We might not yet be down to the wire, but we all know the wire is in sight. Only thing that mattered tonight was the result, nothing but a win would do. Three points and we’d at least be back above Oxford, depending on other results potentially Portsmouth and Blackpool too, conceivably also pulling to within three points of Lincoln; or staring down the barrel five points adrift (six really given goal difference) with three to play. We didn’t get the win, didn’t play well enough to merit a win but almost stole one; and with Lincoln and Blackpool both winning the only consolation came with a last-gasp equaliser for Accrington against Portsmouth, news which came through moments before Crewe equalised for a second time as two points once again slipped through our fingers in stoppage time.
Tonight’s results leave us in the strange position of knowing both that if we win our final three games of the season we will take a play-off spot, equally that unless we play a good deal better than we did tonight we can forget about extending the season. We looked tired and, in sharp contrast to Saturday, not mentally up for the task. We played as if we just wanted the game to be out of the way, win it without too much exertion and start to think about the tougher challenges that lie ahead. If so, and the game's all about fine margins, that was disrespectful to Crewe, who through the game outpassed and outmanoeuvred us, only falling short because of what looked like an inability to create the final opening and a vulnerability in defence which we should have been able to exploit more convincingly. Perhaps Peterborough on Saturday took too much out of us, perhaps as Adkins hinted some were playing while not fully fit. Probably all of that, but for me we made the cardinal error of having gone ahead not finishing off the game with a second and then relaxing, instead making the game hard for ourselves by allowing Crewe to dominate possession and come at us from all angles.
There were some decisions to be made regarding the team, with Jaiyesimi ruled out through injury and doubts about Inniss’ fitness after Saturday, while some consideration may have been given to either changing the formation to play two up front or going for Washington as one of the two wider men. In the event Inniss was rested, swapping places on the bench with Famewo, while Maatsen returned to take the wide right role, the rest of the team being unchanged, the bench looking similar too, with Washington and Aneke the options up front, while Morgan kept a place ahead of Shinnie.
Let’s face it we were pretty poor for most of the first half, this time not just the first 15 minutes. Whether it was the formation match-up or just less energy on the pitch, we were sloppy in and out of possession and looked edgy. Famewo looked rusty on his return, while Maatsen looked as if he knew he shouldn’t have started. The exception in all of this was Millar, who was at the heart of all our good moments and once again looked to have the beating of the opposition. Indeed, there were times when we had three moving down the left – Purrington, Millar and Gilbey – and it was from one such occasion that we took the lead, against the run of play. Millar had the ball in space and found Gilbey making a run ahead of him. It looked like he might fail to make it before the ball ran out for a goal kick, but he did and whipped in an excellent cross, meat and drink to Stockley who once again stooped low to head home, this time in off the post.
That goal you felt might settle us down. It didn’t. Millar continued to create problems down the left, jinking past two only to be brought down, then putting in a low cross that wasn’t converted. The plus point was that we did seem to tighten up defensively and prevented Crewe from turning dominance of possession into real chances, with Amos making routine saves but not called on for anything more. And we did have the opportunity to really rub salt into the wound as Stockley was fouled in first-half stoppage time, giving Forster-Caskey the sort of position from which he’d scored earlier in the season. This time it hit the wall – and we almost managed to get caught on the break as Millar and Purrington left the ball for each other and were bypassed.
At half-time we were winning, Portsmouth were 0-2 down, and Blackpool were drawing at Sunderland, although Lincoln were ahead. As long as we kept hold of the three points that was a combination of results that would be pretty good. The nagging thought was just get another goal then play on the break and conserve energy, didn’t want a final 10 minutes holding onto a one-goal lead.
The second half if anything saw increased pressure from Crewe as we really struggled to clear our lines, let alone do anything at the other end. Maatsen was yellow-carded rather harshly, but shortly after committed another foul. It wasn’t surprising that not long into the half he was replaced, with Washington brought on to run the channel on the right side. And he did have more of an impact, although Crewe continued to call the shots.
In quick succession Gilbey was very harshly given a yellow, followed by Pearce getting one that was more understandable. It was all getting edgy and it really came as no surprise that on 66 minutes Crewe did draw level. The ball was worked down their right and their guy cut inside a tired challenge from Pearce to shoot into the far corner of the net.
Now we faced a real challenge to get the three points. Almost immediately Adkins made another change, with Aneke coming on and perhaps surprisingly Millar making way. He was probably the only option if we were to retain the formation and get Aneke on the pitch, but it seemed we were shooting ourselves in the foot by withdrawing our main attacking threat when we now needed to chase the game.
Indeed, although Aneke made an impact further changes followed with less than 20 minutes to go. Inniss and Pratley came on for Stockley and Watson, with us going to a back three/five and wing-backs, with two forwards. And with Aneke clearly having more power than they could handle, the changes did make a difference as Crewe were pushed more onto the back foot.
It was still something of a surprise when we took the lead again, in the final 10 minutes. Forster-Caskey played a delightful ball to Gilbey, whose shot was blocked for a corner. An outswinger seemed to carry no danger, even though it was headed towards goal by Pearce, but Gilbey had taken a chance and made the Martin Peters-like run and was on hand to deflect the ball past their keeper.
The game had swung again, now all we had to do was see out the final minutes – although by now Portsmouth had produced a turnaround of their own to lead 3-2. Into five minutes of stoppage time and it looked as though we had managed to hold on for a win that was as welcome as it was undeserved. Instead in the sixth minute of time added on the ball was headed out twice in succession by Inniss. It was about to be the third in a row when he was I thought fouled and failed to make a decisive contact, the ball dropping to their guy around the penalty spot and he shot home. Barely time to kick off and we, like Portsmouth, had dropped two points right at the last.
A good deal of thinking needs to be done ahead of Saturday, in addition to getting tired bodies ready to go again. Adkins will have to take a hard look at who he can rely on as we have to grind out a win at Accrington, while hoping that Wimbledon take something from their game against Portsmouth.
Amos – 7/10. No chance with either goal, decent punches clear and otherwise did what he had to.
Matthews – 7/10. Decent enough game, wasn’t able to create much at the other end as our real threat was coming on the other side.
Famewo – 6/10. Shaky start I thought but did grow into the game.
Pearce – 6/10. Did seem to be looking tired towards the end, may have been at fault for at least one of their goals.
Purrington – 7/10. Generally good game and linked up well with Millar and Gilbey going forward.
Watson – 6/10. Less commanding than of late, another who looked tired, although did defensive duties well as we were under the cosh.
Forster-Caskey – 6/10. No individual’s fault but we didn’t have any control of midfield tonight.
Gilbey – 7/10. Took his goal well, one which demonstrated his ability to read situations and make good runs, while involved our first, laying on the cross for Stockley.
Maatsen – 6/10. The actual performance merited a lower mark, but I don’t think (with hindsight) he was in a state to start the game.
Millar – 8/10. Had the beating of the opposition again, helped create our first goal, unfortunate to be taken off.
Stockley – 6/10. Took his goal well but otherwise isolated and struggled to get in the game, not really his fault as we had so little possession.
Washington – 7/10. Brought more when he came on.
Aneke – 7/10. Did help to drag us back into the game and almost helped us over the line.
Pratley – 7/10. No complaints, came on and did his job.
Inniss – 7/10. If he’d got that third consecutive header in right at the end we would have won the game.