LAST weekend was the ultimate mixed bag for the McCombe brothers.
As Jamie, an unused substitute for Doncaster Rovers at Leicester City, was trying to come to terms with relegation from the Championship in the cruellest of fashions, brother John was once again doing his bit in York City’s amazing revival in fortunes.
The 29-year-old, signed by Nigel Worthington in January following his release by Mansfield Town, helped the Minstermen extend their unbeaten end to the regular season to 17 games with a battling 2-2 draw at promoted Scunthorpe United.
Coming from two goals down, the Yorkshire club once again underlined what a solid unit they have become since the turn of the year. Third bottom back then, York finished seventh – a remarkable turnaround that has been built on the solid foundation of McCombe and Keith Lowe at the heart of the defence.
“It was a really mixed emotions day for me and all the family last Saturday,” said McCombe, who will again be a key part of the York side that takes on Fleetwood Town in tonight’s play-off semi-final first leg at Bootham Crescent.
“I was gutted to see before we kicked off at Scunthorpe that Doncaster had been relegated. We had just got in the play-offs but Jamie had been relegated.
“The season has been a hard one for my brother, who has been out injured for so long. Hopefully, if we do well in the play-offs we could be playing against each other next season.”
If the McCombe brothers are to be in direct opposition in League One next term, tonight could be pivotal.
Fleetwood, along with Chesterfield, boasted the highest number of away wins in League Two this season with 11. One of those came at Bootham Crescent in late October when the Lancashire side triumphed 2-0.
At the time, York were 20th and Fleetwood third. By the start of 2014, the Minstermen had fallen even further and were only outside the relegation zone on goal difference.
Considering a 2-1 defeat at Bury had been how the old year was signed off, in the process extending City’s winless run to 11 games, there seemed precious few grounds for optimism at a club that had only returned to the Football League 18 months earlier.
Irishman Nigel Worthington, however, insisted that he had no concerns and that, instead, the new year would bring an upturn in results.
The York manager has been true to his word, with a 1-0 triumph over Morecambe on New Year’s Day kick-starting a tremendous second half of the campaign.
Where City had taken just 22 points from the first 23 games, they took 39 from the next 23.
Among the main reasons for this dramatic improvement was Worthington’s recruitment. Lowe’s arrival in late November from Cheltenham Town proved a masterstroke but it was the influx in January that really made the difference as Charlton Athletic goalkeeper Nick Pope returned on loan and midfielder Russell Penn made a permanent switch from Whaddon Road to be reunited with Lowe in North Yorkshire.
Will Hayhurst also arrived on loan from Preston North End, while McCombe’s capture meant City suddenly had a defensive partnership that could be relied upon.
The former Huddersfield Town man struck up an immediate rapport with Lowe, as is evident from the club’s results when the pair have both played.
In 18 games, York have won 11 and drawn six. And that solitary defeat came the first time McCombe and Lowe started alongside each other, the January 28 defeat at home to Chesterfield.
That remains the last time Worthington’s men were beaten. It was also the last time until the final day draw at Scunthorpe that City conceded two goals in a game.
Instead, clean sheets have become the norm – 13 have been kept in the current 17-game unbeaten run – and much of that can be put down to the club’s centre back pairing.
On his partnership with Lowe, McCombe said: “Obviously Keith is an experienced player and is similar to me in a lot of ways and we just clicked straight away.
“We know where each other is going to be on the pitch and we have a good understanding. We both also read the game quite well. Hopefully, we can carry on in that manner for another three games.
“The two full-backs have been brilliant, too. They deserve credit. Banjy (Lanre Oyebanjo) is the best right-back in the division and then young Ben (Davies) has come along from Preston and has played a full season at 18.
“He has been outstanding and I would say Ben has a big future ahead of him.”
Should York prevail over two legs against Fleetwood, a season that has had its fair share of ups and down for McCombe could end on the ultimate high of sealing promotion at Wembley.
It would be quite a finale after the frustration of joining Mansfield Town in the summer but then being given just five starts.
York offered a route out of Field Mill, which is how the 29-year-old’s contract came to be cancelled by mutual consent in January to pave the way for a move that, the defender admits, has restored his enthusiasm levels for the game.
He said: “Both the club and myself could not have dreamt of being in this position after the first half of the season. After five good years at Port Vale and then at Mansfield, where it didn’t work out, I just wanted to get back playing football and enjoying it again and that’s what I am doing at the moment.”
As for the possibility of playing in the League Two final on May 26, McCombe replied: “I played at the old Wembley when I was 10 for the Wakefield District Schools in an England seven-a-side tournament but that’s the only time I have played there.
“I have been to watch Jamie play down there quite a few times so I have sampled the atmosphere and I just want to be involved in something similar, though I should say we have two tough matches against Fleetwood. But if we come out on top then we can, hopefully, have a great day out at Wembley.”