2006/7: Away Day Aces Fall At Final Hurdle
York City reporter for The Press Dave Flett looks back over the season in which the Minstermen came so close to promotion’s promised land.
THE play-offs’ penchant for making fall guys out of heroes was cruelly highlighted at Morecambe’s Christie Park in the early hours of Monday evening. Tom Evans’ 40th-minute misjudgement, when faced with an inswinging Adam Yates free-kick, was widely regarded by Sky’s pundits – and most observers – as the turning point in York City’s two-legged semi-final tie against the Shrimps.
Sadly, the efforts of a whole season hinge on such moments, owing to the unforgiving nature of play-off football. Three points separated this season’s play-off contenders in the final league standings with all four teams having taken points off each other.
The statistics suggest there will not be four more evenly matched sides contesting promotion via the Football League play-offs this month and City had enjoyed victories over Morecambe and Oxford during the regulation season while sharing the honours twice with Wembley-bound Exeter.
It had been Billy McEwan’s dream to walk out at the newly modernised home of English football with old pal Jim Smith. But both managers have been denied that opportunity with Oxford chief Smith probably still pondering the decision to allow goalkeeper Billy Turley to take his team’s fifth penalty in the shoot-out defeat to Exeter.
Morecambe will now meet the Grecians a week on Monday to contest a place in the Football League but the slender margin of both semi-final victories, illustrates that if the ties were to be played again next week the outcomes would be just as predictable.
That is why, as McEwan and managing director Jason McGill were quick to point out on Monday despite their evident disappointment, failure at the penultimate hurdle should be placed in context with the team’s achievements during the rest of the season and the reality that the club were just a couple of matches away from bringing an end to three years of Conference football.
Evans’ performances, in particular, must be remembered as he, no doubt, mulls over the mistake that provided Morecambe with the impetus to book their Wembley place. In keeping 20 clean sheets during his first league season with City, the 30-year-old former Scunthorpe stopper fell just one short of Dean Kiely’s 1993/94 club record, set before he went on to become a Premiership regular with Charlton and Portsmouth and a Republic of Ireland international. On several occasions, Evans safeguarded a winning position or earned his side a point with crucial saves at vital stages of matches. Indeed, even following his play-off gaffe, he twice denied Wayne Curtis before the Morecambe winger scored his side’s winning goal as the City defence left their ’keeper helplessly exposed.
Both Curtis efforts represented rare lapses from a defence that, despite several changes after injuries that necessitated the on-loan arrivals of Jason Goodliffe, Janos Kovacs, Luke Foster, Ben Purkiss and Craig James, managed to concede less than a goal a game for the first time since Kiely’s record-breaking campaign and for only the fifth season in the club’s history.
At the other end of the field, Clayton Donaldson’s haul of 24 league goals was the highest tally since Paul Barnes netted 25 in 1994/95. A dip in the former Hull striker’s scintillating form, however, which coincided with his pre-contract agreement to sign for Hibernian, saw City’s fortunes in front of goal falter during the latter stages of the season.
City managed just one goal from open play, Neal Bishop’s spectacular effort against Oxford, in their final five games of the season. The team’s failure to sniff out chances and turn superior possession into victories cost McEwan’s men on numerous occasions, most notably during 0-0 home draws with Stafford, Forest Green, St Albans and Morecambe as well as a 2-1 defeat against Cambridge.
The City boss was left rueing a lack of ruthlessness far too regularly with Donaldson, despite his sizeable tally, more a scorer of great goals than a great goal-scorer. Should McEwan unearth a successor more in the mould of clever Conference penalty-box predators Daryl Clare or Charlie MacDonald to take advantage of the chances that often fall City’s strikers’ way then Donaldson’s absence, like Andy Bishop’s before him, might not be as keenly felt as expected.
Press Player of the Year Craig Farrell and emerging talent Richard Brodie could certainly provide strong supporting acts with winger Martyn Woolford capable of weighing in with double figures after netting eight times since his September arrival from Frickley Athletic.
Despite being prone to profligacy, City have still finished the season with the division’s second-highest goals for record although 65 falls considerably short of Dagenham’s haul of 93.
McEwan will certainly be looking for a greater contribution in front of goal from his defenders next campaign. Taking away Nathan Peat’s two spectacular free-kick strikes, the other five defenders permanently on the club’s books – David McGurk (39 games), Darren Craddock (38), Anthony Lloyd (33), Daniel Parslow (24) and James Dudgeon (13), did not manage a goal between them in 147 appearances.
Similarly, City will be looking to improve on a return of just three wins in 12 matches against the table’s bottom six teams and a home record that was only the 11th best in the Conference with sixth-bottom Grays losing fewer games in front of their home fans.
But the patchy home form did not derail the club’s play-off bid courtesy of a phenomenal away record.
City’s 13 wins and five draws on their league travels was unrivalled in England and Scotland – with Premiership champions Manchester United coming closest – as a new club record was set that even eclipsed the achievements of Denis Smith’s legendary 1984 Division Four championship-winning side.
The team would not appear, therefore, to require the surgery of the last two summers but, on previous evidence, City fans should have full faith in McEwan’s ability to identify the areas that require strengthening and then recruit the necessary re-inforcements.