The Iron extended their unbeaten run to 25 games under Russ Wilcox with a 1-0 win against bottom of the table Torquay United.The hosts defied their league postition with their gutsy performance but quality told in the end with the U's unable to deliver in the final third.
Sam Winnall's first half penalty secured the points and the clean sheet earned in no small part by skipper Sam Slocombe and yet another penalty save, saw this squad break another record; the longest run in the club's history without conceding a goal. With Rochdale drawing at York, the Iron now sit joint top of the division level on points and goal difference with the Lancashire side, who are top by the virtue of the fact they have scored more goals up to this point.
Russ Wilcox was forced into rethinking his side's setup prior to the game with McAllister and McSheffrey both missing out through injuries sustained in the fixture against Wycombe last weekend at Glanford Park.
Hawkridge was also dropped to the bench allowing Sparrow, Hayes and Collins to take up spots in the starting eleven, the latter after a recall from his loan spell at AFC Wimbledon. The Iron boss opted for a 4-3-3 formation, one also capable of altering into a 4-1-2-1-2 as required with Collins in-front of the back four and Paul Hayes in behind the strike partnership of Sam Winnall and Paddy Madden.
The hosts opened brightly, as might be expected given their need to win five out of their remaining six games to have a chance of retaining their league status. Three corners in quick succession provided the first test for a United defence that could equal a club-record for consecutive clean-sheets. From the first, Karl Hawley rose at the nearpost, forcing an instinctive save from close range out of Slocombe. The two corners that followed were more comfortably dealt with, allowing United to break up the other end.
Following a forward move involving a smart interchange between Syers and Williams down the left, thwarted by the linesman's flag, Torquay came again. Courtney Cameron showed fleet of foot to nip in and steal away from Nolan before he saw his cross slide off the underside of the crossbar with Slocombe beaten. Another brief foray upfield from the Iron, Madden striking over from 25-yards, fell in-between Torquay's next push forward. Williams conceded a corner, dealing with Coulthirst's break down the right. Mirfin was able to position himself ideally to clear away the resultant low delivery from Dale Tonge into the box. The U's certainly had the better of the first quarter hour.
Off the back of a quiet ten minutes of two-and-fro football where neither side was able to create or threaten, the hosts forced the issue with some good running once again from Coulthirst, the spritely debutant loanee. His burst from halfway to the edge of the area laying into the path of Billy Bodin resulted in a freekick right on the 18-yard line after Canavan was adjudged to have pulled the striker back. Courtney Cameron's curled effort had too much on it however, only finding the terracing behind Slocombe's goal.
With the wingers proving a real outlet for Torquay, the Iron had to remain vigilant in wider positions when on the back foot. Cameron again went close on twenty-five minutes, driving low just past the far post from a pocket of space just left of the 'D' with Scunthorpe's defenders occupied elsewhere.
Despite not having the best of the opening half-hour, it was United who took the lead on thirty-one minutes against the run of play. Good footwork from Paul Hayes wide on the Iron left saw him turn Tonge, working an angle for a low ball into a crowded penalty area. Sparrow controlled and turned, looking to fire on goal on the half-volley before being brought to the ground by a rash, desperate sliding challenge.
Referee Bull had no hesitation in pointing to the spot where the league's top scorer, Sam Winnall, cooly slotted low to the 'keeper's left to put the Iron one up with his 22nd goal of the season.
The opener took the edge off the hosts' performance, which had been confident and outgoing up to that point. Scunthorpe then looked to get into their stride, taking advantage of the lull. Hayes and Sparrow combined incisively, feeding Syers, arriving late on the edge of the area with impressive hold-up play. The goalscoring midfielder fired high over goal with a strike taken early, however.
A spell not dissimilar to the back and forth period of play earlier in the half looked set to be the tone on which the first half would end. With two minutes to play in the first period, though, Torquay earned a penalty. Cameron floated a corner looking for Pearce's run at the back post. The big centre-half tumbled under pressure from Syers; enough of an infringement to convince Bull to point to the penalty spot for the second time on the afternoon. Dale Tonge, the U's full-back, stepped up but couldn't beat the outstretched left arm of Sam Slocombe who notched another penalty save in an astonishing season of stops from the spot by United's skipper, much to the delight of the Iron support in the terracing behind.
