So amidst the gloom and fog sweeping across the Park tonight, the handball that earned City a late penalty was about as crystal clear as it gets as City grind out a 1-0 win over relegation threatened Swindon Town in front of 4174 fans. City lined up: Hamer; Jones, Archibald-Henville, Taylor, Duffy; Dunne, Harley, Noble, Sercombe; Cureton, O'Flynn.
With less than thirty seconds on the clock Swindon were almost gifted a dream start when Billy Jones played a short cross field pass straight to Matt Richie in the visitor's midfield, who strode in on goal whizzing a shot low to Hamer's left that he just managed to turn around the post for a corner. However, and somewhat setting the tone for the remainder of the game, it eventually came to nothing.
At the other end it very nearly didn't come to nothing in the fourth minute when a Dunne long throw came back to Duffy who played Dunne in down the right. Dunne powered into the box before prodding the ball forward to Cureton on the six yard line, but just as he looked to square it inside the near post a defender intervened to clear the ball off his toe. His clearance only fell to Duffy ten yards outside the corner of the box, but his surprisingly ferocious volley was comfortably collected by the keeper.
Harley had a chance with a free kick 25 yards out after a foul on Sercombe in the 18th minute, but blasted wastefully high and into the massed 300-odd Swindon supporters behind the goal. Chances were something of a premium for the remainder of the half with both defences well on top and both midfields cancelling each other out as both teams worked and probed looking for an opening.
City finally got one a minute or two before the break with a clever corner. Harley struck the ball low to the edge of the box where Dunne hit a first time cross low through a crowd of players to Cureton at the far post, but his good looking shot from close range was deflected wide for another corner that came to nowt.
Jones' second half began in much better fashion than his first with a well drilled corner butted onto the roof of the net by Taylor from eight yards out, then from just inside the Swindon half pinged in a good looking free kick to the edge of the box that Harley took all the way round the defence before firing on goal from the corner of the box. The keeper had tracked Harley all the way and in the end had little more than a regulation save to make at his near post.
Hamer, on the hand, had a far from regulation save to make three minutes later when Swindon were awarded a free kick 30 yards out. Alan Sheehan gave it a hearty wallop and for all the world looked to be heading for the top corner before Hamer tipped the ball over at full stretch for a corner in spectacular style. In the 19th minute Dunne robbed the ball in midfield playing a first time ball to Harley who in turn set Cureton away on the edge of the box. Cureton showed great invention with a cheeky lob to the far corner, but just didn't quite get enough on it as the keeper plucked the ball from above his head at full stretch.
Swindon had an almighty scare midway through the half when giant full back Kevin Amankwaah hit a full blooded back pass to his keeper. The keeper let it run across him to his favoured foot, but then had to hurriedly clear the ball away to safety as it was millimetres from crossing the line for what would have been a very sloppy - if not hilarious - own goal.
In the 29th minute came something of a turning point in the game when Troy was challenged seemingly innocuously by an offside Calvin Andrew forcing his withdrawal with what looked like a thigh injury. On came Scot Bennett for his first team debut to warm applause, and two minutes later was heavily involved in City's goal. A Jones corner was swung in and as Bennett looked to head home inexplicably a Swindon arm rose above the melee to punch the ball clear.
The referee seemed to take an age to award the penalty after finally deciding that Scott Cuthbert had handled, and so it was left to Harley to drill the ball low to keeper David Lucas' left as he dived right to make it 1-0 to City with less than fifteen minutes remaining. A rather unwanted statistic has been bandied around that City have lost more games than anyone else in the division when in front, but that wasn't going to happen today. In fact it was City who came closest to scoring again when a miscued clearance was volleyed goalwards by Harley but unfortunately it bobbled narrowly the wrong side of the post, and so, four minutes of stoppage time later, the referee brought proceedings to a close to give City a hard fought and not undeserved victory.
And it was almost a landmark victory too as it meant City had overtaken last season's points total thus meaning that manager Tisdale's year on year improvement of the side would continue for yet one more season, and more importantly almost certainly secure City's place in League One next season. It's not mathematic yet, but it's very, very close.
As for the players, well they turned in a good honest performance tonight and worked hard from front to back. Cureton always looked dangerous and O'Flynn was very lively up top. In the middle Sercombe and Dunne in particular snapped away at the Swindon midfield and back line relentlessly never giving them a moment to settle on the ball, giving Noble and Harley time and space to try and keep the ball moving in the right direction.
At the back the four were, by and large, both dominant and comfortable, but it was a real shame to see Troy have to leave the field of play after such a stirring performance. However in his stead young Bennett can be very pleased with his contribution and looked perfectly at home in such an experienced back line. And well done to Hamer too. It might not have been his busiest night ever, but throughout he handled well in probably one of his best games at the Park since his arrival a couple of months ago.
And so to the officials. A couple of pointers for you if that's OK. If you're going to award a free kick against Duffy for high feet - even though he didn't make contact - then you should also do the same at the other end when one of ours almost gets his head kicked off. When a player is offside and looking to challenge for a ball, you are allowed to award the free kick before he's crocked one of players, you don't have to wait until he's on the floor needing treatment before blowing a whistle. And when Cureton runs from a yard or two behind a furiously back tracking defender to beat him to the ball, that is not offside - it's when the ball is originally kicked, not when it's eventually made contact with.
But hey ho, we won, we moved a giant step towards safety and can look forward to the weekend's visit of Dagenham with confidence. They, like Swindon, are another side embroiled in a ferocious survival battle so the game will be far from easy, but anything from that game will almost seal our survival and push us towards a top half finish. See you there.