Game of the Week: Preston v Swindon

Athough we’ve arrived at the penultimate weekend of the season, I suspect we’re not going to find out much tomorrow. Either Preston or MK Dons will be promoted automatically, Rochdale could still reach the playoffs and I’ve now got no idea who will be joining Yeovil in League Two come August.

Before the game of the week preview, it’s worth mentioning that there are two other games that could be worth following. Chesterfield host champions Bristol City; the Robins have only won twice in their last ten visits in the league but the Spirerites need a win to make absolutely certain of their playoff place. Despite having won four straight at the Proact without conceding, Chesterfield have lost at home to Preston, MK Dons and Swindon without scoring so this is a big test for the Derbyshire club.

Leyton Orient entertain Sheffield United. The O’s have failed to beat any of the teams in the top half of the division at home this season (they had four wins against last season’s top twelve at the matchroom stadium in 2013/14) and so a win is vital if they want to avoid relegation, especially as they travel to Swindon for the last game of the season. It’s still possible for the Blades to miss out on the playoffs; it’s unlikely though, especially as they’ve not lost to Orient since September 1983 and would need some pretty weird results elsewhere.

The game of the week is possibly slightly less significant than it was at about 7:00pm on Tuesday evening. By 8:50pm Preston were 2-0 up at Notts County and Swindon were 2-0 down at home to Walsall; despite ultimately earning a share of the points, Town can only be promoted automatically if both PNE and MKD lose both of their remaining matches…which in Preston’s case means losing for the first time at home since mid November to a team that has only won at Deepdale once. and that was 30 years ago. If you can remember that far back, Billy Ocean was number one with ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’ and Sharon Stone was boiling bunnies and not wearing underwear in ‘9 1/2 Weeks’.

As I mentioned during the week, the Lillywhites should have been much closer to automatic promotion but their long unbeaten record at Deepdale has been offset by an inability to finish games off. Additionally, although they’re a match for anyone on their day, they’ve been hampered by their inability to beat the better teams in the division for a couple of seasons. Even more astonishing is the fact that North End have played at this level for four seasons but have never once been top of the table. Joe Garner and Jermain Beckford have scored 44% of their goals this season – despite Garner missing part of the season through injury – and only the champions have conceded fewer goals. If they go up, Preston should be OK in the Championship but Garner may turn out to be one of those strikers like Sam Baldock who can’t make the transition from League One to the Championship.

Swindon have been in the top five for most of the season but when they look back at 2014/15,  five defeats in eight games between the end of January and the start of March pretty much put paid to their automatic promotion hopes. back to back 3-0 defeats to MK Dons and Bristol City emphasised that although Swindon may have somewhat outperformed the expectations of their own fans, Town needed to be far more consistent over the season in order to get back to the second tier for the first time in 15 years. They might still do that, but they’ll have to go the long way round. Once again, it’s a two man strike force that have done the damage this season (Andy Williams and Michael Smith) but Mark Cooper’s apparent preference for a more physical style of play has drawn widespread criticism and resulted in Raphael Branco Rossi being banned for a total of five games for various reasons.

If anything noteworthy happens I’ll update ASAP.

Update: only Preston and MK Dons can finish second, after North End beat a weakened Swindon XI 3-0.  Swindon, Sheffield United and Chesterfield are confirmed as playoff teams, whilst at the bottom it’s an ‘any two from eight’ permutation. Sunday’s live televised game with be Colchester v Preston and all being well I’ll be back on Saturday. Shrewsbury Town will be returning to League One next season after being relegated at the end of 2013/14.

The Race For Second Is Wide Open

With Bristol City having clinched the League One title on Saturday and Rochdale losing at Gillingham, the top six are pretty much settled even though it looks very much as if the runners up spot will go to the wire. MK Dons are a point behind Preston with a far superior goal difference and both sides are in action tonight. Swindon could still finish second, but that’s unlikely; here’s a list of the runners.

MK Dons (6-2-2 in the last ten)

Remaining games: Doncaster (h) tonight, Rochdale (a) on Saturday, Yeovil (h) on the last day of the season.

The second most improved side after Bristol City may have a big advantage in not playing teams who still have something to play for, although Yeovil have responded well to the change in management. If it comes down to thrashing the Glovers on the final day the Dons have won all their home games against the current bottom five by a total of 24-3. A pointer for next season (regardless of which division they are in) is that MK failed to beat either Bristol City and Preston this season, won’t have weak teams to pick on at home and – probably – won’t have Dele Alli.

Preston (5-5-0 in the last ten)

Remaining games: Notts County (a) tonight, Swindon (h) on Saturday, Colchester (a) on the last day of the season

Preston have drawn five of their last seven matches and it’s fair to say I’d probably not be writing this post if they’d held on to the leads they had in all five of those contests. They haven’t lost since going down at Crawley at the end of January so that means a defeat is on the cards soon and Saturday’s game looks the most likely although a last day cock up at Colchester could also happen. Having to play three sides that are still involved in the promotion and relegation issues doesn’t help their cause, as does a wobbly looking defence. Another worry: they’re playing at more or less the same level as they were last year, which wasn’t good enough for promotion.

