We’ve all been before, haven’t we? For the ninth successive time since our first appearance in the play-offs way back in 1988, Scunthorpe United have failed to win our 1st leg in a play-off semi-final. It is an utterly remarkable record, especially considering that we still managed to get promoted in two of those seasons! To say that this tie is still in the balance, doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Statistics like this, aren’t half as important on their own – as the psychology that underpins them. It’s well worth remembering that in 1999, we all thought that the ship had sailed after losing to Swansea at The Vetch Field. Wrong.
Or in 2009; when we thought that we had missed a huge opportunity after failing to beat MK Dons at Glanford Park – especially as the visitors’ goal should never have been given and Joe Murphy went off injured, and we were already guaranteed to be without the talismanic Gary Hooper. Wrong again.
Or only last year, when we were absolutely convinced that Wembley beckoned after a magnificent rear-guard defensive effort to come away from an extraordinarily hostile New Den with a 0-0 draw against Millwall. Even more wrong!
So you know what, we’re going to stop pretending that anything is yet a formality in this play-off tie (either way), and embrace everything still being up for grabs. In this spirit, we have come up with a list of 5 simple (ha!) steps that the Iron can take to boost our chances of winning on Wednesday. Why not eh?
1. Stop giving the ball away in our own half.
Look, we know that we can’t always be perfect in possession and that sometimes you need to take risks in life – especially in football! But the incredibly nervous and cavalier attitude to putting ourselves under pressure (I’m looking at you Jordan Clarke), has *got* to end if we’re not going to shoot ourselves in the foot on Wednesday night.
We know how ruthless Rotherham are offensively, and how quickly they get the ball forward, so we have to minimise every single risk we face. The last thing we need is to give their players (and their crowd) the risk to be any more confident in the game’s early stages by inviting pressure on to ourselves. This also applies to Gilks’ surprisingly poor communication to Wallace and McArdle when facing long balls on Saturday. We won’t have lots of the ball in the 2nd leg, so need to keep and use it far more wisely when we do.
2. Match Rotherham’s game management
Even before Saturday’s dramatic 1st leg, we knew from our 2 games against them in the regulation season; just how effective they are at game management. From high-tempo and high-pressing early doors, to being very physical in key areas, to time-wasting and ball retention in later stages, and conceding tactical fouls – there’s ample evidence for us to go on.
There’s no point bleating about anything to the referee on the night, or getting on a high horse post-defeat; this isn’t a knitting circle. So let’s slow the tempo *right down* in the game’s early stage and quiet the crowd. Let’s win cheap free kicks when we can. Let’s stop their counter-attacks when we have to (their right-back should have been put on his arse 30 yards further up the pitch, before he crossed for their goal). And who knows – if we can nick a goal, let’s make sure we fully embrace the Joe Murphy school of time-wasting and see the game out eh?
3. Use our pace on the break – don’t leave Toney isolated
I was struck post-match by the number of Scunthorpe fans remarking as to just how tall and physical almost the entire Rotherham side were. And? This only became noticeable because all too often throughout the game, we played to their strengths rather than our own. Even Daws mentioned this in his admirably frank post-match interviews.
This was all too obvious in knocking long balls to Ivan Toney; who worked his absolute socks off – but was fighting a losing battle when we expected him to beat both of Rotherham’s centre-halves in the air, when no supporting players were within 20 yards of him. But every time Adelakun and Holmes were running with their ball at their feet – the Rotherham defence looked absolutely petrified.
There are a number of important reasons why our away form and performances have been significantly better for large parts of this season (which we don’t have time to go into in this piece). But one of the most crucial ones has been our counter-attacking flair and raw pace on the break. Even at home on Saturday – this was clearly when we were at our most dangerous.
Rotherham will have to come on to us at home, and let’s make sure we use this to our advantage. Space, time, pace, incision. If we don’t give Rotherham’s full-backs a rotten time – then we won’t be going to Wembley.
4. Drop Morris for Bishop
Right, can I just state on the record that I absolutely hate bandwagons. I was a member of the Labour Party long before it became cool (lol), and I think the majority of the criticism that Josh Morris gets from a certain section of our fans is unreasonable. We have a real problem with accepting flair players at Scunthorpe, and it was exactly the same with Grant McCann. It was sadly no surprise to me that there was a near universal decision that we badly missed him, after he left us for Peterborough.
There will be something similar with Josh Morris. None of us have ever seen a winger anywhere near as prolific, or prone to the spectacular, in claret and blue. BUT we need to be aware of exactly what is required on Wednesday and who is best placed to deliver it. Yates and Ojo are both fabulous ball players on their days – but they both undoubtedly struggled to get to grips with the extra man that Rotherham had in the middle of the park, and the sheer physicality they brought to the fore.
We cannot allow that to happen again at the New York stadium, or we seriously risk getting over-run. You can play well for 160 minutes in a two-legged play-off tie, but if you play badly for 20 minutes you still guarantee elimination. Anyone remember last year?
Having Bishop in there, would ensure that we can go man-to-man with their midfield three, that Ojo has somebody winning the ball for him, and allows Yates to push 10 yards higher up the pitch and keep Rotherham’s midfield on the back foot defensively. And remember when we talked about matching Rotherham’s game management and physicality? Bishop was born for that role, and has been doing it excellently for nearly 15 years now!
The extra man in the middle of the park would also allow both Holmes and Adelakun the free role that they most threaten under, and keep them higher up the pitch – even out of possession. If we are to score on Wednesday, which we will inevitably having to do so at some point, then preventing Toney from getting isolated is absolutely essential.
Away at Sheffield United last season, there was a very deliberate instruction for Josh Morris to not track back defensively – no matter the obligation and situation. This made things very difficult for Harry Toffolo at times, but was integral to keep Sheffield United’s full back from overlapping consistently – and keep us threatening on the break. This are instructions we need to replicate for Holmes and Adelakun, and having an extra man in the middle of the park is essential to properly execute this.
5. Practice penalties
Enough said, right? This game has got the potential to go right down to the wire – and our confidence, fitness, concentration, and composure will be absolutely key.
Away to MK Dons, we ruthlessly exploited keeper Willy Gueret’s age and weakness on his right side – by consistently hitting the vast majority of our penalties away from his favoured left-hand post (which was the way he kept diving). And despite Jonathan Forte’s best efforts – this approach was thoroughly vindicated when he didn’t save a single one (unlike Joe Murphy, who saved two).
And you know what? I’d really rather like a trip to Wembley before the FA sell it, and it gets turned into a bowling alley or something equally ridiculous. Let’s make sure we aren’t denied this because Jordan Clarke can’t hit the target from 12 yards!
(You can follow Max on Twitter at @Max_Bell_11, and keep an eye out for him on Thursday – where he will be representing Iron Bru at the annual Football Blogging Awards in London).