2014/15 Sky Bet League One Playoff Final Preview

So after nine months and 556 games, on Sunday we’ll find out who will be promoted to the Championship and might be facing Hull or Newcastle rather than Southend or Wycombe at some point in 2015/16. Don’t forget the match has a 5:30pm kick off and will be live on Sky Sports 1 after a meaningless Premier League game.

Sunday’s game is the fifth consecutive final between teams that finished third and fourth, but that’s a mixed blessing for Preston. Although the lower placed team has won the last four, half of the last ten finals have been won by the higher placed side and North End could become the first club from Lancashire to win promotion via the playoffs since Blackpool in 2007. It’s been five years since Swindon reached the League One playoff final (they lost to Millwall) but two years ago the Robins were defeated in the semi finals by Brentford.

It’s fair to say that neither side has a particularly good record in the playoffs – between them they’ve never been promoted in fourteen attempts. Swindon should have gone up in 1990 but Sunderland took their place after the Robins were found guilty of illegal payments.

Preston

The Lillywhites have been one of the better teams in League One over the past couple of seasons: they’ve managed consecutive top five finishes with an overall improvement in the three seasons since they finished 15th in 2012 following their relegation from the Championship. Only Bristol City lost fewer games this season, but only three teams – none of whom finished in the top half – drew more. North End occupied a top five place from the beginning of October, but never spent any time at the top of the table and blew their chance of automatic promotion on the last day. However, there are obvious reasons why they’ve not become one of the best sides in the competition. If you want to look back at some of the recent posts about the Lillywhites, the theme that keeps recurring is that the reason they didn’t win automatic promotion is that they couldn’t win games they took the lead in. In five of their nine draws at Deepdale that happened, including the 3-3 draw against Chesterfield in September when they blew a three goal lead. If a couple of those draws had been converted into wins, I wouldn’t be writing about them in the context of the playoff final.

Having written that, the final isn’t at Deepdale and Preston’s away defence was the best in League One last season. In 2015, only Crawley, Port Vale and Sheffield United have scored more than once at home against the Lillywhites and Preston were the only team to beat Bristol City at Ashton Gate in the league without conceding a goal. They’re probably also over reliant on Joe Garner and Jermaine Beckford, who scored almost 40% of Preston’s goals this season, but that’s not really something to worry about at this point. It will be if PNE go up though.

Key player: Tom Clarke. The 27 year old Yorkshireman and former England youth international has been a mainstay in defence since joining from Huddersfield almost two years ago.

Swindon

This season’s fourth placed finished is Town’s best league position for a decade, but despite having been a top ten side since promotion from League Two in 2011, Swindon seem to have acquired the habit of falling short when it comes to automatic promotion from the third tier. Losing more than ten games normally won’t guarantee promotion and their defensive shortcomings (nine teams conceded fewer goals this season) were exposed in the incredible semi final second leg against Sheffield United. Before that match it seemed to neutral observers that Mark Cooper was happy to limp into the playoffs just to see what happened but the win at Bramall Lane in the first leg was entirely consistent with the Blades’ poor home form against the top ten this season rather than Swindon suddenly turning into supermen. Somewhat ignored amidst the euphoria, the fact was that Town also scored five against United at the County Ground in September.

The truth of the matter is that Swindon had only won three of their last ten away games before the win in the first leg and only one of those successes came against a team that finished in the top half of the table. Although Preston only gained three more points on the road that Swindon, Town had a phenomenal start to the away part of their season with just two defeats in thirteen games between August and January. In that ten game streak that I started the paragraph with, they kept two clean sheets (at Crewe and Port Vale) and conceded three at Bristol City, Preston and Scunthorpe. Unlike Sunday’s opponents, the Robins have goals throughout the team: three players reached double figures with another two notching more than five.

Key player: Andy Williams. The joint third leading scorer in League One was arguably in the form of his career during the winter after missing most of last season through an injury picked up whilst on loan at Yeovil last season. The 28 year old striker has not been scoring as regularly since then, but even if he starts on the bench he’s a potential match winner.

