Another Intriguing Weekend Ahead

We’ve reached the final third of the season and although there are still at least 14 games left to go, Bristol City might not have a better chance than this weekend to put some serious daylight between them and the rest of the promotion contenders. City are the only team in the top six to have a home game tomorrow (Rochdale haven’t visited Ashton Gate since March 1984) and with three of their nearest rivals travelling to teams that are fighting for their lives at the bottom of the table then you’d be forgiven for thinking we might see a few unexpected results.

MK Dons travel to Coventry for only the sixth league game between the clubs. The Dons can’t overtake the leaders regardless of how well they perform, but with Steven Pressley no longer in charge of the Sky Blues, this looks like it could be a huge trap for Milton Keynes. Although Coventry have never beaten tomorrow’s visitors at home and haven’t beaten anyone at the Ricoh Arena since October (the 3-2 win over Peterborough is the only time they’ve scored more than two goals at home so far this season) , the Sky Blues have only lost three of their last ten home games. Coventry’s big problem is failing to hold on to leads: since August they’ve taken the lead in three games they’ve eventually drawn.

After recent defeats at Bradford and Gillingham, MK won at Colchester in the middle of the month to record their first away win since they thumped Crewe 5-0. However, Karl Robinson’s side has not won consecutive games on the road since the start of the season, they’ve only won four of their last ten aways and both Walsall and Notts County have conceded fewer goals on their travels so far in 2014/15.

Sheffield United may have the toughest test at Crawley. The Red Devils have only lost twice at the Checkatrade.com Stadium since the end of November, but although United have won both of their previous encounters in West Sussex, they’ve not won more than three consecutive away games in League One for nearly two years.

The most pressure will be on Swindon. They don’t necessarily have to win at Crewe to remain third, but if Preston win at Oldham and Swindon only draw, the Lillywhites go third and will still have a game in hand. The good news for Swindon fans is that they haven’t lost four aways in a row since the end of 2012/13; the bad news is that they’ve not won at Gresty Road since April 2003 and Crewe have only lost twice at home since October.

Before I go, there was an unexpected managerial change earlier this week. Lee Johnson swapped Oldham for Barnsley after just under two years in charge at Boundary Park. This seems like a sideways move, but I suppose that the Tykes would prefer to be slightly higher up the table and in that case, it’s the right move.

I’ll be back before next Tuesday’s games.

End Of The Road For Ferguson And Pressley

Saturday’s results saw some shockers, but for two managers they meant it was time to move on to pastures new and all of those other old cliches I know and love.

Darren Ferguson’s second tenure at Peterborough saw the Posh achieve their best position in the league since 1993. Although 18th in the Championship doesn’t sound like much, Peterborough earned a reputation for their swashbuckling (and occasionally over physical) attacking style. After winning the JPT and reaching the playoffs last season and being second in the table as recently as October, a run of twelve defeats in 19 games more or less finish ended the season for Posh, who are currently in their lowest position at this level since they were relegated in 2005.

Coventry parted company with Steven Pressley after dropping into the bottom four after failing to beat ten man Sheffield United despite having a man advantage for most of the game and a two goal lead after 78 minutes. Pressley did an outstanding job after the Sky Blues were hit with a points deduction at the beginning of last season, but it’s fair to say that things had been going downhill for the best part of a year and despite returning to the Ricoh Arena, Coventry are now in the bottom four and face a relegation battle for the rest of the season.

If tomorrow’s programme was at the weekend, Swindon versus Bradford would be game of the week. Having surprisingly lost at home to Crawley on Saturday, the Wiltshire Robins have lost further ground to Bristol City (who lost at Colchester) and MK Dons (who beat Peterborough); Town are now only one point ahead of Preston having played one more game and having to entertain Bradford after three consecutive defeats is a nasty looking prospect. The Bantams have only lost one of their last six away matches in League One and sneaked into the last playoff place after earning a point at Walsall.

