Scunthorpe United 0, Wycombe Wanderers 0.
A BATTLING defensive display enabled Wanderers to pull off a surprise as they held free-scoring Scunthorpe United to a goalless draw.
Although Wycombe were set up not to lose as they packed the midfield, it was actually the visitors who had the clearest scoring opportunities in a keenly contested game.
What had looked Mission Improbable at kick off became closer to Mission Impossible as hamstring injuries robbed Gareth Ainsworth of Anthony Stewart and Leon Johnson, who he would no doubt consider to be his first choice central defensive partnership, and 18-year-old Danny Rowe was thrown in at the deep end against the division’s top scorer Sam Winnall on his Football League debut.
There were no fewer than four changes as Stuart Lewis returned to reclaim the captain’s armband, playing in midfield alongside Josh Scowen, Matt Bloomfield, former Iron man Sam Togwell and the recalled Max Kretzschmar, with Steven Craig ploughing a lone furrow up front.
The job of that five man midfield was to press and contain a Scunthorpe side unbeaten in 23 matches, denying them time and space on the ball and protect a centre back pairing that had just 90 minutes of League Two experience between them.
It was from a set piece in the 11th minute that presented the first clear offering of the game, as Eddie Nolan put his header inches the wrong side of the post from Terry Hawkridge’s corner.
United broke quickly from a poorly executed corner routine from Nick Arnold, but Blues were just as swift to flood back in numbers and in the end all the hosts could produce was a 20 yard effort from Gary McSheffrey that flew off target.
Wanderers built from that base and wasted two good chances to go in front in quick succession. Firstly a free kick was headed out only as far as Bloomfield, whose cross/shot found the feet of debutant Rowe but the ball bounced up into the grateful arms of keeper Sam Slocombe after taking a nick off a defender.
Then Bloomfield was involved again as he sent in a superb ball from the right wing that Craig headed agonisingly over the top, as a big chance went begging.
The Iron finally managed an attempt on target as Matt Ingram made a brilliant save to parry away a firm header from David Mirfin, before the Blues keeper scrambled to his feet to turn away a second chance from the rebound.
Scunthorpe had by now worked out set pieces were the only way they could carve out an opportunity, as their attempts to play through the massed ranks of the visiting defence proved fruitless, and from another corner routine David Syers had a fizzing effort blocked.
But despite the territorial and possession advantage enjoyed by Scunny it was the visitors who were creating the clearer opportunities and Wanderers really ought to have taken the lead as Scowen fought his way in from the byline and pulled it back for Kretzschmar, who somehow managed to blaze the ball over the bar from six yards.
McSheffrey blazed an angled effort over in first half stoppage time after breaking into a big gap down the left, as Wanderers switched off defensively for the only time in the opening 45 minutes to reach the break with the job half done.
Again United looked to corner kicks to bring them joy but the end result was still the same after the break, as Nolan became the latest Scunthorpe player to head the ball over the bar, before Winnall failed to add to his impressive tally for the season as he jabbed wide from Mirfin’s speculative ball forward.
Wanderers’ game plan was working to perfection as they continued to hit the home side on the break, with Bloomfield having a shot blocked and Craig heading wide of the target when Arnold sent the ball back into the danger zone.
Russ Wilcox elected to show his hand first, bringing on Paul Hayes – a reported January target for Blues – in place of full back Marcus Williams in a tactical change.
But Wycombe were going toe-to-toe with their high flying opponents and again missed a chance to edge in front as another header from Rowe was blocked at a corner.
United used all their substitutes with a quarter of the game still to go, although one change was enforced as Sean McAllister had to come off through injury.
Ainsworth chose to stick with what he had despite the monumentally energy sapping display from his players as they fought tirelessly to repel wave after wave of attacks from Scunthorpe, with McSheffrey afforded room to get clear down the left and send in a cross that bounced back into play off the top of the crossbar.
Winnall then cushioned the ball down for sub Matt Sparrow, who was flagged offside but Ingram wasn’t to know that as he hared off his line to make a superb smothering save.
A sense that it could just be Wycombe’s day edged through as McSheffrey had to come off injured – leaving his team mates to see the game out with just ten men.
Hayes held off Bloomfield but his thumping effort was always going to clear the bar, as was a header from the impressive Pierre at the other end following yet another set piece delivery.
A poor attempt at a shot from Paddy Madden turned into a super pass for Hayes, but the striker’s finish failed to match it and his low effort was kept out by Ingram as the High Wycombe-born keeper continues to enhance his reputation.
The game was now coming alive with chances aplenty at both ends, as Kretzschmar managed to keep his feet as he burst into the area following good work from the indefatigable Scowen before his low angled drive was kept out by Slocombe’s boot.
And deep into the six minutes of added time Wanderers could have ended United’s winning run as Wood’s low shot from a cleverly worked corner was clutched by Slocombe at the near post.
Wanderers: Ingram, Arnold, Pierre, Rowe, Wood, Togwell, Bloomfield, Lewis, Scowen, Kretzschmar, Craig. Substitutes not used: Horlock, McCoy, Jeffrey, Kuffour, Morgan, Pittman, Styche.
Attendance: 3,867 (116 from Wycombe)