Head to head

Preston have won almost half of the 32 encounters between the sides since they first met in a Fourth Round FA Cup tie back in January 1935. The initial meeting in the league was a 1-0 win for Preston at Deepdale in October 1963; Swindon recorded their first home victory against the Lillywhites almost seven years later. Since Preston’s relegation in 2012, all but one of the six league games between them in League One have been won by the hosts; the other was a draw.

General League One Playoff Final Facts

There has been an average of 2.9 goals in the last ten finals, both teams scored in six of the last ten.

Only one 0-0 draw (2012, the epic between Huddersfield and Sheffield United) and three penalty shoot outs over last decade but two of those occurred in last three seasons. It’s a similar story with extra time: four times in last decade but half of those have been in the last two seasons.

This is the first League One playoff final that hasn’t featured a team from either Yorkshire or London since 2007. Yorkshire sides have won half of the last ten finals: good news for the four Yorkshire teams in next season’s competition perhaps?

Verdict

Preston are favourites to return to the Championship for the first time since 2010/11, but that depends almost entirely on which Swindon team turns up. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, although the Robins are capable of raising their game for big matches, they lost four of their six away games against the sides that ultimately finished in the top six, whereas Preston won at Bristol City, Milton Keynes and Chesterfield (twice) without conceding. The stats indicate that this could be a tight game with no more than one goal in it (which would suit Preston down to the ground) but if you combine North End’s inability to close games and show a big match mentality when it counts and Swindon’s occasionally over the top gung ho style it’s also possible that we could end up with a game that resembles last year’s 2-2 draw or the Barnsley/Swansea game in 2006.

However, I’m going to stick my neck out despite my record in these games and Preston are my choice. There’s one final thing to note: the winner may be the team with eleven men left on the pitch at the end of it. Swindon were bottom of the Fair Play table in League One…with Preston and Scunthorpe just behind them.

Update: one of the most one sided finals for years saw Preston return to the Championship with a 4-0 win over Swindon. Jermaine Beckford scored a hat trick in less than an hour.

In other news: Nigel Clough is no longer Sheffield United manager…Southend will be joining Burton, Bury and Shrewsbury in League One next season…I’ll be back in the middle of the month with the first day games for 2015/16…

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.

JPT Final Preview

Bristol City v Walsall (Sky Sports 3, kick off 3:30pm)

Referee: Mick Russell. At least one yellow card in nine of his last ten games, 2.3 yellows on average over the same period. Just the one red though.

The showpiece for the lower half of the Football League is always a fun day out for the fans, but there’s an added angle this season. If Bristol City are victorious, the Robins will have won the trophy for a record three times. On the other hand, Walsall have never played at Wembley before; they’ve reached four previous semi finals – two in earlier incarnations of this competition – but have failed to qualify for any of the finals they were aiming for.

Bristol City

First round bye

Second Round: 3-1 at Cheltenham (Burns, Korey Smith 2)

Area QF 2-1 v Wimbledon (Wilbraham 2)

Area SF 2-0 v Coventry (Williams, Wilbraham)

Area F 4-2 at Gillingham (Matt Smith 4), 1-1 at home (Matt Smith)

Matt Smith’s amazing goalscoring feat in the area semi finals is all the more bizarre when you consider that he’s now been recalled from loan by Fulham and can’t play in the final, although he will be attending. It’s fair to say that City’s path to the final has been easier than Walsall’s but they’ve still scored more than twice as many goals on the road in League One as the Saddlers have in 2014/15. City have suffered three defeats on the road and have only failed to score three times in away matches in all competitions this season. Aaron Wilbraham is the club’s leading scorer in the league; four other players have scored more than five goals this season, including former Swindon centre half Aden Flint.