Swindon (Last ten: 5-1-4)

Remaining games: Walsall (h) tonight, Preston (a) on Saturday, Colchester (a) on the 28th April and Orient (h) on the last day of the season.

Like Preston, Swindon have three games against teams hoping to either go up or avoid relegation but having already written that town could nick a surprise victory at Deepdale on Saturday, it would go against the grain. They’ve already lost at Sheffield United, MK Dons and Bristol City this season; haven’t been outside of the top five since October and have definitely improved in 2014/15 but are probably relying on their early season form to limp into the playoffs.

My spreadsheet is predicting Preston to pip MK to second place by a point, but the Dons’ superior goal difference is probably worth a point regardless. Incidentally, the only bookies with a playoff winner market a the moment have Sheffield United as favourites. Which does have a certain logic to it, but I’ll be taking an indepth look at the playoffs nearer the time.

I’ll be back on Friday unless something dramatic happens this evening. No prizes for guessing the game of the week…

The Title Could Be Won This Evening

So farewell to both Bristol City and Yeovil, who are leaving League One in opposite directions. The Robins clinched promotion in emphatic style with a 6-0 win at Bradford City, their first win at Valley Parade since Christmas Day 1908!

Although the media would have us believe that we’re due an exciting finish in the Premier League, the reality is that the three divisions of the football league are going to be far more exciting than anything the top tier can come up with. Here’s the situation as it stands in League One:

At The Top

Realistically, we’re left with three teams battling for one automatic promotion place. Unless something very odd happens, it’s also pretty fair to assume that Sheffield United and Chesterfield will be hosting the first legs of playoff semi finals against opponents yet to be determined.

At The Bottom

Three relegation places left that could be filled by any team from Walsall downwards but realistically will be between Crewe, Leyton Orient, Notts County, Crawley Town and Colchester.

There’s one fairly important game tonight, which I’m assuming has been moved because Preston are playing next Tuesday and Stoke are at home tomorrow.

Port Vale v Preston

If Preston lose, Bristol City will be League One champions without kicking a ball. If the Valiants lose, they could find themselves in the bottom four tomorrow evening. Since christmas Vale have only won four times in eleven games at Vale Park and have failed to win any of their last five at home. Preston have only lost twice on the road since Christmas, but haven’t been beaten on their travels since the end of January. Six of the last ten meetings between them at Burslem in the football league have ended in draws, which may be significant when the midweek games are taken into account. Vale held MK Dons to a goalless draw and at Deepdale Preston shot themselves in the foot against Gillingham by conceding a very late equaliser by Leon Legge after being 2-0 up at half time.

On to Saturday. Coventry travel to Bristol City. The Sky Blues have won two of their last three visits to Ashton Gate in the league, but since 1976 those victories have been their only successess in ten meetings in the top three tiers. The Robins have won both meetings this season by two goals and if they repeat that feat, it will be the first time that Bristol City have won a divisional title since 1955.

Three of the other top six are at home, but the only candidate for game of the week is a similar match to the one in the Championship on Tuesday night between Millwall and Wigan, who may both be making regular appearances on this site next season. Crawley entertain Notts County in a game that might be vital for both right now but could also be irrelevant if ultimately they’re both relegated. As I mentioned recently, the Red Devils haven’t been too awful at home and they’ve actually got a good home record against the other strugglers. However, Notts are also unbeaten on their travels against the other five clubs in the bottom six and although a draw would be no use to either side, it’s a distinct possibility. Crawley have never lost at home to Notts, but they’ve only ever met each other twice in Sussex with the Magpies failing to score on both occasions.

I’ll be back on Tuesday to look at the five catch up games, four of which could be vital at both ends of the table. However, there may not be an update on Saturday evening…

Update: Bristol City are champions following a goalless draw with Coventry City. Burton Albion became the first team to win promotion to League One after winning at Morecambe: 2015/16 will be the Brewers’ first ever season in the third tier.

Game of the Evening: Chesterfield v Colchester United

I’ll start with the easy bit. If Bristol City win at Bradford tonight, the Robins will return to the Championship after two seasons away. If that’s the case, expect an update.

However, the point that Chesterfield earned at Barnsley on Saturday may have been the most significant result at the top and sets the Sprities up nicely for their game against Colchester this evening. It looks as if the final playoff place is theirs to lose rather than anyone else’s to win. Rochdale had to come from behind to draw at Doncaster whilst Bradford and Fleetwood both lost; Sheffield United also looked vulnerable at Oldham.

