Sunday, 22 April 2012

Minstermen primed for magnificence

It wasn’t quite the fireworks of the 6-2 win back in October, but York City’s gritty 1-0 win over Braintree yesterday was even more special for manager Gary Mills and his players. That’s because York made it through to the Blue Square Bet Premier League play-offs with one game to spare, thanks to Erik Tonne’s 75th minute strike. It means York are now four points clear of sixth-placed Kidderminster, who succumbed to a 1-0 defeat to Luton.

It seemed for all the world that the play-off dream was turning into a nightmare after successive defeats to Newport and Fleetwood at the start of this month. But since then York have gone four games unbeaten thanks some diligent defensive performances, allowing returning striker Jason Walker nick the odd goal and secure the points. This run of form defies the injury crisis the squad have faced, with goalkeeper Michael Ingham, defenders Lanre Oyebanjoa and Chris Doig, and midfielder Adriano Moke being unavailable of late.

I was at the York City press conference on Thursday and what struck me most was the calmness of manager Gary Mills during such a critical period of the season. He kept things simple, saying the players knew what was required of them and insisted injuries weren’t going to be an excuse. The death of City legend Arthur Bottom during the week undoubtedly would have had an effect; it would have spurred the players on to deliver their very best, as Bottom did so often all those years ago. As Mills said, “We will do everything possible to put a smile on his face looking down on us”.
Jason Walker's return has boosted York's promotion hopes
Importantly, Mills lavished praise on returning striker Jason Walker, who was interestingly compared to Robin Van and Lionel Messi in terms of team importance. The comparison is an accurate one; Walker has bagged 18 goals this season and his presence reassures his teammates, notably his young striking partner Ashley Chambers. The comparison I would also make, though, is between Walker and Fernando Torres. If your star striker is getting a lot of love from their manager, they are more likely to perform better. Torres has undergone a mini revival under Roberto Di Matteo, while Mills’ consistent public encouragement of Walker has boosted his confidence following a period on the sidelines.

York have been absent from the Football League for eight years. So the question is: can they get back? Well, the other teams confirmed for the play-offs are Wrexham and Mansfield. The former have been on a wretched run of late, being without a win in their last five games, falling far behind Fleetwood in the process. Their last win came on 27th March when they eventually overcame doomed Darlington 4-2 with two late goals. So I think York would fancy their chances if they face Wrexham. The team to avoid, though, are Mansfield who have won five games on the bounce, culminating in yesterday’s 2-0 triumph over Wrexham. Striker Matthew Green has 28 goals this season and will be a handful for any defence.

The other available play-off position will be taken by either Luton or Kidderminster. If favourites Luton win their match up at Gateshead on Tuesday, they will join the trio. Like York, they have built a good run recently and would be a tough team to beat over two legs. They are comparable to Fulham in many ways; they often win their home games but are happy to settle for a point away. Kidderminster score plenty, but are very leaky at the back, especially away from home. If York can up their performance levels at Bootham Crescent, then Kidderminster surely won’t be too big an obstacle to overcome.

However, if York do eventually reach Wembley, recent history suggests they are likely to leave empty-handed. In 2009, York were beaten by Stevenage 2-0 in the FA Trophy Final. The following season the Minstermen went down 3-1 to Oxford United in the play-off final after conceding two early goals and giving themselves a mountain to climb. So the ideal scenario this time around would be York winning their FA Trophy final against Newport on May 12th before going into the play-off final with a degree of confidence eight days later. York must be inspired by the determination of the 1993 side which scraped past Crewe on penalties en route to promotion to the Second Division. In fact, they have already showed us their qualities in this department over the last couple of weeks. The task now at hand is to keep the momentum going and get the job done.

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