WHOEVER is selected to start up front for Swindon Town when Brentford come calling this weekend, manager Mark Cooper is hoping to see his strikers put their bodies on the line for the sake of the team.
Cooper was critical of his forward pairing of Michael Smith and Miles Storey after the defeat to Carlisle United last weekend, saying neither player did enough to hold the ball up in the final third of the pitch.
With five matches remaining of the season, the Town manager wants his frontmen to prove they are worth their spot in his side by showing a willingness to pick up bumps and bruises as they protect possession.
Brentford arrive at the County Ground tomorrow off the back of a remarkable run of two defeats in their last 22 matches, which came against League One leaders Wolves and third-placed Rotherham United, and he has stressed that combative centre-backs Tony Craig, Harlee Dean and James Tarkowski will present a formidable challenge for his strikers.
Therefore, he is keen to see Smith, Storey or whoever he picks to lead the line for Swindon produce a hard-nosed performance.
He said: “If we play like we did on Saturday at Carlisle and improve dramatically in the final third of the pitch we’ll have every chance of causing an upset.
“There are only so many times you can show people and coach people in terms of trying to get hold of the ball.
“If they don’t want to take that advice and they don’t want to take contact with centre-halves and maybe take the odd knock, bump and bruise then I’m not sure it matters how much you do.
“They certainly have to be better than they have been. It’s putting yourself in the right position, taking contact off the centre-half, knowing how to pin him and making sure, when the ball comes into you, he doesn’t have any chance of winning that ball.
“With the way we play, we keep possession and at some point the ball has to go forward. At some point it has to go into the frontman. For us to be able to move further up the pitch he has to be able to control the ball.
“We put sessions on to try to replicate that contact but when the whistle goes at three o’clock they have to be prepared to do it.
“We can’t go and have 60-odd per cent possession and have so many entries into the final third and 11 attempts and not get anything from the game.
“I think if I was a midfield player I’d be frustrated because I’d know that if the ball went forward I couldn’t run past that ball because there’s a good chance that it’s going to come back.
“That means they have to run 70 yards back. Whoever plays up front on Saturday has to be brave, play against the two uncompromising centre-backs that Brentford will have and be able to take contact.
“We threw points away on Saturday because we didn’t protect the ball in the final third of the pitch.”
Smith and Storey may well be playing for their place in next season’s starting line-up, with Cooper already formulating a list of transfer targets for the summer.
The Swindon manager said: “We’re not blessed with options so they have to learn by playing in the team and they have to learn quickly. There’s five games to go, the transfer window opens again and I’m sure there’ll be players coming in in the summer.
“You’re always looking. Of course we’re looking to add to the squad in the summer. I don’t think we need a lot, we need a bit of tweaking and if we get the right ones we’ll be able to bridge the gap to where we need to be.”
Just as Town were appearing to find some consistency with a run of four games unbeaten in League One, they came unstuck in Cumbria last weekend. With Cooper branding Brentford the favourites this time around, however, he is hopeful his team can spring a surprise or two.
He said: “I think we are where we are in terms of we go and have three or four results and then we go somewhere where we’re expected to grind out a result and we don’t.
“I think Brentford is slightly different because we’re probably the underdogs and they’ll certainly be expected to come and steamroller us.”