However, Bristol City, Preston and Sheffield United are also in action tomorrow. Bristol City were three goals down at Colchester in less than half an hour and have now lost two of their last three games: they’ve only won two of their last trips to Doncaster in the league with nine of those matches featuring less than two goals. The clubs have already faced each other at the Keepmoat in the FA Cup this season and that finished 1-1 and a win for the hosts could see them leapfrog into the playoff spots if Bradford lose at Swindon. Preston entertain Walsall knowing that if they win and Swindon don’t then the Lillywhites will climb to third place and be within three points of MK Dons by the weekend: it’s an uphill task for the Saddlers as North End have only lost once at Deepdale in League One since New Year’s Day 2014. The Blades visit Rochdale for only their third ever meeting and United have won both their previous encounters at Spotland; Dale’s indifferent recent form has seen them drop down the table but a third consecutive win at home looks beyond them.

I’ve just updated my spreadsheet and although there’s a touch of the obvious about it, I don’t think we’re likely to see any surprise contenders make a late run for promotion. Sheffield United are still eight points behind Swindon and so I think that the top five now will be the top five at the end of the season – although there could be a lot of changes in which order they finish. Here are some diary dates for you:

Saturday 7th March: MK Dons v Preston

Friday 3rd April: Swindon v MK Dons

Monday 6th April: (Easter Monday) Bristol City v Swindon

Saurday 11th April: Preston v Bristol City

Saturday 25th April (penultimate weekend of the season): Preston v Swindon

So Swindon and Preston still have three games to play against their immediate competitors for promotion; significantly Sheffield United don’t have any games left against the current top five even though they have the best record against the others. Of the fifteen games the current top five have played against one another, eight have been home wins with three draws: from that point of view, things don’t look good for Swindon, especially with consecutive games over the easter weekend against MK Dons and at Bristol City. I’ve already mentioned Preston’s formidable home record and their remaining games at Deepdale could be vital if they want to win automatic promotion.

For what it’s worth right now, I have Bristol City winning the title by five points, with MK Dons finishing four points ahead of Preston. North End, Swindon, Sheffield United and Bradford will be in the playoffs and Colchester, Leyton Orient, Crawley and Yeovil will go down. As ever, we’ll see: and I’m absolutely sure we’re going to see some surprising results in what looks likely to be another grandstand finish to the season.

The Top Three All Lost, But…

A peculiar weekend all round last week. All four of the top clubs lost (to be fair, Preston were playing in the FA Cup) which means nothing changed at the top, especially after Bristol City and MK Dons both won on Tuesday night. The log jam is in the playoff spots, especially the last two positions: currently any of the top half could still go up via a win at Wembley.

There’s also a very fluid situation at the bottom of the table. Only Yeovil are unable to escape the bottom four this weekend, but with Coventry struggling at the bottom of the current form table then it’s entirely feasible that next season the Sky Blues might find themselves playing in the fourth tier for the first time since 1958/59. One win in the last ten and a nasty looking run doesn’t bode well; they travel to Sheffield United tomorrow.

Hats off to Bradford City though. Beating Sunderland in the FA Cup last weekend was another tremendous result, but I’ve got a feeling that expectations may now be too high to manage and a potential anti climax awaits in the next round when Reading visit Valley Parade. I’ll return to that game in a couple of weeks because there’s an angle that casts the Bantams in an extremely favourable light.

There are two games between the top six and the bottom six this weekend. It’s too early to describe games as ‘must wins’ for Swindon (who entertain Crawley) just yet, but three defeats in the last four games mean that Town are dangerously close to dropping back into the chasing pack after leading the table last month. Their home form since the end of October has been impressive (six wins in seven, with opponents failing to score in five of those victories) and although they’ve never lost at home to Crawley in the league, any more dropped points could be a disaster in the long term.

