Analysing this most competitive of League Two promotion battles

By Jason McKeown (with Tim Penfold and Alex Scott)

It’s so tight. With five rounds of the regular League Two season left, Bradford City find themselves bunched together with at least six other clubs in a hugely congested promotion race. Just three points separate second and fifth. There’s a narrow five point gap between third and eighth. Mansfield are just outside the play offs right now, but with a game in hand that means they – along with everyone above them – will still fancy their chances of automatic promotion.

Is anyone brave enough to predict how this one will finish? Go then, we’ll have a go…

Let’s look at the runners and riders. And along the way, WOAP’s Tim Penfold and Alex Scott share their insights – and dodgy predictions.

1. Leyton Orient – P40 PTS 81 GD +27

The O’s are nearly there. 11 points clear of fourth place, meaning two more victories will seal promotion. They’re eight points above Northampton, suggesting they should seal the title with at least two games to spare.

For the rest of us, interest in Orient lies in the fact their final three games are against sides pushing for promotion. They go to Mansfield on Tuesday 25 April – both sides’ game in hand – before welcoming Stockport on the penultimate weekend. Then of course, it’s a final day trip to Valley Parade. City won’t be the only promotion contender hoping Orient have got it all wrapped up and have entered relaxed mode by the time they have to play them.

On Soccerstats, they do a very helpful run-in analysis where they calculate the average points per game (PPG) total of each club’s remaining opponents. The lower the number, the easier the final fixtures. Leyton Orient’s run-in opponents come in at 1.55.

Tim’s view:

They’re going to win the league pretty comfortably, aren’t they? They got themselves comfortably ahead early on and have kept the rest of the division at arm’s length since. If they still need something from the Stockport and Mansfield games, but are on the beach by the time they visit Valley Parade on the final day that would be the ideal outcome for us.

Alex’s view:

Points on the board are a valuable thing. Since Christmas, Orient are 9th, with only 7 wins out of their 19 games. For illustration, that’s as many wins as Colchester over the same period, who currently sit in 20th. It’s three fewer wins than Gillingham, who are 19th.

Helpfully for Orient, the first half of the season counts too. As they tucked into their turkey, they were 16 points clear of 4th place with a game in hand and a plus-19 goal difference in the bag. Their nine wins out of ten to start the season is the sole period of dominance anyone has shown all season and for that they probably deserve to be champions.

They will likely be promoted by the home game against Crewe, before their run-in kicks up in the final stretch with trips to Mansfield and Valley Parade sandwiching a home game against Stockport. How they choose to approach the last fortnight will be determinative in this promotion battle.

WOAP dodgy prediction: Champions.

2. Northampton Town – P41 PTS 73 GD +17

How crucial could Will Hondermarck’s 82nd minute winner on Easter Monday prove? A close-fought 2-1 victory over Gillingham means Northampton have a three-point cushion over the teams below them. It’s firmly in their hands to claim one of the three automatic promotion spots.

The Cobblers had a small mid-season slump at the turn of the year, where they won just twice in 10 games. But since then, it’s one defeat in their last 10, six of which were won. On Saturday, they go to Carlisle in what is a huge game for everyone in this race. And of course, City have to go to Sixfields on the penultimate Saturday. If Northampton need something to seal promotion that day, it’s going to be a tricky afternoon for the Bantams.

Carlisle and City aside, Northampton’s run-in looks kind with trips to faltering Sutton and Tranmere, plus a home game against struggling Harrogate. But with a remaining opponents PPG of 1.60, it’s not the easiest fixture list to navigate.

Alex’s view:

Northampton are currently struggling through an injury crisis for the ages, with 11 (eleven) first teamers currently sidelined, and injured players are currently having to split time, out of position to get through games. Injured 5-foot-9 midfielder Jack Sowerby had to fill in at centre back for the second half against Gillingham on Saturday to just get through the game.

Yet they still find a way. There’s clearly something about the team to come back fighting this season after last year’s controversial final day which saw Bristol Rovers score five second half goals against already-relegated Scunthorpe to overturn the goal difference swing and steal third place away from Northampton.

Despite this, they have been there or thereabouts all season long, and in such a tightly contested promotion battle it’s hard to see past the resilience of Northampton despite a challenging (ish) run in.

Tim’s view:

Of the current top three, I think they’re the most likely to drop into the play offs due to their injury crisis – if Hoskins joins their lengthy list of walking wounded then they could well struggle, especially with some tricky fixtures. Our trip there on the penultimate weekend looks absolutely huge.

WOAP dodgy prediction: 3rd and automatic promotion

3.Stockport County P41 PTS 70 GD +24

Oh man. The case for Bradford City’s automatic promotion chances are severely weakened when you look at Stockport County’s form. Four wins in the last six. Nine wins in the last 14. 21 wins in the last 35 games. That takes you right back to the October day when Stockport – struggling for form – won 1-0 at Valley Parade. They were slow starters, but since victory in BD8 Stockport’s results are the best in the division. And they’ve got a strong goal difference.

