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SWINDON TOWN 2 GILLINGHAM 2: Town thwarted by McDonald equaliser
THE brains fought the brawn and after 90 minutes of hard slog it ended up in stalemate.
Swindon Town came within five minutes of seeing off the challenge of a massively physical Gillingham side on Saturday, yet in the end new manager Mark Cooper had to make do with just a point from his first game in permanent charge.
It was two less than his team deserved.
The visitors, reliant on the bulk of Danny Kedwell and Adebayo Akinfenwa up front and a significant potency from the set piece, struggled to deal with Town on the counter attack – and the Robins’ movement in and around the box created two quality goals from two unlikely sources in Nathan Byrne and Nathan Thompson.
But the Gills twice hit back through Kedwell and a late Cody McDonald strike to leave the Cooper-cabana crowd frustrated.
Gillingham had their first sight of goal inside two minutes. A high ball into the box was nodded across goal by Kedwell for Chris Whelpdale to head onto the roof of the Swindon net.
From the early exchanges it was evident that the defeat at the Greenhous Meadow seven days previously was not about to change the way the Robins are trying to play this season. The ball was still moved around with an arrogant swagger, but this time there was a potent sting to go with it.
Ryan Harley tested Stuart Nelson in the Gills’ goal with an early daisy-cutter which Nelson unconvincingly parried in front of him, but Ranger was on his heels and didn’t react quickly enough to bundle the loose ball home.
Akinfenwa, wide enough to be playing as Gillingham’s front two all by himself, dribbled a shot past Wes Foderingham’s right-hand post in the seventh minute while Kedwell lashed over after robbing Byrne of possession on the edge of the box moments later, but it was Town who took the lead with 11 minutes on the clock.
A neat counter-attack saw Ranger lay off for Pritchard in midfield, the fleet-footed winger picking out Thompson on the right whose delicious, fizzing, low cross found Byrne to smash past Nelson.
Sadly for the hosts they could only hold onto their lead for six minutes. With Akinfenwa and Kedwell up front, Gillingham were always going to have the upper hand when it came to height and physicality – and so it proved in their most basic of equalisers.
Lee’s long throw from the right was nodded in by Kedwell. It was like Gulliver taking on the Lilliputians at basketball. So, so simple.
To their credit, Swindon did not allow themselves to become downcast after conceding. Massimo Luongo’s looping cross from the right picked out the forehead of Ward in the 23rd minute and the Town captain was only denied a first goal of the season by the outstretched hands of Nelson, which the ball onto a post.
It was a pulsating and compelling contest. Little versus large, brains versus brawn.
Both goalkeepers kept their sides level in the minutes leading up to half-time. Nelson made a good save at Byrne’s feet after the diminutive former Spurs man danced past Legge and into the area.
At the other end, Foderingham spilled Charlie Lee’s free kick but saved himself from embarrassment by making a remarkable sidefooted save at point-black range from Kedwell on the follow-up.
Luongo and Byrne both tried their luck from distance without success in the run-up to the break but Swindon should have found themselves behind in the last minute before half-time as they yet again failed to deal with a Gillingham long throw.
It was the same routine that brought the visitors their first of the afternoon but Town had not learnt and Akinfenwa got himself above the defence, only to see his flicked header land safely in the arms of a relieved Foderingham.
After the interval the game took time to find its rhythm once more. Gillingham should have taken the lead in the 56th minute when a loose ball in the area fell at the feet of Lee, but the midfielder could not direct his attempt on target with Ward quickly closing him down.
Town had to wait until after the hour mark to test Nelson. Thompson’s darting run to the byeline freed up the space to deliver from the right, but Pritchard’s dainty flick didn’t have the power or direction to beat the Gills stopper.
At the back, the home side were still susceptible to the aerial physicality of the Gillingham frontline. Akinfenwa, a thorn in Ward and Hall’s sides all afternoon, nodded over in the 67th minute from Weston’s left-wing cross.
Moments later, Thompson showed him how it should be done.
Harley, McEveley and Pritchard worked the ball neatly down the left and, when Harley’s cross floated into the six-yard box, full-back Thompson showed the poaching tendencies of a striker to nip in front of his man and bury his header.
It was the defender’s first goal for the club with whom he has spent his entire career. His celebrations illustrated just how much it meant to him.
Though many sides would be tempted to sit back and consolidate with 20 minutes remaining and a slender lead to protect, Swindon chose to push on forward in droves.
They should have added a buffer in the 79th minute but wasted a three-on-one chance as substitute Ryan Mason fired over, while the midfielder saw an effort saved by Nelson seconds later.
For Gillingham, Joe Martin came close with a drilled attempt after a corner was not properly cleared by the Robins’ rearguard and with the visitors chasing the ball around the park, it seemed Swindon were just counting down the minutes until victory.
That was until Lady Luck had her say, and it turns out she’s a Gills fan.
A hacked clearance, out of a tackle on halfway, somehow broke to McDonald and the visiting striker had the composure to turn inside and out and pick his spot beyond Foderingham.
Out of nothing, Gillingham were level. There were only five minutes left. Not enough time for a third.
“I’m very frustrated. I think we thoroughly deserved to win the game,” said Cooper.
“We played some very good football and we could have won it at 3-1. You have to take your chances and you have to see the game out.
“A mistimed tackle from their centre-half leaves their player one on one with the goalkeeper. When you have a big percentage of young players they have to learn and learn quickly that when you’re winning that late in the game you have to see it out.
“You’re always looking for a reaction and a response and we certainly got one today. We can what we’re trying to do and some of the approach play and the goals were really good, but our play deserved more than one point.
“I’ve said before that we can play some really good football but there’s more to it than that. When you play against a big physical side like Gillingham you have to defend long throws, free kicks, corners, goal kicks – you have to do both parts of the game. It’s something we have to learn quickly.”
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