City’s 16-game unbeaten start to the Sky Bet League One season came to a cruel end at the County Ground as Swindon Town profited from a controversial early red card to steal maximum points in the M4 derby.
The two sides had hardly found time to settle in the game when referee Darren Drysdale dismissed City captain Wade Elliott inside the opening three minutes for an off-the-ball incident which left his team-mates a mountain to climb.
The visitors could hardly help but drop deeper as the game wore on, eventually succumbing to Michael Smith’s 78th minute winner as the one-man advantage grew ever more influential with each passing attack.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for City boss Steve Cotterill, who will feel his side were never given a fair opportunity to exert themselves on a top-of-the-table clash more resembling attack against defence by the time Smith struck the decisive blow.
Cotterill was forced into one change from his last league line-up, named a fortnight ago for the single goal victory over Oldham Athletic at Ashton Gate.
Scott Wagstaff continued in the right wing-back position he served in the cup successes against Gillingham and AFC Wimbledon, with usual starter Mark Little still absent with a hamstring injury.
New loan signing Todd Kane, acquired from Chelsea until January 18th at the eleventh hour, took his place on a City bench also including Bobby Reid, recalled from his loan at Plymouth Argyle with injuries to Karleigh Osborne, Jordan Wynter and Wes Burns suddenly leaving Cotterill thin on the ground.
“We want to play with fire in our bellies and ice in our heads,” declared the manager in the build-up to the first M4 derby of the season between two of the top three sides in League One, but even he could not have foreseen what would unfold in the opening minute of the game.
Veteran skipper Elliott, a university graduate and former Premier League footballer, would have been bottom of the list of players most likely to lose their head just seconds after kick-off.
But when the 35-year-old turned away from midfielder Jack Stephens and raised an arm to aid his balance, he unintentionally caught the youngster with a trailing hand.
By this point Stephens had released the ball, and duly hit the turf holding his face. Suddenly the home crowd were baying for blood.
Referee Drysdale, whose eyes had followed Stephens’ pass, took two minutes to come to his game-changing decision on the advice of his assistant, who argued Elliott had to go.
Cotterill was incensed and his mood was not helped by a booking for Wagstaff moments later – another innocuous looking act strictly punished by Drysdale, by now very much in the spotlight.
City immediately switched to a back four, with Luke Ayling and Joe Bryan occupying the full-back positions, and to their credit the visitors’ response was admirable, forcing their hosts on to the back foot with a flurry of early corners.
You would never have guessed Swindon had the extra man. Ben Gladwin’s shot from 20 yards blocked at close quarters was the only time the home team threatened in the opening exchanges.
But Town began to come into it around the half-hour mark. Smith headed Louis Thompson’s cross off target before Stephens drove forward with purpose but dragged his shot well wide.
In between times Aaron Wilbraham added his name to Drysdale’s notebook with an ugly lunge on Nathan Thompson down by the corner flag – a clear foul borne out of frustration.
City’s defensive responsibilities were growing by the minute as half-time approached. Gladwin’s devilish cross escaped everyone and the far post by a combined distance of a couple of feet, while Smith picked up a harsh yellow card for barging into Frank Fielding who did tremendously well to hang on to Louis Thompson’s hanging centre.
Having taken a while to heat up, whether due to or in spite of the dismissal, the blood and thunder you come to expect from this fixture was evident straight from the off at the start of the second period.
First it was Swindon showing their intent with the one-man advantage, as Raphael Rossi-Branco’s shot was deflected into the path of Harry Toffolo who crashed an instinctive effort against the crossbar from six yards only for the offside flag to intervene anyway.
Then Joe Bryan proved City were not just content to hang on when he drifted inside and unleashed a speculative right-foot shot which Wes Foderingham seemed to have covered as it struck the outside of the post.
But at the other end the hosts could smell blood, particularly top scorer Smith, who saw a shot on the turn deflect behind for a corner before Toffolo’s low cross from the left towards the striker was intercepted by Aden Flint, who got just a big enough toe to the ball on the stretch to divert it away from goal without finding his own net.
City’s ventures out of their own half were becoming increasingly sporadic. The occasional charge, usually led by Luke Freeman, was surely Town’s only defensive concern.
As the game entered its final 20 minutes, Swindon’s pressure was verging on breaking point.
Nathan Byrne tried his luck against of breaking down a deep defence with a fierce shot from distance which dipped over Fielding and crashed against the underside of the crossbar but somehow stayed out, before Stephens’ placed effort from 20 yards was pushed aside by Fielding, who was getting ever busier.
It would take 78 minutes – 75 against ten men – for the opener to finally arrive, as Smith collected the ball inside the penalty area and danced away from two challenges with admirable composure before eventually breaching Fielding in the City goal with a cool finish.
To their credit, Cotterill’s side were far from finished and the manner in which the hosts were hanging on in the closing stages was testament to an incredibly spirited team effort.
There was one final chance to preserve the unbeaten record, too. But top scorer Wilbraham, previously without a sniff in front of goal all afternoon, was high and wide with his shot from Ayling’s cutback.
The 22-match run without a league defeat dating back to March was finally over.