Swindon Town 2
Barthram 19, Ajose 46
by RICK COWDERY
ARGYLE exited the second of the three cups for which they are eligible after just the merest whiffs of an upset at the County Ground.
The Pilgrims went ahead in their Johnstone’s Paint Trophy second-round tie when Andre Blackman scored his first goal for the Pilgrims in the sixth minute.
That merely tweaked the tail of the Swindon tiger, with the mid-table League 1 side displaying some sublime skills that make you wonder just how good the top four in the division must be.
Argyle clearly are currently a long way from that level and it was a measure of their willingness to work and their determination to keep going that they kept Swindon down to a single-goal victory.
Indeed, as the game wore on, they even threatened to take the tie to a penalty shoot-out, so strongly did they finish.
Swindon were back on terms midway through the first half when Jack Barthram headed home and won the match in the first minute of the second period as Nick Ajose capitalised on easily-conceded possession to shoot City into the area quarter-finals.
Argyle manager John Sheridan had made six changes – permitted under the competition rules because six of the selected side were among Argyle’s most chosen players over the season so far – to the team that started out Saturday’s Devon Expressway Derby defeat at Exeter.
Defenders Paul Wotton and Guy Branston were spared the trip to Wiltshire altogether, as was forward Marvin Morgan; wide man Lewis Alessandra was omitted from the 16-man squad; and goalkeeper Luke McCormick and midfielder Hamza Bencherif began as substitutes.
Jake Cole took over between the posts; Neal Trotman and Max Blanchard were recalled to defence; Saturday scorer Luke Young and Blackman took their places in midfield; and Reuben Reid was chosen to be Paul Hayes’ strike partner.
Swindon’s bench included Lee Cox, the midfielder whose, most would say crucial, spell on loan from Town in the second half of last season did much to preserve Argyle’s Football League status.
Goalkeeper Tyrell Belford had originally been selected to keep Cox company but earned a late call-up into the starting 11 when Wes Foderingham injured himself in the warm-up – the second time in three matches such misfortune has befallen Argyle’s opponents.
Within six minutes, Belford was a beaten man as two of Argyle’s recalled midfielders combined for a goal of stunning simplicity, Young and Blackman swapping tight little passes with the former eventually playing in the latter for a composed shot from 10 yards.
Swindon, whose only defeat in their previous seven home matches was by Chelsea in the Capital One Cup, responded like a wounded side should.
Mohamed Elgabas wasted one opportunity when he miskicked at Cole’s near post, but was not so profligate with a crashing drive soon afterwards that beat Cole all ends up but thumped back off the post. In between, Massimo Luongo had gone close with a long-range effort.
Swindon’s fluidity and pace posed severe questions of the Argyle players to which they failed to respond when Grant Hall’s sweeping ball into the penalty area was met by Barthram for a header that gave Cole no chance.
The red tide showed few signs of receding as Ajose broke through and seemed certain to grab the go-ahead goal before the timeliest of interventions by Curtis Nelson.
Then Elgabas brought a fine fingertip save out of Cole with a powerful header from a corner, before Alex Pritchard fired the ball over.
When they were not attacking, Town’s keep-ball mentality obliged Argyle to work hard, in body and mind, to keep pace with their hosts.
They did, though, and nearly made the most of some meagre pickings when the ever-wiling Reid charged down Belford’s kick only to see the ball spin to safety.
Then Blackman forced the young stand-in into a fingertip save from a rising drive before Swindon ended the half as they had played most of it, Pritchard seeking out Barthram with a long ball from central midfield for a volley that crashed back off Cole’s crossbar.
Having survived until half-time, the Pilgrims rather made a mess of the opening minute of the second half to find themselves behind for the first time in this year’s competition.
When Blackman lost possession, he was just inside the opposition half but, within seconds, the ball was in the back of the Argyle net, Pritchard picking out Ajose to drive the ball past a defence that had been caught flat-footed by the swiftness of the transition from breakdown to attack.
The Pilgrims’ response came from captain Conor Hourihane, whose cross to the far post was met by Reid for header that Hayes tried his best to convert with an overhead kick of necessity.
The attempt preceded a spell of pressure from Argyle based largely upon a passage of passing which ended with Young linking with Hayes for a shot from an angle which was just too tight.
Hayes was immediately supplanted by teenage striker Tyler Harvey, with Durrell Berry coming on for Jamie Reckord at the same time, and Young gave way to Hamza Bencherif soon afterwards.
Argyle plugged away admirably. Rommy Boco caused a few flutters with a decent cross from the left side that Belford flapped away, and the Benin international was nearly on the end of another break on the same flank by Blackman.
The Pilgrims kept coming. Hourihane smuggled the ball away in midfield to play Reid in for a long-range drive that stung Belford’s hand.
Then Hourihane sent in a fine left-wing cross that evaded Belford as he came flying from his goal but could find no blue-shirted takers.
It proved to be the Pilgrims’ final threat in a game that saw them beaten, but far from disgraced.
Certainly a much-needed pick-me-up after the Devon Expressway Demolition Derby.
Swindon Town (4-3-3): 25 Tyrell Belford; 5 Grant Hall, 22 Darren Ward (capt), 29 Raphael Branco; 3 Nathan Byrne, 33 Nick Ajose, 4 Massimo Luongo, 23 Jack Barthram (12 Dany N'Guessan
69); 19 Louis Thompson (24 Lee Cox 65), 11 Adam Pritchard, 34 Mohammed Elgabas (9 Nile Ranger 83). Substitutes (not used): 15 Yaser Kasim, 17 Connor Waldon.
Booked: Branco 78.
Argyle (4-4-2): 1 Jake Cole; 4 Maxime Blanchard, 16 Neal Trotman, 17 Curtis Nelson, 28 Jamie Reckord (2 Durrell Berry 58); 8 Romuald Boco, 14 Luke Young (20 Hamza Bencerif 69), 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 3 Andre Blackman; 19 Paul Hayes (18 Tyler Harvey 58), 9 Reuben Reid. Substitutes (not used): 23 Luke McCormick (gk), 27 Andres Gurrieri.
Referee: James Linington.
Attendance: 4,211 (364 away).