Walsall

First round bye

Second round: 1-0 at Rochdale (Manset)

Area QF: Sheffield United 1-0 (Sawyers)

Area SF: 2-2 aet at Tranmere (Forde, Cain), 5-4 on pens (Grimes missed)

Area F: 2-0 at Preston (Forde, Bradshaw), 0-0 at home

One of Walsall’s largely unheralded strengths is their away defensive record, they’ve conceded two fewer goals away from home than Bristol City have this season and any side that can stop Rochdale, Sheffield United, MK Dons and Preston from scoring at home should be able to put up a similar effort against City. That’s why the recent 3-0 reverse at Barnsley was a surprise as the Saddlers haven’t conceded that many in an away game since mid September and until that point had scored in eight of their previous away games in all competitions. Leading scorer Tom Bradshaw has only scored once since the second goal at Preston in the first leg of the area final; none of his teammates has scored more than four goals this season but Manchester City loanee Jordie Hiwula-Mayifuila looks like one to watch.

Here’s some general stats from the finals from the last 20 years to keep you going for the next couple of days. Bristol City are favourites, probably because since Johnstone’s Paints took over as title sponsor six of the eight finals have been won by the higher placed team on the morning of the final.

* Half of the last 20 finals have had more than 2.5 goals and both teams have scored in the same number. The bookies see a low scoring game, with a 1-1 draw at the top of correct score market but only five of the last 20 finals have finished all square and the last 1-1 draw was in 1994.

* There’s only been one goalless draw (1997), which was also the only time penalties have been used to sort the winners in last two decades.

* The largest margin of victory over the last two decades has been three goals by Southampton in 2010 and Blackpool in 2002. Both games featured a total of five goals

* Six of the last 20 winners have gone on to play in the Premier League; Southampton, Swansea and Stoke are still there. Two of the last 20 winners (Grimsby and Wrexham) are no longer in the football league.

* The losing team has only scored more than one goal in just two of the last 20 finals; last season was only the fifth time since 1995 that the winners had scored more than twice.

I mentioned last week that I might be able to get something done for Easter Monday, but there’s less of chance of that than there was. The plan is now that I ought to be able to post a recap of the Easter action, so I shall see you then.

Update: Bristol City 2, Walsall 0. In other news, Notts County are searching for a new manager.

It’s Tough At The Bottom

It’s decision time this week.

Bristol City are thirteen points clear at the top of the table, they have ten games left to play and look as if they’ve definitely qualified for the playoffs; at more or less the same point in last season’s Championship campaign, I stopped writing about Burnley and Leicester. To be honest, the jostling for second place and the playoffs as well as the relegation dogfight look like the most interesting stories at the top of the table for the next couple of months, especially as it’s worth remembering that the only teams that are probably out of playoff contention are the bottom three.

So what I’m going to do is leave City out of the proceedings unless they suddenly look as if they could be overtaken and as the bottom four are playing each other, that’s where the focus is this week. Only two points separate Orient and Yeovil with Coventry and possibly Notts County (who have suddenly reverted back to being a very poor team) still possible contenders for the drop

Colchester v Crawley

United made an early decision to sack Joe Dunne, but although Tony Humes only lost two of his first ten games in charge and Colchester were in mid table at the end of October, five straight defeats before Christmas was the end of Humes’ honeymoon period. Two wins in ten home games since January isn’t exactly going to banish the threat of relegation and twelve games since a home draw won’t help either. However, the Us have yet to be beaten at home by any of the three teams in the drop zone.

Crawley had a massive upset win at Swindon last month, but that was only their second away win of the season and if their form on the road this season is anything to go by then that victory in Wiltshire may be their last away win in league one for a while as they’d lost their previous six on the road. The Red Devils have already lost at both Orient and Yeovil and have only scored more than once in three of their 17 games away from Broadfield Road.

This is the third meeting between the clubs in the league in Essex, previous encounters have both finished in 1-1 draws.

Leyton Orient v Yeovil

Orient’s last home game against the current bottom four, but three wins and a draw in ten home games since January 1st combined with a brutal looking home run in featuring three promotion visiting Brisbane Road after this game doesn’t inspire confidence in a Great Escape. Orient have collapsed completely since losing the playoff final on penalties nearly a year ago and so far the ‘Italian’ experiment has been a complete failure. Current boss Fabio Liverani has lost 13 of 22 games in his entire managerial career.