Crawley’s away form has been absolutely lamentable. Since winning at Barnsley in August, they’ve lost ten of their fourteen games and haven’t earned a point on the road since the middle of November. Former MK Don Izale McLeod is top scorer with 13 and scored at hat trick against Barnsley last weekend but with 25 different players having appeared this season it’s probably fair to say that many of Crawley’s problems have been due to inconsistency in team selection. That’s not surprising considering they’ve had two managers this season; John Gregory stepped down after Christmas citing health problems, but Dean Saunders has a history of getting clubs relegated – ask Wolves and Doncaster fans about that.

The other game is between Colchester and Bristol City. The Us have also been awful, but this time it’s their home record that’s a major cause for concern. One home win since the start of November is awful by anyone’s standards and three clean sheets since March tells a story. Then there’s the record against the current top six: one draw, seven defeats and a goal difference of minus 15; not exactly the best time to be playing the leaders, who have only lost three of their last ten visits to either Layer Road or the Weston Homes Community Stadium.

There may be a post next Tuesday, but that depends on how many of the five games that evening have an impact on the promotion and relegation situations. Currently there are two, so it looks likely: you almost didn’t get this one, due to a very nasty two day cold I picked up earlier in the week…

FA Cup Preview: Any More Shocks To Come?

Let’s not be under any illusions. If either Bradford City or Preston reach the Quarter Finals then it’d be great. If both clubs manage it, then we’ll have a had an almost unprecedented weekend.

The odd part about the cup ties is that they’re both on Sunday, so as an appetiser let’s have a look at what’s happening on Saturday afternoon. Tuesday night’s results mean that Bristol City have a four point lead with a game in hand following their straightforward win over Port Vale. Any chance Swindon had of regaining top spot by winning at Oldham lasted until just before 8:00pm, by which time the Wiltshire Robins were two goals down at Boundary Park.

At the bottom there’s now a four point gap between Coventry and Colchester; the Sky Blues equalised in injury time against Scunthorpe and Colchester were hammered at Sheffield United. Barnsley lost 1-2 at home to Fleetwood, a result that meant the end of the second Danny Wilson era at Oakwell. There’s a school of thought that says returning to the scene of previous managerial triumphs is usually a bad idea and that was the case once again. I thought the Tykes would struggle before the season started.

There are three games tomorrow that could be worth keeping an eye on. Sheffield United visit Bristol City, Oldham travel to Colchester and Scunthorpe entertain Swindon. It’s been a while since I wrote about the Sheffield United’s form in the league and it’s fair to say their cup runs have disguised their shortcomings. The Blades have not won an away game since mid-November and haven’t scored more than twice on the road since mid October. Oldham are currently ten points adrift of Preston, but they seem to have rediscovered their winning ways at BoundaryPark after consecutive home defeats against Yeovil and Crewe; I mentioned that Colchester were battered at Bramall Lane earlier, but they’d put together a four game unbeaten away streak before then. I could easily have made a case for Scunthorpe v Swindon to have been game of the week under any other circumstances: the Iron have been superb on their travels but have only won two of their last six league games at Glanford Park. Swindon had only lost once on the road in 12 League One games between mid August and mid January.

So on to the FA Cup.

Sunday

Bradford City v Sunderland (2:30pm)

The Bantams last reached this round in 1996/97 but they were in the second tier that season. You’ve got to go back to the mid 1970s to find City’s last appearance in the Sixth Round: they were nineteenth in the old Fourth Division when they won at First Division Norwich in February 1976 and it’s almost 104 years since Bradford City won the FA Cup. That’s nearly as long ago as the only time these sides have met in the competition: Sunderland won by a single goal at Valley Parade in the Third Round in February 1909. The Black Cats have been infrequent visitors to West Yorkshire: in both league meetings this century the Bantams conceded four goals and City haven’t beaten Sunderland in the league since January 1989.

Eight different players (nine if you count Millwall’s own goal in the third round replay) have scored in the competition for Bradford this season: journeyman striker Jon Stead, Portuguese midfielder Filipe Morais and former Chelsea academy product Billy Knott all have three to their credit. Monday’s win over MK Dons was only City’s fifth home win this season in the league, but remarkably they’ve not lost a home tie in the FA Cup since Leyton Orient won in November 2008.

