Match Highlights & Analysis: Sheffield United 1 Swindon Town 2

Dejected Sheffield United players after Nathan Byrne had scored the winner for Swindon
Dejected Sheffield United players after Nathan Byrne had scored the winner for Swindon
  • Blades have it all to do after Byrne’s late strike
  • Clough left fuming at referee

As David Cameron and Ed Miliband battled for the keys to Number 10, two big footballing beasts began their campaigns to escape League One.

Just like the General Election, last night’s play-off semi-final first leg did not produce a landslide victory.

But Swindon Town will enter Monday’s return with slender advantage after recording their first away win at Bramall Lane since February 1970 and the dying embers of Harold Wilson’s Premiership.

Nathan Byrne’s late strike, after Sam Ricketts had cancelled-out Kieron Freeman’s effort, was mightily tough luck on a Sheffield United side frustrated by a combination of missed chances and, even more so, a woeful display by referee Darren Bond.

Nigel Clough, the United manager, was apoplectic with rage at the Lancastrian afterwards and cited “four key moments” which helped turn the tie.

But there was enough evidence last night to suggest that Swindon’s progress into the divisional showpiece later this month is far from guaranteed. Particularly if Clough, who acknowledged United “could admittedly have done more” to prevent both of Swindon’s goals, can channel that sense of injustice into another “whole-hearted” performance.

Mark Howard saves Swindon's penalty

Mark Howard saves Swindon's penalty

“It’s still all to play for,” Clough said. “It’s still game on. We’ll do down there and give it a real go.”

Clough’s pre-match instructions had contained numerous red lines and non-negotiables.

United managed to prevent Swindon from crossing some. But, as Ricketts and then Byrne demonstrated, not all with the latter granted too much time and space before threading the ball between Mark Howard, who had earlier saved a Ben Gladwin penalty, and the far post.

Mark Cooper’s claim that United entered the game as strong favourites did not sit comfortably with Clough who, speaking at his pre-match media briefing earlier in the week, reminded that Swindon had finished eight points above them in the table. That, he explained, meant the visitors were also under huge pressure to progress.

Swindon Town's Sam Ricketts (second left) scores his sides first goal of the game against Sheffield United

Swindon Town's Sam Ricketts (second left) scores his sides first goal of the game against Sheffield United

When Bond signalled an end to the phoney war surrounding this fixture and the phsyical action began, it quickly became apparent that both teams were inspired rather than intimidated by the occasion.

There was controversy as well as fierce combat too when Gladwin appeared to handle Jamie Murphy’s 12th minute cross but the officials, unlike the home bench, remained unmoved. Likewise when substitute Matt Done saw a goal ruled-out for a seeingly innocuous foul before being hauled back after breaking clear. Free-kick given. United’s advantage denied.

An unlikely figure landed the opening blow of what was to prove a fierce, brutal contest.

Wes Foderingham, the Swindon goalkeeper, seemed to be wrong-footed as Freeman’s snap-shot crept home.

Sheffield United's Kieron Freeman celebrates scoring

Sheffield United's Kieron Freeman celebrates scoring

But the lead was the very least United, going about their work with purpose and conviction, deserved.

Once their heads had cleared - and theatrics stunted the flow of the game - so Swindon’s influence grew.

Mark Howard denied Gladwin from the spot before Byrne, the evening’s most influential performer until Done’s entrance, exploited United’s vulnerability at set-pieces by taking the corner which Ricketts headed emphatically home.

The defender, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, became the first Swindon player to score at Bramall Lane since Giuliano Grazioli claimed a brace during a 2-2 draw 15 years ago.

His intervention also marked a turning point in the course of the fixture with the visitors, who had spent long periods under the cost, now threatening to seize control. That was until Done’s introduction as a substitute saw United wrestle it back before Byrne struck with almost the last action of the game.

“We struggled to get going to begin with,” Cooper, the Swindon manager, said. “But that was down to United’s intensity.”

Jay McEveley  challenges Ben Gladwin

Jay McEveley challenges Ben Gladwin

After securing their qualification a long while ago, Swindon subsequently devoted much of their time towards ensuring Cooper’s squad made the journey north fully recouperated and, as far as possible, relaxed. Foderingham, Nathan Thompson and Gladwin all returned to the starting eleven against a United side which had not been afforded the same luxury. Clough, already missing the likes of Terry Kennedy (knee) and Louis Reed (heel), was also forced to omit Jose Baxter due to illness.

Murphy, though, nearly ensured a bright opening period from the hosts reaped some reward when he dragged a low shot just past the foot of the post following an exchange with Freeman.

Steven Davies met a Ryan Flynn free-kick soon after, wrestling his marker to the floor in robust but fair fashion, only to mistime his connection with the ball before testing Foderingham’s handling from an acute angle.

United could, indeed should, have been awarded a penalty when Gladwin handled Murphy’s centre.

The Scot was wreaking havoc along both flanks but it was his compatriot, Bob Harris, who delivered the centre which Davies was inches away from turning home.

Swindon had demonstrated plenty of attacking intent themselves, with Nathan Byrne and Jermaine Hylton both producing darting breaks deep into enemy territory. But, until Howard thwarted Gladwin, United were in control.

A fact Freeman underlined when, in the 19th minute, he swept a low finish beyond Foderingham to claim only the third goal of his professional career following some inventive work by Flynn.

Swindon’s response was immediate but, when Hylton saw Matt Smith’s centre flash just in front of him, it summed-up their work so far.

Bond, whose performance in the middle suggested he was more nervous than the players around him, did hand them a route back into the game when he punished Bob Harris for a foul on Byrne but Gladwin saw his spot-kick saved by Howard.

Byrne, previously of Tottenham Hotspur, grew in influence as the drama unfolded. Indeed it took another superb cameo from Howard to prevent him from dragging Swindon level just before the interval.

When John Brayford succumbed to an injury sustained towards the end of an incident-packed first-half, the introduction of Stefan Scougall prompted another reshuffle of a United defence which Clough concedes has already been far from settled this term.

Swindon pressed and probed with intent. But, at the other end of the pitch, United demonstrated they were still capable of creating chances with Flynn and Davies both going close before the latter was agonisingly close to connecting with a Paul Coutts cross.

Done had earlier seen a ‘goal’ disallowed before scampering clean through only to be inexplicably stopped in his tracks as United were awarded a free-kick. Then the excellent Byrne, allowed to drift ominiously forward, beat Howard with a low drive.

SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 7, Harris 6, Brayford 7 (Scougall 46, 6) (Doyle 88), Basham 7, Flynn 7, Murphy 7, Coutts 7, McEveley 7, Freeman 7, S Davies 7, Holt 6. Not used: Alcock, McNulty, Done, Turner, Adams.

SWINDON TOWN: Foderingham 6, Thompson 7, Byrne 8, Luongo 7, Stephens 6, Turnbull 7, Gladwin 7 (Swift 68), Kasim 7, Smith 7 (Obika 90), Hylton 6 (Williams 76), Ricketts 7. Not used: Bathram, Rodgers, Marshall, C Belford.

REFEREE: Darren Bond (Lancashire), 3


GOALS: Freeman (19), Ricketts (50), Byrne (90)

CAUTIONS: Harris (30), S Davies (38), Ricketts (65)