux, who Williams revealed was playing with a broken thumb during Saturday’s 3-2 loss at Port Vale.
The absent Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill was replaced by Fankaty Dabo while James Brophy also dropped out of the Town squad completely, John Goddard coming in as his replacement.
Bradley Barry also missed out as a result of his red card against Vale but January signing Dion Conroy was handed his third start in a red shirt.
Williams’ squad was clearly pushed to its limits, with Ellis Iandolo and Jesse Starkey earning spots on the bench alongside academy products Scott Twine and Jordan Simpson, the son of former Swindon midfielder Fitzroy – both fresh from being offered professional deals at the County Ground.
Town’s bid to blunt a the Blades saw them line up in their usual 4-1-3-2 formation, with Raphael Branco the only player to maintain his back-four position, Dabo coming in at left-back and skipper Nathan Thompson moving to right-back.
Perhaps anticipating that the odds were stacked even more heavily against their team than expected, home supporters were eerily quiet during a nervy opening period, with the visitors feeling themselves into the contest.
In the 12th minute, both Dabo and Branco escaped sanctions from referee Oliver Langford for a pair of wild challenges on Blades frontman Caolan Lavery while shortly afterwards, Jonathan Obika, who was marking his 100th Swindon appearance, turned his man and hit a pot-shot but his effort flew well wide of the mark.
Almost inevitably, inspired by their metronomic midfield of John Fleck and Paul Coutts, United’s probing became more and more purposeful and with 25 minutes on the clock, they went close to opening the scoring.
Right wing-back Keiron Freeman whipped a cross into the Swindon area from his flank and managed to pick out opposite number Daniel Lafferty but the Northern Ireland international couldn’t keep his side-footed effort down as an inviting opportunity sailed into the Town End.
For the most part, Town had stood up well to their high-flying opponents and worked hard to deny them space in the final third but in the 29th minute, their resistance was broken by a catastrophic individual error.
With Coutts nipping at his ankles, Dabo attempted to play the ball back to goalie Henry but his back-pass lacked the requisite power to reach its target, allowing striker Lavery to pounce and produce an angled finish into the net, by way of the upright.
Smelling blood, the visitors struck again and like a hot knife – or Blade – through butter, they quickly doubled their lead.
With 35 minutes on the clock, Lavery ghosted past Branco and drove down the byline before cutting the ball back for Freeman to blast home from close-range, United clinically making it 2-0 to further strengthen their title hopes and heap more misery on a beleaguered Town.
The Blades carried danger all over the pitch, demonstrated in the 40th minute when centre-half Jack O’Connell found himself on the edge of the Swindon area and dropped the shoulder to breeze past John Goddard – Billy Sharp could not divert his cross goalwards at the far post, however.
Town were in dire need of some inspiration to change the course of proceedings and it duly arrived like a bolt from the blue less than 30 seconds after the break.
Midfielder Charlie Colkett picked up the ball some 30 yards from goal, waltzed forward, and opted to try his luck from there, screaming an unstoppable effort into the top corner of the net for his first notch in Swindon colours.
Out of nowhere, Williams’ troops were alive and kicking, and in the 50th minute, they were relieved to see a thunderous Lafferty drive fly the wrong side of the upright – and even more so when they got back on level terms with another corking long-range effort.
This time, Ben Gladwin burst into life and stormed towards the edge of the United box before letting fly, with his fizzing low howitzer arcing into the bottom corner past despairing goalie Simon Moore, Town bringing themselves back from the dead with two goals in the space of seven minutes.
The County Ground was understandably in dreamland, and as quickly as it had entered that euphoric state, the atmosphere was burst by another fatal Swindon mistake.
Stopper Henry was left deflated as his attempted pass to Branco went straight to Jay O’Shea, who gleefully slotted away from close-range to make it 3-2.
Town’s powers of recovery didn’t appear to have completely waned despite another gut-wrenching setback, but they sustained another body blow in the 69th minute.
Goddard looped a cross into the Blades area from the left flank and Obika engineered space to nod down towards net but before the ball could cross the line, strike partner Nicky Ajose flung himself into the air to convert and saw his celebrations cut short by a raised linesman’s flag.
In the final 10 minutes of the game, the impressive Conroy headed a curler from United substitute Samir Carruthers off the line while Williams went for broke, throwing on an extra frontman in the form of Luke Norris.
That gamble would fail to pay dividends however and United were able to add some gloss to the scoreline when Carruthers stood up Colkett and nutmegged the midfielder before being tripped by the Swindon man.
Referee Langford had little choice but to point to the penalty spot and Coutts stepped up to send Henry the wrong way from 12 yards.
SWINDON TOWN: Will Henry, Fankaty Dabo, Nathan Thompson (C), Dion Conroy, Raphael Branco, Rohan Ince, Ben Gladwin (Luke Norris 83), Charlie Colkett, John Goddard, Nicky Ajose, Jonathan Obika.
Subs not used: Conor Thomas, Anton Rodgers, Ellis Iandolo, Jesse Starkey, Scott Twine, Jordan Simpson.