With Newport County’s game at home to Exeter City being postponed, Forest Green knew that a win over Crawley Town would see them end 2020 top of League Two.
Rovers’ chances of a win appeared to be increase when striker Max Watters was absent from Crawley’s matchday squad. Watters has scored 13 goals in 12 starts in League Two this season, but any Rovers fans thinking that Crawley would just roll over without their top scorer were proved wrong.
The Reds moved the ball forward quickly, their midfielders were sharp and pressed high, and they had a striker more than capable of taking the goalscoring burden off of Watters.
The visitors took the lead after 16 minutes, when Carl Winchester, on his 100 th Forest Green appearance gave the ball away to Jake Hessenthaler who slotted in ex-Cheltenham Town loanee Tom Nichols to plant the ball beyond Luke McGee.
Rovers couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm in the first-half, and Mark Cooper sent on Jake Young for Chris Stokes at half-time as Rovers moved to a 4-2-3-1 formation, and the 19-year-old made an immediate impact.
Young was stood over a free-kick from 30 yards in the 50 th minute, his strike moved in the air and Glenn Morris couldn’t keep it out.
However, Young’s howitzer couldn’t spark Rovers into life.
If anything, it speaks volumes that Rovers’ only goal came from a free-kick. It was one of the rare occasions this season where they have failed to create enough chances from open-play to win the game. They only looked like scoring from dead ball situations.
Hessenthaler and Nichols both saw efforts saved by McGee, before the latter bagged the winner in the 79 th minute. Nichols chested down a beautiful diagonal ball from Jack Powell, and finished with his right-foot past the Rovers goalkeeper.
It was a disappointing result and performance from Rovers, but Crawley, managed by Cooper’s old coach at Fulham John Yems, deserve a huge amount of credit for being one of few teams to outplay Forest Green this season.
Cooper said: “They (Crawley) had a long journey, sat on a coach for four hours and they came and beat us up. Fair play to them. If you don’t match the other teams’ effort and commitment then you get beat in this league, and we didn’t tonight.
“I want to credit Richard Hughes, James Mooney, Craig the kitman and three or four others who helped sweep the snow off of the pitch to get the game on, but right now I wish they hadn’t bothered.”
Odin Bailey was taken off on the hour mark and it looks as though that could be his last action in a Rovers shirt. The Birmingham loanee was signed on deadline day in October until January, and he has since made himself a permanent fixture in the matchday squad, featuring in all but one of Rovers’ last 15 games.
“We don’t know”, replied Cooper, when asked if the club would be extending Bailey’s loan.
“They (Birmingham) want him to go and play in League One and we’ve not heard anything else.”
It’s set to be a busy January transfer window at the innocent New Lawn, with Cooper admitting that there is interest in a number of his players, and that new players will have to be brought in if key personnel leave.
“Everybody knows we’ve got issues with players going out and bids, so we need to resolve that.
“We might lose Odin, there’s three or four others that need to go and play elsewhere, and the Kitching thing will come to a natural conclusion and we’ll have to replace them.
“When players are out of contract, they are very difficult to keep.”
The defeat seems like a missed opportunity for Rovers, especially as they could have extended the gap between themselves and the teams below them, with Carlisle’s match at Harrogate being abandoned, Cheltenham dropping points at Colchester and Morecambe having their game at Bolton postponed.
However, Forest Green are ending 2020 in far better shape to which they started it. Rovers started the year fifth in League Two, but they looked like a team severely lacking confidence, as was shown by their slide down the table in the early months of 2020.
Despite not being able to buy a win at the start of it, 2020 has been a successful year for Forest Green, and they’ll be hoping that 2021 can bring promotion to League One.
Forest Green Rovers (3-4-1-2): McGee; Godwin-Malife, Sweeney, Stokes (Young 45); Richardson, Winchester (Stevens 86), Adams, Cadden; Bailey (Wagstaff 61); Collins (Whitehouse 76), Matt. Subs not used: Thomas, Bernard, Moore-Taylor.
Crawley Town (3-5-2): Morris; Tunnicliffe, Craig; Dallison; Sesay (Nadesan 69), Francomb (Davies 53), Powell, Hessenthaler, Tsaroulla (Frost 83); Nichols, Matthews. Subs not used: Nelson, McNerney, Ashford.
Referee: James Linington.
Star man: Luke McGee.