YORK City manager Nigel Worthington has insisted that his side’s qualification for the play-offs with one game left to play has come as no surprise.
The Minstermen kicked off 2014 only outside the Sky Bet League Two relegation zone on goal difference but a 1-0 home win over Newport secured a top-seven spot ahead of the regular season’s final-day trip to title hopefuls Scunthorpe.
Sixth-placed City now know they will play Chesterfield, Fleetwood, Burton or Southend in a two-legged semi-final next month with the identity of the opposition depending on results during the coming week.
Michael Coulson’s 77th-minute free kick – his eighth goal of the season – saw Worthington’s men take control of their own destiny to ensure their campaign will be extended by at least another two games, even though eighth-placed Oxford’s 2-1 home defeat to Accrington meant any result at Bootham Crescent would have proved sufficient.
A delighted Worthington was quick to praise all of this season’s squad members after witnessing celebrating City supporters spill on to the pitch at the final whistle.
He said: “We fully deserve a play-off place and the run we have been on is down to a magnificent effort by the players and staff. We have not crept in by the back door.
“We have got in with determination, energy and quality and have forged ahead of seventh place now. We have two big games to come and, as it stands, have got a one in four chance of promotion, which is a nice feeling for everyone at the football club.
“The brief this season was firstly to make sure we stay in the Football League, secondly see how high we could finish and, thirdly, build for the next campaign but where we are at the moment isn’t a surprise. In the early part of the season, the majority of performances were good but we were picking up a point instead of three a lot of the time and those are the fine lines.
“We added one or two experienced players in January and they have been a big help but that should not take away from the efforts of the players that have been here all season.”
Despite a run of 16 unbeaten games, Worthington also refuted suggestions that his team will be the one to avoid in the play-offs, arguing: “From the other clubs, we are the smallest with the smallest budget and, whatever happens from here on in, what we have achieved as a football club has been absolutely outstanding.
“I’ve got a budget and still have some of it left. With the club’s situation, I’ve worked hard to be financially stringent while getting the right players of the required level to try and help us move forward without putting the club in jeopardy.
“That’s always been important for me wherever I have been. It’s a fact that you don’t always sign the right ones but, if you get more right than wrong within your budget, then you always stand a chance.”
City supporters’ nerves were eased on the afternoon with the knowledge that Accrington were 2-0 ahead after 54 minutes at an Oxford team needing a win to keep their play-off hopes alive.
But Worthington revealed afterwards he had remained true to his pre-match intention to avoid all updates from the Kassam Stadium.
“I didn’t have a clue what the Oxford score was until ten minutes after the game,” he said. “That shows how focussed I was on what we were doing.
“I have always said that whatever we achieve, we need to do it our own way and that will be the same in the play-offs when it will all be down to us.”
The Minstermen boss also felt his team fully deserved their third successive 1-0 victory and might have won by a greater margin but for a man-of-the-match display from visiting keeper Ian McLoughlin.
“It was a superb goal to pick up the three points,” Worthington added. “Adam Reed also had three good chances but their keeper made a few big saves.
“Will Hayhurst had another that, if he had scuffed it, would have probably gone in so we were creating opportunities and stuck at it to win the game.”
Coulson’s goal, meanwhile, meant all six of the Minstermen’s goals in the last eight matches have originated from dead-ball situations – a free kick, a corner, two penalties and a pair of throw-ins.
On that statistic, the City chief said: “Set-pieces win and lose you games. It’s so important defensively to concentrate and pick up your men and, at the other end, you need the ability and quality to work the opposition as hard as you can to try and get the ball in the net.”
Worthington went on to suggest that Coulson’s goal was the reward for his inspiring industry, adding: “It was another great goal and another big shift for the team from Couls.
“When he wasn’t in the side, it was down to him not working hard enough on the pitch because he was getting back to fitness but he kept working hard in training and got his opportunity. Now, when it comes to work-rate and what he contributes to the team performance, he is probably the leading light and it takes players like him to give you a spark.
“Josh Carson is similar because he is a bundle of energy on and off the pitch.”
City made one change to their starting line-up with central-midfielder Reed preferred to Hayhurst on the left wing and, on that decision, Worthington explained: “It’s not Reedy’s number-one position but he’s an honest lad who is willing to do a job for the team.
“He did a good solid job on that left side and gave us energy. On another day, he might have had two goals but the keeper was hard to beat.
“I felt Will needed a breather. I had a chat with him on Thursday and he looked more like himself when he came on.
“It’s important to keep everybody up to speed over the next fortnight.”
Lewis Montrose, meanwhile, was chosen to partner Russell Penn again in midfield and Worthington agreed with referee Jeremy Simpson’s decision not to red card the two-time League Two promotion winner for a full-blooded 30th-minute challenge in front of the dugouts.
“It was a proper tackle,” the City chief argued. “There were a few people shouting for him to be sent off, which I never like to see or hear and he is as honest as the day is long.
“I want my players to be committed like him, He got a yellow card, which was fair enough, and we took him off to avoid him being suspended for picking up another booking for something innocuous.”
City now travel to a Scunthorpe team on Saturday who, due to Fleetwood’s 1-1 draw with Southend, gained promotion despite seeing their 28-match unbeaten run end following a 2-0 defeat to Exeter.
The Iron will still have a chance of finishing the season as champions when the Minstermen visit Glanford Park knowing their top-seven place is assured.
Worthington, though, has given no suggestion that he will approach the game any different to any other, saying: “It will be business as usual. The season hasn’t finished and it’s important to keep our feet on the ground and keep working.”