Monday

Preston v Manchester United (7:45pm, BBC1)

The Lillywhites have made fairly regular appearances this far into the tournament; the last time they got this far as a third tier side was in 1999/20, when they lost 2-0 at Everton but later that season went on to win the old ‘Division Two’ title by seven points from Burnley. Their last meeting against Manchester United in the FA Cup was in February 1972 (United won 2-0): Preston fans will be hoping for a similar sort of scoreline to their first meeting with United in the competition. In January 1890, the Lillywhites hammered non-league Newton Heath 6-1 at Deepdale.

Preston hadn’t conceded a goal in this season’s competition until Diego de Girolamo equalised for Sheffield United in the original fourth round game. Two players have scored eight of North End’s goals in the FA Cup this season: Paul Gallagher has scored goals in the Premier League, the Championship and League One but the revelation this season has been Callum Robinson. The Aston Villa loanee has only just celebrated his 20th birthday but has scored more goals in the FA Cup than he has in the league this season and might be destined for a big future: a lot depends on which competition Villa are playing in at the start of next season.

I’ll update the results as they happen. There are some catch up games next week, but I’ll probably only cover those if they look as if they’ll have an impact on the promotion or relegation battles: otherwise I’ll post next Friday.

Bradford City 2, Sunderland 0!

Dons Downed By Bantams: Can Robins Take Advantage?

So the plot thickens.

Having been involved in a goalless draw with Bristol City on Saturday, MK Dons lost their first game since just after Christmas when they were defeated 2-1 at Bradford City yesterday. The result leaves the Dons in third place, two points behind Bristol City but having played two games more than the leaders and having won only eight points from their last five games. Swindon beat Barnsley at the County Ground to complete the scenario I mentioned last week.

The advantage this evening seems to have passed to City. The Robins have won six of their seven home games against teams in the bottom half of the table and have won five of their last six games at Ashton Gate against Port Vale. The Valiants have lost four of their five aways against the current top six (failing to score in all four of those defeats) but could still play a part in the race for promotion as they’ve yet to face Swindon, MK Dons and Preston at home.

Swindon could overtake Bristol City at the top of the table, but they need to win at Oldham. The Latics are pushing for a playoff place but haven’t done themselves any favours against either the stronger or weaker sides in the competition. Lee Johnson’s side have a horrible looking run in (eight home games against the current top ten) and may have to wait until 2015/16 before having a decent chance of winning promotion. That being said, Swindon have only won three of their last ten visits to Boundary Park in the league since April 2003.

The other games to watch out for this evening are Chesterfield v Preston and Crewe v Yeovil. The Spirerites recently lost the services of leading goalscorer Eoin Doyle to Cardiff City and have only gained one point from 15 available against the other promotion contenders this season. A win would take them to within five points of Preston, but with the Lillywhites not playing this Saturday due to FA Cup committments, Chesterfield might find themselves outside the top six by the weekend if they don’t win.

Yeovil’s win over Crawley last Saturday was only seventh victory of the season saw them climb off the bottom of the table but they’re still three points from safety and haven’t won an away game since mid December. Crewe had put a reasonable run of home form together before being battered 5-0 by MK Dons at the end of last month but recovered from a goal down at Colchester last weekend to win by the odd goal in five.

In other news, Justin Edinburgh left Newport County to join Gillingham as full time manager. The former Spurs left back has been working his way through the managerial ranks and could be a shrewd appointment by Paul Scally.

I’ll be back on Friday with probably the last FA Cup preview of the season as well as any games that look promising in the league.

Game of the Week: MK Dons v Bristol City

No doubt whatsoever about the game of the week: in fact, it could be one of the defining games of 2014/15 for the teams involved.

