Fleetwood 2, City 2
King George V famously uttered some very unflattering words about Bognor – and City felt much the same with the rookie referee from the seaside town.
They left their first-ever trip to this corner of the Fylde coast cursing the man who had travelled up from another equally old-fashioned holiday resort.
The problem with the Capital One Cup odyssey is that we’ve become spoiled with officials. When you see the likes of Howard Webb, Mike Dean and Phil Dowd effortlessly keeping the action flowing, it makes the next League Two game all the more jarring.
The whistle-blowing standards on Saturday did not just bring everyone back down to earth with a bump. It left a mighty crater on a surface that resembled the nearby beach at Knott End.
Tim Robinson may well go on to become an excellent referee and one day rub shoulders with the Premier League elite. But at the moment he is a rookie learning the trade in his first season on the Football League list – and how it showed.
It would be easy just to point the finger for the controversial penalty that turned City’s seemingly secure three points into one after he ruled that James Hanson had deliberately handled in his own six-yard box.
But Robinson was consistently under-par for both sides. Hanson suffered the brunt of his poor decision-making and the visitors were also livid that he saw nothing wrong with Nahki Wells being hurled to the ground.
Equally, the home fans were giving the ref the bird at regular intervals. The generous spot-kick may have made amends but the locals seemed just as unimpressed with his performance.
Phil Parkinson was angry at the penalty that was given – and the one that could/should have been minutes before.
The City boss said: “Nahki’s been flattened in the middle of the goal and not got a penalty. Then at the other end we get a ball smashed at a player from two yards. It really is so harsh to drop two points in that manner.
“But I’d said to the ref at half-time that I don’t how much fairer James Hanson can jump when he’s challenging for the ball.
“He is generally a very honest player, he never goes in with his arms up. I thought it was poor that so many fouls were given against him in the first half.
“They were a young group of officials and I feel they got a lot of calls wrong.”
So it was a bittersweet reaction to City’s first league game in three weeks. Yet on the face of it, a draw away to the free-spenders of the division is not to be sniffed at.
Fleetwood had flexed their financial muscle once again during the January transfer window, bringing in Kidderminster targetman Jamille Matt for a club-record fee thought to be in the region of £300,000.
That’s to go with ‘the Beast’ Jon Parkin, whose £4,000 weekly wage packet is certainly a beauty. Not bad for a side who play in the third-smallest ground in the league.
Owner Andy Pilley’s wealth has catapulted the Cod Army into League Two on the back of five promotions and they are clearly eyeing one more.
For City, it was a character-testing afternoon after the euphoria of Villa Park and all that jazz.
The mini-break in Tenerife had helped to clear minds and freshen bodies. Parkinson said he had noticed the difference straight away when they returned to wet and windy Rawdon Meadows on Friday.
But for the first 40 minutes it appeared that thoughts were still lingering around the Canary Islands pool.
City had sold out their ticket allocation – that seems to be the norm at the moment – and the roar behind the goal reminded them of the battle ahead.
Yet for the majority of a plodding first half, the away fans focused their vocal chords on abusing Gareth Evans. Their own team provided frustratingly little to cheer about.
With memories still fresh of his Rotherham celebrations, Evans was booed with every touch.
His were the first ankles to suffer on the heavy, unyielding pitch – but not before his corner was turned home at the near post by Alan Goodall as Carl McHugh was caught ball-watching.
Rory McArdle had also needed treatment but tried to soldier on. He gave it up just before the break – and was using crutches by the time he took a seat in the dugout for the second half.
Wembley always throws up a heartache story but it would be so cruel if McArdle, the ever-reliable defender, should not be involved in the historic occasion he has done so much to get City to.
Jamie Allen should have punished another moment’s slackness from City but flicked a free header over the bar and into the jeering away masses.
But then City came to the party a minute before half-time. Gary Jones, once again their strongest warrior, was barged over by centre half Nathan Pond and up stepped Wells with a bending free-kick which left keeper Scott Davies rooted to the spot.
Ryan Dickson had replaced McArdle, allowing McHugh to move back into the middle alongside new boy Michael Nelson.
The Southampton loanee had looked predictably rusty in his first two outings against Oxford and Crewe. But the training time with his new team-mates looked to have made its mark as he appeared far more up to speed.
Having sat too deep for the first half, Parkinson urged his team to push on to the home side for the second. They answered his call immediately, with Dickson cashing in seven minutes after the restart.
McHugh swept a pass to the left wing to pick out the overlapping full back. Wells was in the middle but space opened up invitingly for Dickson, who kept going and calmly slotted home his first goal in exactly 12 months.
Parkinson said: “Ryan’s a very good player but it’s been difficult for him. Even though he’s trained hard at Southampton, he hasn’t played for a long time. That’s the problem when you bring loan players in.
“His first two games were always going to be tough but he showed on Saturday what he’s all about. He’s got great energy and ability and can still get sharper than that on the ball.”
Dickson’s goal threatened to be the decisive one as City took a stranglehold.
Parkinson was beside himself when Robinson ignored Shaun Beeley’s wrestling throw on Wells in the box – and the steam on the sidelines hit boiling level as Goodall rescued Ryan Crowther’s free-kick on the byline, hitting Hanson’s outstretched left arm with the cross.
The big striker could not get out of the way but the referee blew straight away for the penalty. The fact that Matt Duke was agonisingly close to keeping Parkin’s spot-kick out just added to the frustration.