If the cast of TOWIE took part in an episode of Mastermind you’d have some idea of how puzzled those fond of Peterborough United are right now.
Just how a team that played with such verve, flair and enterprise in the autumn have become so ragged and error-prone in 2016 is baffling, and not just a little worrying.
The sad statistics are stacking up at an alarming rate. It’s now 11 points from a possible 39, four defeats in a row, six defeats in seven League One matches, four home League One home losses in a row for the first time in over two years, and a drop from fifth to 15th in just two months, Posh are eight points from the play-off places, but anyone who believes a top six finish is a possibility, probably believes in the Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas and honest politicians.
Posh manager Graham Westley continues to speak fluenty after games, but his message is becoming confused and contradictory. He blamed youth, change and ‘newness’ for this defeat, as well as the obligatory lack of clinicality, but surely two of those three excuses are as a result of club policy? Change - there were five alterations to the starting line-up again - can be forgiven when injuries pile up as they clearly did following the midweek loss to Oldham, although Posh are now close to using 40 players this season which suggests the lust for rotation was already in place.
And, in the MacAnthony years at least, Posh have consistently elected to bring youngsters to the club - Westley himself chose to throw on 17 year-old Le Da Silva Lopes as a substitute yesterday (February 27) - and they chose to flog their only reliable goal-scorer in January and bring in several new players. One suspects Conor Washington would have had a field day against this wide-open Swindon defence, particularly in the opening half-an-hour when Posh were totally dominant.
If that are the house rules then so be it, but perhaps go easy on the hype and ambitious talk, at least in public, as high expectation will always lead to high condemnation when things go awry, as they have quite spectacularly in recent times.
Posh should have won this game. Swindon head coach Luke Williams admitted afterwards his side struggled to match the Posh tempo in the opening half, but the visitors crucially only conceded to a 12th-minute penalty, one won and converted by Marcus Maddison after a terrific burst into the penalty area was halted illegally by Michael Doughty.
Other half-chances came and went in that period of supremacy, most notably when Maddison charged down an attempted clearance and surged unopposed into the penalty area, but his attempt to set Souleymane Coulibaly up for a tap-in was interrupted by a covering defender.
Coulibaly also accepted a lovely pass from Erhun Oztumer and danced past his marker only to see a low left-footed strike well saved by Swindon ‘keeper Lawrence Vigouroux with his feet.
Swindon had arrived at the ABAX in decent form, but were horribly sloppy in those early exchanges. In-form goal-machine Nicky Ajose - now there’s a sentence no Posh reporter thought he’d ever write - was pretty much anonymous, but Swindon showed signs of hitting their stride before the break and the warning went unheeded.
Debutant Posh goalkeeper Stuart Moore had only been introduced to his defensive team-mates a couple of hours before kick off, but he enjoyed a quiet opening, dealing with long-range efforts from Fabien Robert and Ajose with ease. Doughty should have done better for the visitors when working an opening on the edge of the penalty area, but he curled a shot wide when he had so much time, an on-target effort should have been guaranteed.
Swindon made a tactical switch at the break by removing one of their three central defenders and introducing a midfielder in Drissa Traore with energy and pace. It was a game-changing switch as Swindon played with far more purpose and quality and they were instantly rewarded when Ajose bagged his 19th-goal of the season with a stunning 22 yard free kick strike into the top corner.
Posh were now wobbling, but clung on despite conceding possession easily and despite barely delivering a worthwhile challenge in midfield areas. Ajose had two more free-kick attempts that caused Moore some concern, and he also saw a shot from open play deflected past a post.
But, from nowhere, Posh woke up midway through the half and Swindon’s back four proved easily to play around, but not so easy to get shots past. Teenager Le Da Silva’s introduction to the base of the midfield diamond helped Posh keep possession better and Shaquile Coulthirst turned from inneffective to industrious once strike partner Coulibaly was hooked.
But a combination of bad luck, woeful finishing and brave, yet desperate defending, meant Posh would again walk away from a match without reward. Most disappointingly a glorious move involving Maddison, Martin Samuelsen, Coulthirst and substitute Harry Toffolo gave Tom Nichols, another replacement, the sort of chance he must have dreamt of when making a £250k transfer to the city, but agonisingly, from less than six yards out, he could only manage to divert the cross with an outstretched leg onto the outside of a post.
Zakuani’s powerful downward headed ‘goal’ from a corner was then controversially disallowed by referee Darren Handley and within 90 seconds the ball was at the other end of the pitch and Doughty drilled home expertly to ultimately seal the win for Swindon. Doughty’s shot travelled through the legs of Ricardo Santos befoe late strikes from Maddison, Coulthirst and Samuelsen all managed to strike the bodies of diving defenders, just to confirm things really do go against you when you’re struggling.
Posh: Stuart Moore, Michael Smith, Andrew Fox (sub Harry Toffolo, 58 mins), Ricardo Santos, Gaby Zakuani, Harry Beautyman, Erhun Oztumer (sub Leo Da Silva Lopes, 58 mins), Martin Samuelsen, Marcus Maddison, Shaquile Coulthirst, Souleymane Coulibaly (sub Tom Nichols, 69 mins). Unused substitutes: Jordan Nicholson, Aaron Williams, Adil Nabi, Dion-Curtis Henry.
Swindon: Lawrence Vigouroux, Nathan Thompson, Brandon Ormonde-Williams, Jordan Turnbull, Jamie Sendles-White (sub Drissa Traore, 46 mins), Louis Thompson (sub Anton Rodgers, 70 mins), Bradley Barry, Michael Doughty, Fabien Robert (sub, Jeremy Balmy, 77 mins), Nicky Ajose, Jonathan Obika. Unused substitutes: Tyrell Belford, Josh Cooke, Jermaine Hylton, Ellis Iandolo.
Goals: Posh - Maddison (12 mins, pen).
Swindon - Ajose (49 mins), Doughty (83 mins).
Cautions: Posh - Samuelsen (foul), Beautyman (foul).
Swindon - N. Thompson (unsportsmanlike conduct), Doughty (foul), Barry (foul).
Referee: Darren Handley 5
Attendance: 5,124 (408 Swindon)