There are a number of interesting angles surrounding this game. Arguably the most interesting one about this is how similar the current situation at the top is to last season. After roughly the same stage in 2013/14 the top three were seven points ahead of Preston in fourth place, but although Bristol City and MK Dons are performing at exactly the same level as Leyton Orient and Wolves were after the same number of games respectively, Swindon aren’t as good as Brentford were at this point last season. It’s fair to say the Wiltshire Robins have also not improved as much of the top two have this season, but Brentford were eventually promoted and Orient are fighting a relegation battle this time round.

The second angle is that regardless of what happens at Stadium:MK tomorrow, the top three clubs won’t change and Bristol City will still have a game in hand. I’ll come to the last angle in a moment.

In the white corner…

MK Dons have only suffered one defeat since they lost at Ashton Gate in September and Karl Robinson’s side have already beaten Swindon Town and Sheffield United in Buckinghamshire. One thing that’s noticeable is that although they’ve featured in some very one sided games scorelines since the middle of November and have been the most prolific scorers in the competition so far, three of their four home wins against teams in the current top ten have been by just one goal. In their five home fixtures against the same teams they’ve not scored more than twice, keeping only two clean sheets. They’ve also not kept three consecutive clean sheets at home in the league for almost two years; tomorrow’s match will be their second attempt to do that this season.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is side that is capable of battering poor teams and any side having an off day, but with Dele Alli having moved to Spurs last week before rejoining on loan for the rest of the season, the Dons need to think about replacing both him and Benik Afobe regardless of which division they’ll be playing in come August. If you don’t have a striker capable of scoring at least ten goals in the Championship, you’ll struggle: Will Grigg is now the top goalscorer under contract at MK Dons with nine this season but neither he nor loan signing Devante Cole (Andy Cole’s son in case you didn’t already know) have experience any further up the league.

And here’s the third and final angle to this match. MK Dons have never beaten Bristol City in any competition, which includes three attempts at home.

In the red corner (although there’s a chance it might be the purple corner)

Bristol City had to play eight games in January and face another seven this month, but they’re currently on a streak of five straight wins in the league and haven’t lost on the road since before Christmas. The odd thing about both of the Robins’ defeats away from home this season is that they finished with ten men and failed to score; avoiding a red card tomorrow might be advisable. I mentioned before the season started that if City were to be seen as genuine promotion candidates the defence needed to improve and currently only Bradford City and Walsall have conceded fewer away goals on their travels. The Robins haven’t let in more than two goals on their travels in the league since October.

There’s no doubt that the defence has improved, but what’s more impressive is that City’s first choice strike force (former Don Aaron Wilbraham and ex-Rotherham striker Kieran Agard) haven’t featured in the same starting eleven since before Christmas due to injury. Fulham loanee Matt Smith and last season’s top scorer Jay Emmanuel-Thomas have scored nine of City’s 13 goals in League One since the 2-1 home win against Yeovil on Boxing Day and in the coming weeks there’ll be no shortage of competition up front.

Verdict:

A point each wouldn’t be the worst outcome but with Swindon favourites to beat Barnsley at the County Ground then a victory for either the Dons or the Robins would be a massive morale boost not only going into next week’s games but possibly for the rest of the season. It’s probably far too early to be assessing the remaining fixtures for each side, but City look as if they have a slightly easier run in than MK Dons, but the immediate problem for the Dons is that they’ve got to play at Bradford on Monday night (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) and short rest combined with a game against a team high on confidence after beating Chelsea in the FA Cup could be a bigger test for Karl Robinson’s side.

Elsewhere, it won’t come as much of a surprise that Gary Johnson and Yeovil parted company earlier this week. His second spell at the club was a qualified success (an unexpected promotion followed by a season and a half of abject failure) but the emerging consensus is that over the years his teams were either very good or very bad with not much in between. I can’t imagine he’d be out of the game for long.

Last of all for now, the FA Cup 5th Round draw is a lot clearer: Bradford City v Sunderland (Sunday 15th February, 2:30pm), Preston v Manchester United (BBC 1, Monday 16th February, 7:45pm). I’ll be back on Tuesday with a quick preview of the midweek games.