Nathan Byrne’s last-ditch stunner handed Swindon Town what could be a vital and huge 2-1 win over Sheffield United in the first-leg of their League One Play-Off Semi-Final at Bramall Lane this evening.
United were the quickest out of the traps as they went about inserting plenty of pressure onto their guest’s goal, Jamie Murphy and Bob Harris both tried their luck before Kieron Freeman took advantage of a mistake at the back to give the home side a richly deserved lead.
Town had more than enough sniffs of goal to peg their hosts back, but Ben Gladwin fluffed his lines from twelve-yards after Nathan Byrne was sent tumbling inside the box, and the former Tottenham man was unlucky as his drive was well kept out by United’ custodian Mark Howard.
Swindon put in a much improved display after the break and they wasted little time in hauling themselves level thanks to Sam Ricketts’ first-ever goal for the club, but it was United who finished the game the stronger of the two sides.
Ryan Flynn warmed the gloves of Wes Foderingham before Steven Davies twice went close in quick succession, and Jack Stephens lashed into the side netting late on before Nathan Byrne’s last gasp winner swung the tie firmly into Town’s favour heading into Monday’s second-leg at The County Ground.
With all the efforts of the 2014/15 campaign now boiling down to these next two semi-finals, Town Boss Mark Cooper was able to pick his Starting XI from the strongest pool of players available.
But, there were a few surprises in store in terms of the forwards with Jermaine Hylton and Michael Smith tasked with leading the line for the visitors – only the former’s second start in professional football – with leading scorer Andy Williams and in-form Jon Obika having to make do with a place on the bench.
Harry Toffolo was ruled out with a bad dead leg, so Sam Ricketts slotted in at left wing-back and Ben Gladwin was handed a role at the tip of the midfield three – with Yaser Kasim and Massimo Luongo sitting in behind him.
Sheffield United’s Starting XI was hampered by injuries as Louis Reed (heel) and the influential Jose Baxter (illness) both missed out, but former Rochdale man Matty Done was able to take his place amongst the subs after recovering from a groin injury.
As was to be expected, plenty of nerves swept around Bramall Lane prior to kick-off with everyone well aware of just what was at stake, but it was the home side who looked to be the more relaxed of the two teams as they quickly stamped their authority on the game.
Jamie Murphy – who was pinpointed by both Mark Cooper and Nathan Thompson as being United’s key man prior to kick-off – cut in from the left-flank, waltzed past a couple of challenges before dragging wide.
Swindon did respond in kind as Ben Gladwin embarked on a gutsy and determined run before seeing his effort drift past the far post, but United’s superiority in the experience ranks soon took over once more.
Much talk before the game revolved around the home side’s remarkable appetite for cup ties and the big occasions – fourteen wins from nineteen cup ties under Nigel Clough – and that proved to be the big difference between the two sides.
Gladwin was left counting his blessings after a cross appeared to strike him on the hand inside his own penalty area, Bob Harris sent a rasping pile-driver over the bar before his low, driven shot evaded a cluster of bodies, but The Blades would not miss in their next attack.
After Sam Ricketts had gifted possession rather cheaply, former Derby County man Kieron Freeman did not need a second invite as he drilled home into the bottom corner to give the home side a more than deserved lead.
But, and to their credit, Town refused to be crestfallen by that set-back and attempted to hit straight back, Michael Smith’s driven cross just evaded Jermaine Hylton, before the visitors were awarded a penalty after Chris Basham tripped Nathan Byrne inside the box.
However, despite dedicating time in training to honing their craft when it comes to spot-kicks, Gladwin – who had notched three penalties this term prior to tonight – ensured Town’s torrid record from twelve-yards this season continued as his effort was easily kept out by United ‘keeper Mark Howard.
Town did have further chances to haul themselves level before the half-time whistle, Hylton skewed miles over before the rookie striker’s powerful and lung-bursting run resulted in Byrne having a clear pop at goal – but the wing-back’s firm drive forced another smart stop from Howard as United held onto their lead heading into the break.
Whatever was said in the Swindon dressing room at half-time clearly worked a treat as the visitors came out all guns blazing after the interval, and it wasn’t long before they got their just rewards.
Jordan Turnbull’s clipped cross was headed over by Michael Smith before team-mate Sam Ricketts – who had endured a horrid first 45-minutes – showed his front-man how to do it after he rose highest to thump home from Byrne’s cross.
That goal sparked the game into life with both sides flexing their attacking their muscles without over-stretching themselves too much, Freeman rifled miles wide from 20-yards, Ricketts’ goal-bound effort cannoned off a United body and Chris Basham’s close-range header was easy enough to deal with for Wes Foderingham.
Ryan Flynn then pounced on a mistake by Turnbull before driving forward into a pocket of space, but the hit-man’s end product was more as he sent a tame effort straight into the grateful arms of Foderingham.
Matty Done – just seconds after coming on to replace Jason Holt – bundled the ball into the back of the net but the whistle had already gone for a foul on a Town defender, before Steven Davies spurned two glorious opportunities in quick succession to restore United’s lead.
First, the forward forced a stunning parry from Foderingham before he failed to get the connection on a cross he would have wanted as his header dropped inches past the post.
United were the dominant force in the game’s closing stages but Town showed their true character as they dug in and defended resolutely, and they nearly took the lead as Jack Stephens ran from the halfway line before planting a shot into the side netting.
However, despite being put under the cosh for the majority of and having had to carry out plenty of last-ditch defending, Byrne created a moment of magic as he drilled home in the closing stages to seal a 2-1 win and clinch what could be a huge result in Town’s season.
FINAL SCORE: SHEFFIELD UNITED 1-2 SWINDON TOWN – LEAGUE ONE PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINAL FIRST-LEG
SCORERS – Kieron Freeman (19), Sam Ricketts (51), Nathan Byrne (90).
SHEFFIELD UNITED (4-2-3-1) – Howard; Harris, McEveley, Brayford (C) (Stefan Scougall 45) (Michael Doyle 87), Freeman; Coutts, Basham, Murphy, Holt (Matty Done 74), Flynn; S Davies.
Subs Not Used – Turner, Alcock, McNulty, Adams.
BOOKED – Bob Harris, Steven Davies.
SWINDON TOWN (3-5-2) – Foderingham; Stephens, N Thompson (C), Turnbull; Byrne, Kasim, Luongo, Gladwin (John Swift 68), Ricketts; Smith (Jon Obika 90), Hylton (Andy Williams 75).
Subs Not Used – C Belford, Barthram, Marshall, Rodgers.
BOOKED – Sam Ricketts
Referee – Darren Bond.
Attendance – 20,890 (1,179 Away Fans).