As if by stealth, the end of the season is creeping up on us. League matches now all hold a degree of greater significance, but the finite nature of the season doesn’t feel so obvious until the last few weeks. At the bottom of the Championship, things are as tight as ever. There is a gap at the bottom of the table between Plymouth Argyle, Peterborough United and the rest, but either of them could yet, with a burst of form, drag themselves clear of the foot of the table. For Plymouth, there is a chance to make up a bit of the gap this weekend, though with a trip to Lincolnshire to play Scunthorpe United.
Scunthorpe were the suprise package of last year’s League One play-offs, and this season has been just about as tough as they might have feared. They go into this afternoon’s match one place above Plymouth, but they were swatted aside like an inconvient insect by divisional leaders Newcastle United on Tuesday night and are without a win since the sixteenth of February. Plymouth, meanwhile, are making a decent fist of trying to scramble to safety. They beat Bristol City with an injury time winner but they have only lost won of their last four matches. They are still adrift at the foot of the table, but they are still in touch.
The weather may be a little milder than it has been for a few months, but that doesn’t mean that it is any drier, though, and rain is falling steadily and heavily as Scunthorpe kick off. They waste no time in getting stuck in, playing an attractive yet direct game that doesn’t seem to show any of the nerves that we might expect from a relegation battle at this stage of the season, and after barely seven minutes Martyn Woolford brings an oustanding save from the Plymouth goalkeeper David Stockdale with a low shot from ten yards. It has the feeling of being a busy afternoon for Stockdale, who saves again from Grant McCann and Woolford again, but the Plymouth goalkeeper saves his team on both occasion, and then Plymouth hit Scunthorpe on the break. Yannick Bolasie breaks on the left hand side and crosses low. The Scunthorpe defence is too slow to react and Jamie Mackie touches the ball in from close range.
Scunthorpe react positively to the goal, and their equalizer follows just four minutes later. Paul Hayes wriggles himself some room on the right hand side and rolls the ball across the goal, where Garry Thompson is nominally quicker to the ball than his marker and scrambles the ball into the corner of the net. Scunthorpe continue to push for a second goal before half-time, but further good saves from Stockdale, who is on loan to Plymouth from Premier League Fulham and is showing Premier League quality, keeps the scores level until the break, which comes with both sides having shown both the frailties that have kept them both at the foot of the table for most of the season and some quality that indicates that they are capable of better than much of what they have produced this season so far.
Scunthorpe start the second half as positively as they finished the first, with Hayes flicking the ball through to Thompson but, with the hard work of creating the chance having been seen through, Thompson takes too long and the ball is cleared. Plymouth do occasionally show flashes of attacking verve themselves, with Bradley Wright-Philips shooting narrowly over the Scunthorpe crossbar, but it is Scunthorpe take the lead mid-way through the half, with a goal that demonstrates the fragility of success in league football. Martyn Woolford’s shot from the edge of the penalty area doesn’t look as if it should cause Stockdale too many problems, but the ball takes a huge deflection of a defender’s leg, completely wrong-footing him and shooting into the left hand corner of the net.
By this point, though, the difference between the two teams is starting to become apparent. Plymouth start to push forward in search of an equaliser, but they seem blunt in attack and also gives Scunthorpe the chance to break when they get possession, which happens with troubling frequency. Jonathan Forte replaces Grant McCann and with two or three minutes has a chance to wrap up the points when he breaks clear of the defence, but sees his shot blocked by Stockdale. Scunthorpe almost pay for the miss in injury time as Plymouth push forward, but Bolassie’s shot is blocked by captain Sam Togwell. There is still time for Forte to break clear again only to see Stockdale save his shot and for Thompson to also be thwarted by the Plymouth goalkeeper, but the final whistle is greeted as with relief by the home crowd as anything else. Such is the nature of the closing stretch of the football season.
There is no question that this is a priceless win for Scunthorpe United, who leapfrog over Sheffield Wednesday and the financially-straitened Crystal Palace, whose ten point deduction for entering into administration sees them fall into the relegation places. It seems likely that they will be pushed to the wire this season, but they have another big opportunity for three points on Tuesday night when they entertain bottom of the table Peterborough United and, on this sort of evidence, they look too good to go down. Whether they will or not, though, will come down to the nerve of the players.
The result is just as important for Plymouth too, although for completely different reasons. With nine games left until the end of the season, the five point gap with them and fourth from bottom Sheffield Wednesday is starting to look as if it’s going to be more and more difficult to breach. There is still time, but it is starting to run out and they have to show a little more consistency if they are going to give themselves a chance of getting back into the fight to stay up this season. With Peterborough United looking more and more like dead water at the bottom of the table, there are two relegation places that are unlikely to be definitively decided until considerably closer to the end of the season. Time is running out for Plymouth, though, if they want to remain in the Championship next season.