League One Christmas Preview 2019

Welcome to the 2019 Christmas Post.

For those of you that are new readers, it’s basically a chance to take a look at what might happen over the second half of the season based on what’s happened between August and December.

Before I go any further, there’s a League One team in the semi finals of the League Cup – here’s how Burton Albion did it:

Last week’s game of the week ended all square:

OK, now for the main course: any of the stats you read from this point on are based on the table follwing the Boxing Day fixtures over the last five seasons. The correlation between that table and the standings at the end of the season is arguably not as strong as it is in the Championship, but the overall trends are quite compelling.

At the top, you need to be in the top three in order to win promotion without taking part in the playoffs, but that’s not a guarantee. 60% of the teams that were in the top three at the end of play on December 26th went on to compete in the Championship at the start of the next season; in three of the last five seasons the team that lead the table on Boxing Day eventually finished in the top two. Although I’m not expecting Portsmouth to crash and burn dramatically, if the lack of goals that affected them in the latter half of last season happens again, they might find themselves in the playoffs.

Of the remainder, all but one qualified for the playoffs but got no further than that – including one club currently in the middle of League Two (Swindon) and one now playing in the National League (Leyton Orient). The exception to both cases: at close of play on December 26th 2014, Gillingham were third in the table, but only won six games in the second half of the season to eventually finish ninth.

As for the playoffs, the last three winners were all outside of the top six at the end of Boxing Day, but two of them were inside the top ten. There’s no need to go over the second half of Barnsley‘s 2015/16 season again – you can read it here – but suffice to say there’s always one team that makes a hash of the second half of the season, just as there’s always one that suddenly finds form and makes a run at the playoffs.

As for who that might be this season, if Fleetwood or Blackpool suddenly find a regular goalscorer or two they could find themselves in the mix.

Now off to the bottom of the table.

At least two of the clubs that have been relegated have been in the bottom six after the Boxing Day games have finished and in three of the last five seasons the club that’s bottom on 26/12 has been relegated – but unlike the Championship, this is not set in stone and there’s usually at least one club that’s had a mediocre start to the campaign turns into a disaster in second half.

As you’d expect, it’s normally teams in the bottom third of the table that are most at risk but there’s almost always an outlier: on Boxing Day 2013, Notts County were in eighth place and just two points outside the playoff positions, but they lost 14 of their next 25 games and were relegated. Five years later and the Magpies are in serious danger of losing their place in the Football League. Chesterfield – who were only below Notts County on goal difference on Boxing Day evening and only just missed out on the playoffs – are now fighting relegation from the National League.

This season there are a number of interesting angles in the battle against relegation: Wimbledon have the most to do, but sacking Neil Ardley was recognition that something needed to change, whereas Bristol Rovers might well regret not parting company with Darrell Clarke earlier than they did. It remains to be seen if Plymouth can pull off the same trick they managed last year (they’re only one point worse off than they were last season) and there are a couple of clubs who were playoff regulars over the last couple of seasons who are now struggling to avoid the drop, which brings me nicely on to the highlights of the holiday programme.

Saturday 22nd December

Portsmouth v Sunderland, Bradford City v Scunthorpe.

At the top of the Championship a few years ago there was a massive Boxing Day game between Cardiff and Crystal Palace that was a season defining game for both sides and – with no offense intended for Luton Town – the clash between the two pre-season favourites for promotion would normally have been game of the week. It’s the first time that they’ve have met in a league game for almost a decade (when both clubs were in the Premier League) and although Sunderland haven’t won at Portsmouth since November 1997, they’ve not lost any of the four games they’ve played this season against the other clubs currently in the top six. On the other hand, Portsmouth have only won half of their four games against the same opponents…

In the last few seasons, Bradford City v Scunthorpe would have been a top of the table clash: both clubs seem to have missed their chances of promotion to the Championship and now seem locked in a battle to avoid relegation. Whether that’s due to playoff hangovers, self destructive off field issues or a combination of both is a discussion for another day, but the facts are that despite winning their last two home games without conceding a goal, Bradford have only won two of their last six home league games against the Iron

Boxing Day

Scunthorpe v Luton, Sunderland v Bradford City, Wimbledon v Plymouth

The bottom of League One is hardly going to be the focal point of the public imagination on Boxing Day, but with three games featuring four of the teams currently in the bottom six, there may could well be some changes at the foot of the table. Spare a thought for the Luton and Plymouth fans making round trips of 320 and 424 miles respectively on Boxing Day. That makes the 109 mile journey from Bradford to Sunderland look like a trip to the corner shop.

