Scunthorpe United are only one point off safety with two games to play – and with the final two games coming against Bradford and Plymouth, the dogfight is far from over.
Whatever happens between now and 8pm on 4th May, however, a relegation battle to follow three consecutive promotion pushes must be remembered as a poor campaign.
Kudos to fans who wish to embrace the final two matches in optimistic spirit – but this piece will be a sobering look at why the club finds itself in this situation.
Faith in Daws
Nick Daws has managed four times more games as caretaker manager of Scunthorpe (20) than he has as permanent boss (five).
In some ways, that’s indicative of his style: a decent bloke and a safe pair of hands during an interim period. But perhaps not somebody with the drive nor the nous to build a team over a longer period and under the bright lights.
One could understand the reasons why Peter Swann gave Daws the ‘permanent’ gig in the summer. He had overseen his side accrue 36 points from a possible 60 across two spells as caretaker along with Andy Dawson.
He was, perhaps, more tolerant than most candidates of a period of relative austerity. The Iron may have felt they needed after three years of spending beyond their means – as well as Glanford Park redevelopment plans.
However, it did not work and placing faith in Daws may go down as a mistake. Andy Dawson now appears to be having similar difficulties with the side 11/4 with Betway to draw with Bradford as of 23rd April.
The starting XI that concluded Scunthorpe’s 2017-18 League One campaign in a Play-Off Semi-Final second leg defeat at Rotherham was decimated over the summer.
Centre-back Murray Wallace, a model of consistency over the previous three campaigns, left for Millwall, while left-back Conor Townsend departed for West Brom.
Key midfielder Ryan Yates returned to Nottingham Forest, athletic striker Ivan Toney went back to Newcastle, as did fellow loanee Marnick Vermijl to parent club Preston. The alternative right-back to Vermijl, Jordan Clarke, has perhaps struggled to get back to his 2016 form.
Direct winger Hakeeb Adelakun departed for Bristol City on a free while Duane Holmes was picked up by Derby County.
Those exits leave goalkeeper Rory Watson, centre-back Rory McArdle and wide man Josh Morris as the only players from the previous competitive starting XI still at the club for the start of 2018-19.
Watson is a promising young goalkeeper but had largely been understudy to Matt Gilks, with the latter not featuring in 2018-19 before moving onto Lincoln.
McArdle is a capable centre-back, but the best seasons of his career have come alongside a centre-back more dominant in terms of leadership, bravery and aerial duels. There was Nathan Stanton at Rochdale, Andrew Davies then Reece Burke at Bradford, and Wallace at Scunthorpe.
After the latter left, McArdle did not have a centre-back partner with the qualities to complement his own and that restricted the level of his performances.
The only other player not to leave was Josh Morris, but he has struggled to recapture his performance levels from the first half of the 2016-17 campaign. He has spent four months of the current season sidelined.
In the 12 league games that Ryan Colclough has started this season, Scunthorpe have scored a combined 22 goals. That return over a whole season would be bettered only by Luton.
In the 32 games in which he has not, however, the Iron have scored a total of just 27 – which would equate to the worst attacking record in the league. That’s a contrast of 1.83 to 0.84 goals per game, a 55% decrease in attacking productivity without Colclough.
The Crewe academy graduate had seemingly recovered from one or two personal issues that he had earlier in his career and his quality was beginning to shine at Glanford Park.
The wide forward not only has technical capabilities, but an ability to quickly change the pace and direction of play in the final third. His November injury was therefore a huge blow. Injuries to midfielder Matty Lund and left-back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson hardly helped matters.
McCall’s questionable tactics
In March’s 2-1 loss at Oxford, Stuart McCall played Kyle Wootton and Olufela Olomola up top, with Lee Novak at number 10.
One could, perhaps, understand his reasoning. Wootton had scored two goals in three at the time, he wanted to reward Olomola for strong showings off the bench, and Novak was top scorer.
However, if we think of Novak’s main qualities, they are his physical presence, his industry, and his willingness to compete in the air. He’s not quite an out-and-out target man but he is a reasonable finisher.
None of those qualities are directly conducive to making a good number 10, a role which requires a subtler range of technical qualities. It may have been better to sacrifice Wootton or Olomola, even not play Novak, than play him in an unsuitable position.
The manager made a lot of alterations to his starting XI and, aside from a couple of positive runs, the balance rarely looked truly convincing.
Lack of width
These balance issues are partly down to the lack of width.
The crux of Scunthorpe’s threat has been floated balls into the box from deep and the occasional intelligent through ball from midfielder Funso Ojo. The Belgian has taken on a slightly more advanced role than we saw in 2017-18 due to Holmes’ exit.
The only players providing pace have been Wootton, George Thomas and perhaps more latterly Jordan Hallam, who have played wide in a 4-3-3. All three are forwards who like to operate down the middle.
Although Wootton, Thomas, and Hallam can produce on the counter-attack now and again, their creative influence is massively restricted if opposing teams deny space centrally. They are not confident using space out wide which affects their output. Any team with two aerially strong centre-backs and a semblance of organisation can keep the Iron at bay.
This issue is made worse by the groin injury to left-back Tom Pearce, with the Leeds loanee arguably the only player proficient at attacking the flanks.
Scunthorpe still have a chance of staying up – but a wide range of mistakes have led to the club finding itself in this severe predicament.