At the bottom there are only three relegation spots left but the situation could turn into a real nail biter over the next couple of weeks. Port Vale look extremely vulnerable; even though they halted a streak of six straight defeats with a goalless draw against MK Dons last weekend, they’ve not won at home since February and have to travel to Preston on Friday night.

On to the game of the week. Chesterfield have spent most of the season in the top ten but didn’t look consistent enough to reach the playoffs until recently; since the end of February the Spirerites have only lost twice. It’s incredible to remember that Eoin Doyle is still their leading goalscorer despite leaving for Cardiff at the start of February and although Paul Cook hasn’t really replaced Doyle, both James O’Shea and Sam Clucas have scored seven goals each from midfield. Even if Chesterfield fall short of returning to the second tier for the first time since 1951, they’ll have still had a memorable season and could be among the contenders for automatic promotion next season.

Colchester are actually something of a bogey team for Chesterfield; the U’s have won half of their last ten league meetings at either Saltergate or the Proact Stadium and have only lost two of the remaining five. They’d been unbeaten in their last four outings, but the narrow defeat at Coventry at the weekend combined with results elsewhere kept United in 23rd place and they’re now favourites to join Yeovil in league two next season. Like Crewe, Colchester are a young team but they’ve used 29 different players this season with only four of the squad having played more than 30 games during this campaign. Leading scorer Gavin Massey – who has Championship experience with Watford – has scored twice as many times as he did last season, but at 22 he may be a target for other league one sides if United go down.

I’ll be back on Friday, unless there’s anything to report later.

Bristol City were promoted after a 6-0 win at Bradford. Chesterfield also won 6-0…

Nothing Settled…Yet.

So…three weeks since the most recent post and here’s the situation:

The top six looks set to me. Over the last ten seasons, 39 of the 40 clubs that won automatic promotion have earned at least 80 points and Bristol City and Preston have already won that many; Swindon and MK Dons are on course to reach that target by the end of the season. Sheffield United can win 80 points but would have to win all of their remaining games to do so and Chesterfield need three wins to cement a playoff place.

At the bottom, we’ll assume Yeovil are down. Notts County, Crewe and Colchester look the obvious choices to fill the other three relegation spots, but the bookies still have Crawley in the mix.

The obvious choice for tomorrow’s game of the day is the clash between the top two, but with four of the bottom six in action against each other, it would be a mistake to leave those games out.

Crewe v Leyton Orient

As usual at this time of the season, Crewe are involved in a relegation battle because their away form is dire. Since Christmas they’ve kept five clean sheets and only lost twice at Gresty Road but seven defeats on the road in their last eleven aways have the Alex staring into the abyss again. I saw them recently and although they’re trying to play the right way, the back four are young and relatively inexperienced but will probably become better players. Since mid March Orient have started looking more like the team that almost won promotion, but they’ve got to play at both MK Dons and Swindon before the end of the season and this looks like a must win; they’ve not lost at Crewe since December 1994.

FT: 1-1.

Preston v Bristol City

The hosts have a ridiculous record at home in League One; three defeats since the end of September 2013 and they’re currently on a twelve game unbeaten run in the league at Deepdale, keeping six clean sheets in their last ten. However, a quick look at their form at home against the other clubs in the top six is interesting: Preston haven’t lost to any of the other contenders in Lancashire, but they’ve not beaten any of them either. It was a similar story last season.

The leaders have only lost three times on the road this season, but only one of those defeats was at a side that is currently in the top six and that was back in mid November, when they lost at Swindon. A win at Sheffield United on the first day of the season and a draw at MK Dons earlier this year indicate City are no pushovers on the road, despite being not as defensively sound as they are at Ashton Gate.

Head to head in the league at Preston; North End have only lost two of their last ten encounters in the football league with City at Deepdale, but they’ve only won half of the remainder, including last season’s 1-0 victory. A draw wouldn’t hurt either team but if MK Dons win at Port Vale, Preston will only be three points ahead of their nearest rivals. This is a far bigger game for the Lillywhites than the Robins and Preston need to win it.

FT: 1-1

Yeovil v Notts County

The appointment of Paul Sturrock looks like a decision to be competitive in League Two next season rather than any attempt to avoid relegation. It’s possible to argue that Gary Johnson should have been sacked far earlier than he was but that’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted; if the Glovers lose tomorrow, they’re down. Since the turn of the year, County have won twice on the road (at Orient and Colchester) and another win against one of their immediate rivals could put a huge amount of pressure on the clubs above them, but new permanent boss Ricardo Moniz is a peculiar choice given his track record and making your managerial debut in the UK in a third tier relegation battle against a veteran like Sturrock will be interesting to say the least.

FT: 1-1

It’ll be the usual drill this weekend: there’s a outside chance Bristol City may be promoted tomorrow and as I mentioned just now if Yeovil lose they’re down. Any updates will appear here…

Yeovil are relegated.