So to sum up, if you’ve got time on Boxing Day evening to look at the tables:

  • There’s a good chance two of the top three clubs will be promoted.
  • There’s a good chance that most of the top six teams will at least reach the playoffs, but the actual playoff winners may not be in that group.
  • Two of the three teams that will be relegated will be in the bottom six, with the bottom team most likely to be playing in League Two next season.

I’ll be back at the start of 2019 with the FA Cup third round preview, but that’s me done for the year. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas 🙂

GOTW: Barnsley v Portsmouth

Portsmouth failed to take the opportunity to take an unassailable lead into the Christmas period when they lost by the odd goal in three at Fratton Park on Tuesday night.

A win would have put them nine points ahead at the top, but as it stands they can’t be overtaken this weekend.

Last weekend Oxford continued their impressive run at Peterborough:

160 miles to the north west, a record crowd at Accrington was left disappointed when the game against Sunderland was abandoned by ref Oliver Langford with 15 minutes left – to be fair, the conditions were atrocious as you can see below:

Barnsley v Portsmouth

The Tykes have now gone three games without a win but still haven’t lost at home at Oakwell this season. They were second in mid October but their defence has let them down recently: no clean sheet in three games and the prospect of three consecutive defeats for the first time since the start of this year.

As I already mentioned, earlier this week Pompey suffered their first defeat since start of October but Portsmouth haven’t lost on the road this season and they’re favourites for automatic promotion. They’ve got a couple of huge games coming up over the next couple of weeks, but before you start thinking that this looks straightforward for the visitors, here’s something to ponder: since 1990, Portsmouth have only won once in 13 visits to Oakwell, with their last victory coming in a 4-1 win in September 2001.

The games at Charlton (against Wimbledon) and Sunderland (where Bristol Rovers are the visitors) could be worth monitoring: it was only a matter of time before Darrell Clarke left and the timing of his departure from the Memorial Ground was probably right. The Gas can’t escape the bottom four this weekend and never won a league game at Roker Park – Rovers have never played at the Stadium of Light – so why prolong the misery?

Next scheduled post is next Friday…and it’s the Christmas Special.

GOTW: Peterborough v Oxford

We return to League One action this weekend.

Surprisingly, there were no shocks to report in last weekend’s FA Cup Second Round.

The Third Round draw took place on Monday evening: although there were 15 clubs from League One in it, no less than ten sides will be playing against Championship opposition at the start of next month; Barnsley and Gillingham will play Premier League opposition (so will Blackpool if they beat Solihull Moors in next week’s replay), which leaves one all League one tie: Fleetwood v AFC Wimbledon.

This weekend, the bottom four will be unchanged no matter what happens but two news managers will start their task of salvaging their the seasons of their new clubs. Former Wrexham boss Sam Ricketts takes over at Shrewsbury and AFC Wimbledon appointed their former player Wally Downes.

Downes already looks like a far more savvy decision; Ricketts had only been at Wrexham since May and as the previous incumbent (John Askey) demonstrated, success in the National League isn’t any guarantee whatsoever that it can be repeated in League One.

There was also a highly significant off-field departure at Bradford City…we’ll see if there’s any change on the field following that decision.

Peterborough v Oxford

Posh have only won two home games since the start of September but their mini wobble appears to be behind them – uncharacteristically, they’ve not scored more than two goals in a league game at London Road since mid August. That may be due to the quality of the opposition they’ve faced at home so far this season: they’ve played five home games against sides that are currently in the top ten and only won one of those fixtures.

Oxford have only lost once since the start of October and although they’ve still not won on the road this season, they’d put together a four game unbeaten streak before losing at Bradford a couple of weeks ago. This game will a test of exactly how much they’ve improved recently – they’re sixth in the current eight game form table – and London Road has been a happy hunting ground for the Us: they’ve only lost one of their last six league games there.

Finally this week – and apologies for the pun – it’s hats off to Luton. This is the Hatters’ best season for over a decade (don’t forget that they were relegated at the end of 2007/08 following a points deduction) but they’re currently on a seven game unbeaten streak and between them Elliott Lee and Jamie Collins have scored more goals in the league this season than both Bradford and Wimbledon have as a team. Admittedly they’ve yet to beat any of the other teams in the top ten and they have a very nasty looking January schedule but if they’re still there or there abouts at the start of February they could well be challenging for an overdue return to the second tier.

Back next weekend…