COVENTRY City are one game from Wembley and two from bouncing back into League One after an exciting 1-1 home draw in the play-off semi-final first leg.
Friday night’s second leg at Notts County will be played in front of a sell-out away allocation snapped up by around 4,500 Sky Blues fans.
The Sky Blue Army, Mark Robins and his players know they have nothing to fear after being the better footballing side last Saturday on a waterlogged Ricoh Arena pitch.
Notts County again displayed resilience and organisation at the back – as displayed during their narrow recent 2-1 victory over Coventry at Meadow Lane.
Chances were few for both teams, but the likes of Tom Bayliss and Marc McNulty were able to find space in the channels, while Jack Grimmer had attacking possession on the right.
The best chances fell to top-scorer McNulty when he hit the post early on, and 19-year-old Bayliss who fluffed the sort of opportunity he has recently been putting away with aplomb after breaking into the box from midfield.
The Magpies took the lead early in the second half after Grimmer slid in for a tackle and was beaten partly by the wet conditions. Striker Jonathan Forte’s deft near post flick from six-yards came as he was left unmarked.
The game’s talking point came with minutes remaining when, to just about everyone’s surprise in the stadium, the referee pointed to the penalty spot after a tackle on Bayliss, when the defender had taken the ball.
McNulty made no mistake with the penalty, opting to go low to the right, to level the tie for the second leg, and sending most of the 17,000 crowd wild.
City had another late penalty claim turned down after the ball had appeared to strike a raised Notts County arm amid desperate late defending.
Sky Blues defender Tom Davies – whose no-nonsense heading and clearing has added solidity in recent games – will miss the second leg with a three-match ban after being adjudged on TV evidence to have ‘stamped’ on Notts County defender Richard Duffy’s leg. In reality, it was more of a tread and Duffy was certainly fit to carry on.
Although there is no official word from the camp, many expect he is likely to be replaced by Jordan Willis alongside Dominic Hyam in a central defensive berth.
Skipper Michael Doyle limped off on Saturday night after a characterisitically grueling night’s shift but the 36-year-old linchpin of the team insists he will be fine for Friday.
Robins said he was proud of his players who had proved they were up for the big occasion.
“Those were tough conditions. It was like a monsoon before the game,” said Robins.
“They made it difficult for us. We started brightly and passed the ball well but our final ball was not the best. That is something that has affected us all season if I am honest.
“I think that we built momentum really well. County are a really good team and, really, they have scored from their first opportunity to put the ball into the box.
“Credit to my players, they have worked hard.
“I have watched the penalty back and if it was given against me then I would be very disappointed. But, Tom Bayliss did not and does not dive. The momentum of the player has taken him over.
“I will also say that the decision was probably justified moments later when we were not given a penalty despite the ball striking a player’s arm above his head in the area. You have to ask what the player’s arm is doing in an unnatural position. That should have been a penalty.”
“I am so proud of my players. There are some really young players in our side and they were out there playing against wily professionals who have experienced an awful lot.
“Meanwhile, our players with experience, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly, who have over 900 games between them, kept things ticking over.
“We were good value for at least a draw. This sets things up nicely for the second game.”
He added: “I expect Friday to be a tough encounter. They are a different side at home. We are one game away from Wembley.
“I am proud of my players because they did not show any nerves. They were brilliant tonight. Roll on Friday.”