With United holding a narrow lead at the break, Russ Wilcox opted to shake things up slightly in replacing Michael Collins with Hakeeb Adelakun. The change in personnel also shifted the formation; Madden and Adelakun now operating wide in a more conventional 4-4-2.
Torquay restarted bouyantly. Shortly after kick-off, Bodin and Coulthirst combined effectively and the former's neat footwork opened up room for a drive from range, blocked well by Syers on the edge of his penalty area. The U's were looking to exploit the wide areas as they had in the first period. Delivery into the box was something that was lacking, though, with Slocombe able to comfortably collect inside his 6-yard box, unchallenged, on two futher occasions in quick succession. The hosts were able to work into good positions but had struggled with the right final ball.
On 55 minutes, Adelakun, the half-time substitute, went close. A poor throw midway inside the Torquay half gifted possession to Madden who fed into Hayes. Hayes in turn found his strike partner in space between full-back and centre-half. Winnall's attempted curler on the outside of his right was wayward but deflected into the path of Hayes now wide and on the byline. The return ball into the box, dinked towards Adelakun at the back stick looked perfect. The winger slightly miscued his touch, requiring him to check back in an attempt to get a sight of goal through a crowd. His effort swerved just past Martin Rice's far post.
Five minutes later, the youngster did hit the target. Hayes flicked into Sparrow under pressure and back to goal. Sparrow then found Madden who pinged crossfield to Adelakun. Tonge was hesitant in committing or closing down the young wide-man allowing room for a driven effort on goal with very little backlift. Rice did well to get down to his right, holding the ball as well.
The home side were far from out of the game as it stood with an hour played. Coulthirst proved an effective outlet, winning two corners for the hosts. Following the successful repulsion of both of these set-pieces, Karl Hawley was able to scramble past three Iron men on halfway and instigate another break involving Coulthirst. The winger jinked inside onto his left, shimmying past Williams to strike. His effort was blocked and fortuitously broke for the Iron on the edge of the box where Adealkun could clear to safety.
This passage of play proved to be the last Hawley was to be involved in on the afternoon. A 50-50 in the centre-circle left the striker stricken on his side. Team-mates immediately called for medical attention eventually requiring the striker to be stretchered off with his hand over his eyes in obvious pain and with what looked a serious injury. Elliott Benyon his replacement.
With fifteen minutes to play the Iron's lead was still far from comfortable. A poor decision from the referee, penalising Nolan for a ball-winning challenge 30-yards from goal gifted the hosts an opportunity to hit on goal. Stockley, the substitute, took control of the dead-ball situation and opted to strike. Slocombe was equal to it with a strong palm over.
Torquay continued to press into the last five minutes following the substitution of Coulthirst, the impressive debutant and Torquay man of the match, much to the ire of the home support who gave the winger a standing ovation. The decisive action of a Torquay attack was again missing when Billy Bodin struck well over from a free-kick 25-yards from goal.
Russ Wilcox withdrew Sam Winnall, scorer of the decisive goal, with the clock winding down to give Deon Burton his first taste of action since his injury over two months ago sustained in the game at Dagenham; the former Jamaica international well-recieved by the Iron support. With time further evaporating for Torquay both on their season and in this fixture, Jayden Stockley was shown a straight red for a frustrated elbow on Dave Mirfin as the two jumped for a long ball. This proved to be the last action of note in six minutes of time added on, minutes that the Iron saw out professionally in possession.
Torquay United: Rice, Tonge, Pearce, Lathrope, Mansell, Hawley (Benyon, 70), Bodin, Cameron (Stockley, 70), Cruise, Coulthirst (Yeoman, 85), O'Connor.
Substitutes not used: Poke, Cooper, Craig, Stevens.
Scunthorpe United: Slocombe, Nolan, Mirfin, Canavan, Williams, Collins (Adelakun, 45), Sparrow, Syers, Hayes (Hawkridge, 71), Madden, Winnall (Burton, 88).
Substitutes not used: Ribeiro, Severn, Waterfall, Alabi.