The race for sixth place in League One is set to be won by the quickest tortoise.
Bradford City remain in the final play-off place despite collecting just two points from their last eight matches because those below them have lacked the consistency and urgency to get past them. Contenders Portsmouth have won one in seven matches, while Charlton have picked up two points from their last three League One games, the same as Peterborough United who have now dropped down to 10th, albeit with the games on hand to overhaul Bradford.
Instead of a handful of teams jockeying for play-off football, other modest outfits have joined the battle and Plymouth Argyle, bottom of the league when Posh were top in August, have now sailed past Grant McCann’s men after winning four games in a row.
Confidence is key. Confidence in your own form and confidence in the coaching and the management. Just why Posh took so long to dump a formation with wing-backs which left them defensively exposed against a slick Scunthorpe side was a mystery. Posh, despite a blistering opening 10 minutes, were fortunate to be ahead at the break and then sat so deep, and yet with so little protection in wide areas, a second Scunny equaliser looked inevitable and duly arrived.
The change to 4-4-2 arrived for the final 15 minutes, a spell which saw a strong Posh finish without further reward. Given the strength of the opposition, a point is not to be completely sniffed at, but the failure to win after playing well against much weaker opponents on Saturday means frustration was again the order of the night.
Posh now have three winnable games against teams in the bottom half of the table (yes, I know that means nothing on what’s been witnessed so far) before travelling to League One leaders Shrewsbury next month and win them they must to avoid the sense that another campaign will finish in mid-table obscurity.
McCann has told the players they are ‘almost a very good side’ so it would be lovely if they could make that next step and prove it. No side with the artistic ability of Marcus Maddison and a 24-goal striker, even one with no open play goals since the third round of the FA Cup, can be discounted entirely, but the ease with which visiting teams dominate possession at the ABAX is a problem that needs an instant cure.
“We played like the home side and should have won,” stated Scunthorpe boss Graham Alexander dismissively and yet Posh won the shot count 14-12 and visiting goalkeeper Matt Gilks made more difficult saves than Posh number one Jonathan Bond, including two splendid efforts from Maddison at either end of the contest.
Maddison had justified his inclusion after injury with a sweetly taken 25 yard strike after just 85 seconds. Junior Morias justified his recall in place of newcomer Omar Bogle by turning Joe Ward’s wing wizardry into a goal on the stroke of half-time, but, sadly as it happens, an apparent temptation to rescue two rookie wing-backs was resisted at the break and once Gilks had spilled a speculative long range effort from Jack Marriott, Scunthorpe hogged the ball until impressive left-back Conor Townsend set up Ryan Yates for a tap-in that Bond almost thwarted midway through the second-half.
Ivan Toney had provided the first-half equaliser on 34 minutes following a fine pass from strike partner Lee Novak and then struck the crossbar with a header two minutes later. Jack Baldwin delivered a superb block to deny Toney a goal from the rebound and produced a terrific tackle to stop Josh Morris from strolling through on goal at 2-2 before he was sacrificed for the formation change.
Andrew Hughes came on and not only shored up the left side of the Posh defence, he also delivered some urgency going forward. He won a corner which should have led to a winning goal from a Ryan Tafazolli header and then struck the top of the crossbar with a cross.
A winning goal would have masked some pretty obvious deficiencies though. Too few second balls won by toiling midfielders (until Leo Da Silva Lopes arrived late on) and too many high, long balls thumped in the direction of small strikers were among them.
The fans, all 4,000 of them, largely stuck with the team following the manager’s weekend rallying call even if they made their displeasure at Ward’s substitution obvious, a decision apparently encouraged by GPS data. Ward looked nifty going forward, but struggled with the defensive part of the wing-back role, understandably so given his lack of experience in that role as well as in League One football itself.
A lack of experience was no excuse for referee Trevor Kettle’s bizarre behaviour. If there is sympathy to be offered towards McCann and his players, the standard of officiating this season provides it. For the second time this season a Scunthorpe player should have been sent off while his team were behind, but a shocking challenge from Josh Morris on Maddison went unpunished other than a free-kick in the fifth minute and the midfielder took advantage of unjustified leniency by delivering a blatant yellow card offence moments later.
Kettle then lost the plot entirely in the second-half with a string of mystifying decisions, mostly in favour of Scunthorpe. The standard of refereeing at this level has surely never been so poor.
Posh: Jonathan Bond, Steven Taylor, Jack Baldwin (sub Andrew Hughes, 74 mins), Ryan Tafazolli, Liam Shephard, Joe Ward (sub Danny Lloyd, 74 mins), Anthony Grant, Michael Doughty (sub Leo Da Silva Lopes, 84 mins), Marcus Maddison, Junior Morias, Jack Marriott.
Unused substitutes: Conor O’Malley, George Cooper, Chris Forrester, Omar Bogle.
Scunthorpe: Matt Gilks, Conor Townsend, Rory McArdle, Murray Wallace, Ryan Yates, Funso Ojo, Levi Sutton (sub Cameron McGeehan, 83 mins), Josh Morris, Hakeeb Adelukan (sub Duane Holmes, 75 mins), Ivan Toney, Lee Novak (sub Tom Hopper, 88 mins).
Unused substitutes: Rory Watson, Neal Bishop, Charlie Goode, Cameron Burgess.
Goals: Posh - Maddison (2 mins), Morias (45 + 2 mins).
Scunthorpe - Toney (34 mins), Yates (61 mins).
Cautions: Posh - Taylor (foul), Maddison (foul), Da Silva Lopes (foul).
Scunthorpe - Morris (foul).
Referee: Trevor Kettle 4
Attendance: 4,397 (342 Scunthorpe).