Win or bust today, nothing else mattered – except of course for the other results. We didn’t win, Portsmouth and Oxford did. Mathematically it’s still possible, but we all know how unlikely it is: we have to beat Lincoln and Hull and hope that neither Portsmouth nor Oxford win their final game (unless we close a six-goal deficit on goal difference with Oxford in the process). Two points from three games, when it came down to it we weren’t good enough to make the top six. Yes, we have to go for it on Tuesday night, but mentally I suspect we’re already done for. I even felt mixed emotions with Chuks last-kick equaliser as keeping alive a glimmer of hope only prolongs the agony.
There were decisions to be made on personnel and formation and it was clear that the team meant a move away from the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation that we’ve gone with of late, but switched from during the game against Crewe, to a 3/5/2/5/3/2. In from the start came Gunter, Innis, Pratley and Washington (for Matthews, Purrington, Watson and Millar, three of whom moved to the bench but with Watson missing out completely). That meant a back five, with Gunter and Maatsen as wing-backs and Pearce, Inniss and Famewo. Pratley would be partnered in midfield by Forster-Caskey and Gilbey, while Stockley would have a partner up front in the form of Washington. On the bench Morgan, Shinnie and Millar would give options in midfield and Aneke the change up front (for the defence presumably if one of the centre-backs had to come off Gunter or Pratley could become the third centre-back).
The purpose of the formation and how we would play at least the first half were pretty clear from the start. Accrington had been scoring goals for fun of late (I watched the highlights of their game against Portsmouth and it looked like it could easily have been 6-6). And to an extent it worked. Every ball was hoofed forward, while we prevented them from having a clear sight of goal. To say that it wasn’t pretty was a massive understatement; it was dreadful to watch. But if we won that really wouldn’t have mattered. The pitch was narrow, the wind blowing, and nobody cared much about possession. It seemed to be all about territory, with both teams expecting to get something from a set piece.
After 25 minutes we were leading 2-1 on shots, with one over the bar apiece (ours was deflected and should have been a corner). On 30 minutes Accrington came close to breaking the deadlock, producing a scramble in the box with a couple of shots blocked. And right on 45 minutes their guy cut inside Inniss rather too easily and put in a shot from a narrow angle, hitting the bar.
That was it. But getting into the dressing room at half-time Adkins and the players will have known that, although Oxford had gone from being a goal up to 2-1 down, Portsmouth had done the opposite, equalising quickly at Wimbledon having gone behind and scoring twice just before the break. That only increased the pressure to win the game and meant that at some point in the second half, unless we had gone ahead, Adkins would have to change the formation and go for it.
That proved to be the case. In truth in the first period of the second half we were rather fortunate not to have gone behind. Accrington were finding more space around our box and starting to dominate. Pearce was caught out and had to pull down his guy on the edge of the box, taking a yellow, and from the free kick Stockley somehow managed to divert the ball behind for a corner. Before the hour was up the first change came, Aneke replacing a tiring Washington, but the formation was unchanged and the game continued as before. Amos had to turn a shot around after their guy had beaten off Inniss and from the corner we switched off and Accrington played it short, with two of theirs against Aneke. Forster-Caskey saw yellow for a professional foul. But with a little over 20 minutes to go we did have a break and after Maatsen was almost clear it was played towards Stockley, who was taken out just outside the area. Forster-Caskey curled the shot towards the near post but with their keeper beaten it went just over.
That was the cue for changes to chase the game. Pearce was sacrificed for Millar and we switched to a 4-4-2, with Gilbey on the right. Fair enough, we have to win, we needed to fashion something in the final third, and getting Millar on was a priority. But I thought it was poor not to make further changes to adapt to the new formation, if not immediately then shortly after. We were now playing 4-4-2 and could use fresh legs. Why not bring on Purrington to help shore up the defence, either for Maatsen or to allow him to go wide right, perhaps Morgan as a better option on the right side than Gilbey. But nothing more was done.
With 10 minutes to go it felt like the season was in the balance. And the balance swung very much against us as Accrington scored. Their guy got past Famewo and into space, took it into the box, and shot well low into the corner. Seemed like game up. We went into four minutes of stoppage time and for some reason changes were made then. Morgan and Shinnie came on, for Pratley and Forster-Caskey. It seemed irrelevant until right at the death Millar was upended, Morgan curled in a decent ball, and Aneke diverted it past their keeper. As on Tuesday night, there was barely time to kick off.
I wouldn’t blame Adkins for the choice of formation, for the changes to bring on Aneke and Millar. Fact is we had a gameplan and it didn’t pay off. We might have played expansively and been beaten, who knows? In other circumstances a point might have been a decent result. Today it wasn’t, with Portsmouth seeing out their game and Oxford coming from behind to win.
No player ratings today, it was a game where they were asked to play a certain way which was never going to look good. We have come up short this season and there are many reasons for that, all of which can wait for another day.