The travelling support of 200 or so was intrigued to learn of wily Scot Billy Russell's thinking on the deficiencies of our recent individual displays and chosen formations, and, as we had suspected, he opted for an adjustment, but shunned radicalism:
So free-scoring young Bradshaw, a Willie Pettigrew for the WAP! Generation, gets a start, while midfield looks a deal more solid than of late. Beresford, no Charlie Cooke, was available but, as one might choose to have it, was "benched", in favour of a formation which asserted the values of a solid central midfield threesome, Philpott performing an industrious Davie Hay role on the left side. This deprived us of the width to which we have been accustomed but it added solidity to the set-up.
And canny it all seemed as we began well. Swansea earned an early free-kick, which was wastefully blasted into our sturdy wall, but thereafter it was the lively Tigers that took control, kicking towards the covered away end. Bradshaw and Philpott combined well to threaten down the flank; Swansea defended at the expense of a corner but - some things don't change overnight - our routine was leaden and all too easily dealt with. Then Bradshaw was hauled back by an offside flag that seemed harshly raised, before a sweet Sneekes cross sailed towards the craning Alexander forehead only to suffer the indignity of clearance by a panicky defender. Sneekes again took the eye as he surged deep into the penalty area to shoot from a narrow angle and force a smart save by the dependably amiable Roger Freestone. Alexander was howling at his advancing team-mate for a square ball, but he, more than most, knows you don't pass when you can shoot. Next, Wicks found Alexander, who played the cleverest of sharp one-twos with Bradshaw before firing a hasty effort well wide.
There were, I should add in pursuit of proportion, plenty of spells of dull football embracing these choice incidents - this is, after all, the Fourth Division - but it was a highly promising opening half-hour. The quality of coaching at our club has received much criticism lately and it is impossible to avoid the impression that our first-teamers have become gradually less effective as the campaign has progessed. But someone is doing something right with the younger Tigers - or, at least, with one of them. When I first saw Bradshaw a couple of years ago, I enjoyed his dash, but I couldn't believe one so small could cut it as a striker at League level. After last night, I believe. He's fast but he's smart. His running off the ball was exemplary, he will rip offside traps to shreds with his timing, he has an excellent first touch and his ability to drift silently away from his marker and then pounce when a chance beckons is pure instinct. His was a richly encouraging display last night, and, in fact, it was the most impressive game by a youthful Tigers front-man seen at the Vetch Field since the days of Dexter Tucker.
Swansea had a shot. The Muss saved it. And then Bradshaw came desperately close to scoring the goal his efforts merited. A slick through ball, a deft turn and a sharply-struck right-foot shot - only Freestone's left heel prevented Bradshaw's zip giving us the lead. Fine stuff.
But the first period closed with a troubling indicator of a tidal change in the second. A Swansea shot drifted against the outside of the post, with the Muss beaten. And though the opening ten minutes of the second half were conspicuously tame and dull, the home side was gradually gaining the ascendancy. Whittle found himself exposed, asked to deal with two opponents at the same time. Only two? Both gentlemen were ushered away from the danger area by a master defender. I love the way Whittle does what he is good at - and not a red cent more. Shortly afterwards a crunching, perfectly-judged tackle saw Justin emerge with the ball at his feet in space, whereupon he looked around in panic, eyeing the football as if it were a landmine: "Someone else take it! Please! I can't do this dribbling bit, HELP!". A great man, in the Paul Hegarty mould.
Muss now produced a quite breathtaking save. One of theirs connected damagingly with a volley from only eight yards out, and the ball flew at high velocity towards the top corner of the net, only for the Muss to leap to his left and claw the ball away. It was top-class, top-speed goalkeeping, and if it still wouldn't quite rank with the Greatest Save I Have Seen From a City Keeper (Tony Norman defying Garth Crookes at White Hart Lane in 1981), it is certainly, like a similar Willo one-pawed marvel one night at Hartlepool and another at Barnet, one to treasure.
Alexander swerved a free-kick over the bar as we stabilised the game for ten minutes or so, but Swansea eventually wrested control again and we began to suffer. Sneekes enjoyed a perky game, and the hard-working Philpott was at least the equal of his opponents. But Johnsson made little impression and Williams, once again, looked unlikely to beat his man even if we had played until St Andrew's Day. Alexander and Bradshaw roamed hopefully but now saw little of the ball. When Whittle and the (too quiet) Musselwhite produced another of their grotesque human railcrashes and were fortunate to see the ball spin out of the collision to safety, a Swansea score began to look increasingly inevitable. They hit the bar - from close range when the header really should have been thumped into the back of the net. They provoked another acrobatic save from the Muss - not as spectacular as the earlier glory, for the drive arrived from longer-range and preparation was easier, but, again, high praise for our shot-stopping netman. And then they scored the winner - a firmly-struck corner, headed meatily into our net from eight yards or so by the veteran cricketer Steve Watkin.
From that, we were not about to recover. Whitmore for Bradshaw; Beresford for Williams. But we lost. Swansea attacked with pace and, on occasion, imagination during the second half and we slipped slowly but disappointingly to another defeat. We looked nothing like a promotion team, and scarcely like a team worthy of a PlayOff place: we haven't since November. The next seven days will tell us much about where we are headed in season 2001/2. And so... another trip to Swansea, another generally grey match, another goal-free Tiger outing at the Vetch. The Clash's "White Riot" greets the home side on to the pitch nowadays, which is, in too many ways, so appropriate (though perhaps "Violence Grows" by the Fatal Microbes would do the trick even better). The "70s throwback" mood was heightened still further by the surly youths hanging around a street-corner afterwards, who asked us the score. It's many years since I've had that rumble-the-foreigner trick played on me, and I walked on - but thank you to James for adding a spot of tension to our retreat to the car by helpfully informing the questioners that it was "1-0 to Swansea". Don't worry, mate, I don't blame you, I know you're only a lad, unformed by the crucible of the Old Den and the delights of an Ayresome afternoon. We all enjoy visiting the South Wales footballing Jurassic Park. Don't we? Well, anyway, we got out of Swansea alive, which I always feel is something of a result.
Report by: Steve Weatherill