City 1, Plymouth 0
City were plunged into further injury crisis as they got back on track with three crucial points last night.
The win was just what the manager had ordered to keep them in the thick of the play-off places. But unfortunately it came at a huge cost for poor John Egan.
The on-loan Sunderland defender was carried off in agony with a suspected broken tibia and fibula in his right leg – the third centre half City have lost to serious injury this season.
It came from the most innocuous of situations as he headed the ball away. Unfortunately his leg gave way on landing and the end result was horrendous for the young Irishman.
At least his team-mates picked themselves up to claim a first home league win in three games thanks to a second goal of the season from Gary Jones. It was a scruffy finish in keeping with the quality of the match.
Phil Parkinson had left City in no doubt about the importance of the next two league games before the next batch of cup distractions. It was crucial to regain momentum after Saturday’s loss to Exeter.
The return of full backs James Meredith and Stephen Darby provided a timely lift. There was another change in midfield where Craig Forsyth, subbed at half-time at the weekend, was replaced by Garry Thompson.
Meredith was straight into the action with a surging overlap and Nahki Wells was frantically crowded out as he shaped to shoot in the box.
Parkinson wanted City to get at Plymouth from the off and there were a couple of early probes down the left side.
But the club’s injury jinx struck again after 13 minutes as Egan landed badly as he made a clearing header. It looked very nasty for the on-loan defender and Matt Duke shielded Egan’s eyes away from his twisted leg while he received treatment before being stretchered off.
The game eventually resumed after a five-minute stoppage, with Carl McHugh coming off the bench to slot in alongside Rory McArdle down the middle.
But City rode their latest blow to grab the lead in the 21st minute thanks to Jones. James Hanson and Wells battled for a bouncing ball in the Plymouth box and it popped out to the skipper.
Jones slipped as he shot but managed to get it off as he hit the floor and the ball bobbled past keeper Rene Gilmartin from ten yards.
It was just the boost City needed to lift morale after what had happened to Egan and rewarded their positive approach.
Plymouth had lost all seven of the previous games when they had conceded the opening goal. But Alex MacDonald tried to rectify that straight away with a burrowing run at the other end.
The all-action Jones had back-tracked all the way with him and slid in to make an important challenge just inside the area.
But City continued to call most of the shots and Jones whipped an inviting free-kick across the goalmouth which managed to beat everyone.
Plymouth had everyone back bar Nick Chadwick whenever City went forward and it was difficult to plot a way through a maze of green shirts. It was not a great spectacle but the home side’s lead looked comfortable as half-time approached.
Wells cleverly spun away from Andres Gurrieri to have a pop from 25 yards but his aim was awry.
Referee Tony Bates added six minutes at the end of the half for the Egan injury – and City needed a stunning save from Duke to prevent Plymouth equalising during it.
Plymouth had offered nothing up top but suddenly the space opened up with a five-man counter-attack.
Chadwick headed across goal and the ball sat up invitingly for Jamie Lowry. The midfielder struck it well enough but Duke reacted superbly to push it away with both hands.
Plymouth came back out for the second half with a bit more tempo – and MacDonald wasted a glorious chance to fire them level within five minutes.
Gilmartin’s long clearance was flicked on and MacDonald found himself goal side of McArdle with only Duke to beat. Valley Parade waited for the net to rustle but instead his drive flew well wide.
It was another low midweek crowd but some were growing restless as City made hard work of it. The Kop tried to rally the troops but there was a definite spring in the step of the visitors that had been absent before the interval.
Hanson flicked on a long throw-in by Meredith that was begging to be finished. But nobody was on hand to challenge Maxime Blanchard’s panicky clearance and Jones’ follow-up shot flew harmlessly over the bar.
Then Gilmartin had to be on his toes to beat Wells as the Bermudian looked to spring clear from Meredith’s long pass.
But Plymouth still remained in the hunt and Chadwick’s looping header was another warning that the job was far from finished. Lowry’s ambitious long-range volley was less of a concern.
City tried a double salvo as Wells drilled in a cross from the right that flashed across the box and Meredith sent it straight back but Hanson’s header glanced off target.
The home side screamed for a penalty when Thompson claimed he had been pulled back by Curtis Nelson but nothing was given.
Chadwick nodded wide from Plymouth’s first corner of the night and when the striker did get a shot on target, Duke proved equal to it to push over the bar.
Parkinson brought on Alan Connell for Wells and the fit-again Ritchie Jones in place of Thompson – two substitutes who were capable of keeping the ball better.
Will Atkinson threatened to ease home nerves as he wriggled into space for a goal against his former loan club. But he went for placement rather than power and Gilmartin was able to make a straightforward save.
The midfielder then appeared on the right side, cutting in to take a neat lay-off from Connell, but his shot was nowhere near. At least it kept the ball up the right end.
It was not pretty but the result was what mattered. After the Exeter blip, City’s bandwagon is back on the road.