“IF ALL difficulties were known at the outset of a long journey, most of us would never start out at all.”
So said Dan Rather, an American news anchor, whose thoughts must have struck a chord with those hardy Swindon Town fans who made the trek back down the M6 from Carlisle United on Saturday.
It’s not as though their team were limp and lifeless at Brunton Park, as their three-match winning streak was ended by a side who hadn’t scored a home goal in 352 minutes before Gary Madine fired past Wes Foderingham to hand the Cumbrians three crucial points in the battle against relegation.
It’s not as though there was no effort from the visitors, too, though in the first half Town seemed as though they had just stepped off the coach at the first whistle, despite having stayed in a town centre hotel overnight after journeying the length of the M6 on Friday afternoon.
It’s not even as though Mark Cooper’s men didn’t have their chances to get back into the game after falling behind – a much improved showing after the break, sparked by the introduction of the lively Alex Pritchard off the bench, should have been rewarded, only for Michael Smith and then Pritchard himself to waste golden chances in front of goal.
But at the end of it all there was still an overwhelming feeling of frustration. The performance looked like an exaggerated shrug, a flick of the wrist and an about-face. Though there was nothing necessarily wrong with it – it was well short of abysmal – it was someway off being truly entertaining.
For the 288 intrepid Swindonians who had braved a 550-mile round trip and all the accompanying expenses to be at Brunton Park – and boy did they make themselves heard – there wasn’t enough there to complain about, even for those who love to have a moan.
This was neither miserable nor mesmeric – it was stodgy, stocky and average. It neither inspired nor irritated.
Town were thankful to Foderingham for keeping them in the game in the first half, as he made a terrific reaction save from Madine’s header to retain parity prior to the Sheffield Wednesday man re-opening his account back at his boyhood club following his recent loan switch.
In the second half they were workmanlike and, thanks in the main to Pritchard, prised open the Carlisle rearguard at will for the first 20 minutes after the break.
But from then on in the match returned to its fairly repetitive drawl. There wasn’t much quality on show from either side – though Madine and the electric David Amoo, the first man to expose Jack Stephens’ weaknesses down the right of the Swindon back three, were both excellent – and it soon became apparent that the opportunities wasted by Michael Smith and Pritchard early in the second period would be telling.
Carlisle were far from awful but, like so many teams in League One this season, they were hardly remarkable. Town simply couldn’t find the bite at the end of a mammoth journey.
Cooper complained after the match that his front two did not offer him a responsible outlet up top and he was right. Michael Smith’s hold-up play was almost non-existent, while Miles Storey, for all his running and willing, operated far too wide to have a major effect.
Cooper may have struck lucky by winning Town’s Grand National sweepstake on Saturday, but you would have thought he’d quite happily have swapped that good fortune for the rub of the green on the field of play.
He didn’t get it. Two hundred and eighty-eight fans didn’t get it. Dan Rather had it right all along.
Both sides started the game slowly, with Madine dragging wide in the fourth minute and Stephens firing well over the crossbar at the other end six minute later.
Madine gave Swindon a warning shot on the quarter-hour when he rose highest at the back post to head wide from James Berrett’s corner, while Michael Smith lacked any precision when he took aim from 30 yards as the first half approached its midway point.
In the 27th minute, Foderingham once again showed why he’s likely to be in demand amongst Championship clubs this summer. Madine met a right-wing corner and his bullet header seemed destined for the back of the Town net, only for Foderingham to leap to his left and push the ball to safety.
It was the second, voluminous warning shot fired by Madine. But still Swindon didn’t take heed and in the 37th minute they fell behind. Brad Potts was allowed the freedom of the north west to gallop down the right and pick out Madine with his low centre, and the on-loan Sheffield Wednesday man somehow found himself able to take a touch and turn inside the six-yard box before finishing clinically below Foderingham.
Cooper threw Pritchard on at half-time in an effort to shift the momentum of the match and it worked with remarkable speed.
The tricky midfielder earned the free-kick from which Alex Smith forced Jordan Pickford into an excellent save to his left in the 48th minute, before releasing Michael Smith in the area moments later – only for the Swindon striker to shoot straight at Pickford.
Pritchard was guilty of a little selfishness in the 53rd minute. Having won the ball off Paul Thirlwell midway inside the Carlisle half, he darted into the area but opted to pull the trigger himself rather than centre for the unmarked Michael Smith.
It was the wrong choice and his tame shot was saved.
With the best part of 40 minutes left of the contest, the clearest sights of goal had by now all come and gone. Swindon huffed and puffed with asthmatic potential for the remainder of the game, with Nathan Byrne seeing one goalbound shot blocked and one off-target effort fly well wide, as the visitors simply couldn’t find a route through.
Berrett was sent off for the hosts in stoppage time after picking up his second yellow card but, in the end, neither side could add to the scoreline.
Town remain four points off the play-off places with five games of the season remaining, with Peterborough United, in sixth, still holding a game in hand. Cooper reckons maximum points would give Swindon a ticket to the end-of-season lottery.
Perhaps it will. Perhaps it won’t. At least Carlisle away is done and gone.