Yeovil visit Colchester next week but they’ve not won any of their last seven away games and finish off their away slate this season with trips to Swindon and MK Dons. The Glovers have been in the bottom four since mid October and are almost at the point where the bookies won’t accept any more bets backing them for relegation. This time last year they’d manage to put a five game unbeaten streak together in the championship, which wasn’t enough to save them in the long term; in a year’s time they’ll probably be wondering if that their spell in the second tier actually happened.

There are no form clues from past meetings in East London; this is their tenth meeting in the London borough of Waltham Forest and the last nine have been divided equally between the three outcomes. Orient won the last league meeting 4-1 in September 2012.

I’ll be back on Monday to take a look at Bradford’s cup replay and the midweek programme, but the focus will be on the JPT final next Friday.

Game Of The Evening: Preston v Doncaster

(Due to technical problems beyond my control – but probably of my own making – I was unable to publish last night. So for what it’s worth, here’s what I wrote…)

I wondered if last Saturday’s games would see any significant shifts and I was right. Bristol City beat Rochdale 1-0, but Coventry held on to an early lead to beat MK Dons for their first home win since October. Those results – combined with an emphatic win by Preston at Oldham and Swindon only earning a point at Crawley – mean that Bristol City now have an eight point lead over the Dons, who are in second place on goal difference from Preston. Swindon drop to fourth.

At the bottom, the plot thickened considerably. Leyton Orient won at Walsall to move within a point of safety whilst Notts County lost at Port Vale: that’s County’s sixth defeat in the last seven and they drop into the bottom six for the first time this season. The Magpies were in the playoff positions as recently as the end of November.

Tonight’s highlights:

Colchester United v Notts County

United haven’t won consecutive league games at home since October and but have won four of their last ten in 2015 including the recent shock win over Bristol City…have spent almost all of the season in the bottom four but have a superb record against Leyton Orient, Crawley and Yeovil in 2014/15…Notts have lost only once in seven games at teams currently in the bottom half of the table but have to visit Crawley and Yeovil over the next month…only Bristol City have lost fewer away games than the Magpies…Colchester have won half of the last ten encounters in Essex, last win was October 2011 but Notts thumped them 4-0 last season.

Leyton Orient v Bristol City

The Os have won three of their last four but have failed to win any of their home games against any of the sides currently in the top half of the table this season…haven’t won consecutive home games for a year…two of City’s three away defeats have been at teams in the bottom half of the table (Crewe, Colchester)…first of three consecutive away games against three of the bottom four…last time Orient beat Bristol City in East London, Barbra Streisand was number one with ‘Woman In Love’. Yes, that long ago.

Preston v Doncaster

Game of the evening. There’s a fourteen point difference between them but if the season ended today this would be a playoff game: North End have been in the top five since the end of September, which is almost exactly the same position as they were last season.

As I’ve mentioned Preston a lot recently, it’s only fair to focus on Doncaster. After relegation from the Championship in May, Rovers got off to an indifferent start – they were in the bottom six at the end of October – but just five defeats in their next 20 games have given them a chance of promotion that looked unlikely a few weeks ago. Their big problem is that after tonight they still have to play at MK Dons and Sheffield United as well as entertaining Swindon and they don’t have a good record against the teams above them. However, despite lacking an outstanding striker they have goals throughout the team and can be lethal on their day: the 5-0 win at Crawley last month was the first time they’d scored that many goals away from home for almost five years.

Rovers don’t have a bad record at Deepdale either. Preston haven’t beaten them in Lancashire since December 2008 and Donny have won their last two visits without conceding a goal and another perfomance like that would really put the cat amongst the pigeons in the race for sixth place. Bradford City are more likely to overtake them than Chesterfield are this evening but I suspect that in a few weeks it’s going to be the last play off place that is going to be the centre of attention: it’s highly likely that the sixth placed team won’t earn 70 points this season.

Back on Friday when I’m focussing purely on Bradford City’s FA Cup quarter final against Reading, but before I leave, Tony Mowbray has taken over the reigns at Coventry. Instant reaction: uh oh.

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.