Swindon Town v Port Vale
League Two playoff, first leg
Sunday 15th May, 12:00
On fire McKirdy key to home success
If boss Ben Garner feels that nobody gave Swindon a chance of a successful season when he took over with just nine registered players last summer, he is feeling the contrast now.
The manager clearly recruited well and has inspired the team to raise expectations. Swindon have sold out their first leg playoff game against Port Vale and are warning fans about the consequences of abusing their staff over ticket sales.
Excitement is back at the County Ground and not without reason: Harry McKirdy has really found his home and prime form. The 25-year-old has netted 20 times from 35 games this season, having showed glimpses of that ability at Carlisle. His season at Port Vale last term was not his best year (eight League Two appearances) and the Robins really missed him when he was recently injured.
Opta say that only Forest Green's Jamille Matt, with 29 involvements in goals this season including assists, outdoes McKirdy who has eight assists to add to his goals.
The Robins have fired back to form since McKirdy's return from a few games out injured, to ensure they maintained their playoff push. Five wins from the past six games gives them huge momentum.
Playing with socks at half mast barely held up by shin pads, long hair and willingness to try to charge past defenders, wide man McKirdy reminds me of Chris Waddle. He is to the home side's chances.
The Wiltshire club don't have the greatest of home records - they are the only side in the top 10 in League Two with fewer than 10 wins on their own turf - but they have a positive goal difference, +10. Can they hold off Port Vale' strong away record of 11 wins and seven draws and +8 goal difference?
With two clean sheets and only two goals conceded plus 10 scored in the past four straight wins, Swindon seem loosely priced favourites to win at 2.68/5.
Or are they? Port Vale's final day win at Exeter, who had a chance of winning the title, has put striker James Wilson in an ebullient mood. The scorer of the day's only goal said the side was boosted by having manager Darrell Clarke back in the dugout after compassionate leave. The Valiants had lost their previous three matches and that indicates why they are 3.39/4 to win with the draw 3.412/5.
Vale took the lead then dug in. Defender Connor Hall, who was set free on the left in the build up to the only goal, was not prominent going forward in the second half. He's settled in perfectly since a January switch from Harrogate and will need to be on top of his game again alongside fellow defender Nathan Smith to protect Aidan Stone once more.
Garner's enthusiastic pronouncement this week that Swindon will aim to win both ties hints at goals. Why? Attacking football brings open spaces at the back. He promises Swindon won't "shut up shop" in the second leg away, even if they have taken a lead. He won't change an attacking mentality. Games with something riding on them, Garner reckons, have brought the best entertaining football from both sides in the recent weeks. As opposed to when teams with little riding on the result have just defended.
If that logic stands true and Port Vale "play ball" by not sitting in just to defend, a free-flowing match could ensue, which could make a mockery of over 2.5 goals odds of 2.26/5.
Swindon's goal getting form of late - netting 15 times in their past six matches - and two clean sheets might suggest they can storm to victory. On that basis, a price of 11.010/1 on 2-0 looks juicy in the correct score market. If Port Vale score too, 2-1 is a snip shorter at 9.617/2. A goal feast at 3-1? Tantalisingly tempting at 20.019/1 if attack is the name of the day.
But hold your horses! The Valiants defend pretty solidly on their travels. In 12 away games since mid-December, Port Vale have conceded none or once per game, exempt once. They lost 2-0 at Walsall a couple of weeks ago, during their end-of-season wobble. In their past four away, they have won the other three 1-0. So the reasons why small scoring options are short priced become clear. A correct score of 1-1 is priced favourite at 5.49/2. Under 2.5 goals is odds-on at 1.84/5. Yet both teams to score 'yes' is also fractionally under evens.
Garner's open game plan might not ring true. A 1-0 win suddenly appeals at 8.07/1 but I am convinced there will be more goals than that, so 2-0 it is.
While Josh Davison (9), Jack Payne (13) and Ben Gladwin (5) are all possible scorers, at 6-1, 11-2 and 15-2 respectively, the layers have surely put a "come and get it" price on McKirdy at 5-1 on Sportsbook. Realistically, he should be a couple of points shorter in the first goalscorer market, being a 20-goal marksman and seven ahead of anyone in the four playoff teams.
While Port Vale's Wilson was clearly cheered by netting against the Grecians, taking his tally to nine League Two goals for the season, he paid tribute to his fellow striker Jamie Proctor, who supplied the chance. Proctor has had his injury problems, including one recently, but his 12 goals have been an integral part of their success.
So have Ben Garrity's of course. He has 13 this season. Both players have netted recently, Proctor with two in the past six and Garrity a solitary one in the defeat at home to Newport on Bank Holiday Monday.
As much as I don't like obvious selections, it's time not to overthink. In-form McKirdy has few true rivals in the goals category. He has netted 15 times in 2022 alone, starting with the New Year's Day quadruple against Northampton. He is a handful for any defence.