Easter Monday’s 4-0 thumping of Newport County put Stockport into the top three for the first time all season, and who’s going to stop them? They do have tricky away games, with a visit to in-form Gillingham (on Saturday), Carlisle (next Tuesday) and Leyton Orient (on the same afternoon we play Northampton) to come. But they’ve got home games against struggling Rochdale and a final day visit from Hartlepool too.

Soccerstats ranks their run in at 1.52. Slightly easier than Carlisle and Northampton’s, but tougher than City, Stevenage, Salford and Mansfield. Still, with 25 points from their last 12 games, Stockport won’t be fearing anyone. The momentum is with them.

Tim’s view:

They’re the form team of the race, and they’ve looked a genuinely good team both times we’ve played them. If it wasn’t for their poor start they’d be joining Orient out of sight of the rest of us. There’s a few six pointers for them, but on current form I’d back them to get plenty of points out of them.

Alex’s view:

This is not a vintage promotion battle in terms of quality, but if there is an in-form team to fear, that team is Stockport.

This isn’t an out of character run either, there are in some ways the inverse Leyton Orient. If we started the season on 25 September, Stockport would be twelve points clear of fourth placed City, with a goal difference advantage of +19. However, unfortunately for Stockport, the first ten games count too, from which they only earned 8 points.

Their run-in may be more challenging than first meets the eye, with Saturday’s trip to Gillingham, who’ve won seven of their last eight home games, as well as relegation-battling Hartlepool, promotion-chasing (sort of) Carlisle and beach-bound Orient. Nevertheless, for 75% of the season so far Stockport have been the class of the division. Three more weeks to keep going and get over the line.

WOAP dodgy prediction: 2nd and automatic promotion

4. Carlisle United P41 PTS 70 GD +23

If Stockport look unstoppable right now, there’s definitely cracks appearing at Carlisle. Just one win in six, and no goals in their last four away games. It’s well documented, but worth repeating – Carlisle have a very tough run-in, with their remaining opponents PPG coming in at a considerable 1.73.

Read their fixtures and grimace – Northampton, Stockport, Barrow and Salford – before a final day trip to Sutton United. Every single side they face is in the top 10, and their next four especially are six-pointers. Of late, they’ve played and failed to beat Stevenage, Leyton Orient and ourselves. In fact, they’ve only won two games all season against the current top eight (Salford away, and City at home on Boxing Day).

After a 0-0 draw at Walsall on Monday, Carlisle have dropped out of the top three. They have the fixtures to keep it in their hands, but they need to find some form and fast. Even finishing inside the play offs might be a tall order.

Alex’s view:

There is a school of thought that it can be a positive thing to have a tough run in during a playoff fight, as every game becomes a six-pointer. However, the logic falls down a bit when you’re 15th in the form table and every game becomes a no-pointer.

Carlisle, with their one win and two goals in the past six games, look out of gas. Not ‘just into the red and don’t worry when it says ’10 miles left in the tank’ it doesn’t really mean it, there’s a buffer zone’ out of gas. Like, ‘hazards on in the hard shoulder wondering whether to call the AA embarrassed or just walk on for a bit and get some as I am pretty sure there is a petrol station just around that corner’ out of gas.  

Technically, they are one goal out of the automatic promotion spots, and the home game against Stockport next week looms as the key turning point. However, Carlisle fans’ eyes will likely be more focused on 8th placed Salford, currently four points adrift, and who they host on the penultimate Saturday of the season. Absolutely no gimmes in their final stretch; no downhill stretches of road they can just coast, and they are by no means guaranteed a play off spot. At least every game is a six-pointer.

Tim’s view:

I think they’re going to end up 8th. That run-in is brutal – promotion contenders with the exception of Sutton, and while Barrow are very much outsiders that’s a local derby. They’re out of form, and I’d expect them to lose most of the six-pointers.

WOAP dodgy prediction: 8th place, walking down to the BP.

5. Stevenage P40 PTS 70 GD +17

Another team that has lost form. Stevenage are winless in five. And a season that was going really well has not really recovered after their memorable FA Cup run. Including City’s victory at Stevenage in February, Steve Evans’ charges have lost five of their last 12 games. The 17th best record over this period. In other words, their form is more akin to that of a relegation struggler.

What will comfort Evans is the fact Stevenage’s run-in is pretty kind – with remaining opponents PPG at 1.37. They’ve now got back to back home games against two sides horribly out of form – Wimbledon and Doncaster – and their final two matches are at home to Grimsby and away to a Barrow side who are likely to have nothing to play for by then.

In between that though are two pivotal games. They go to Mansfield on Saturday week, and then they’ve got their all-important game in hand the following Tuesday – away to a hapless Swindon side. We’ll probably know more about whether Stevenage can last the distance over the next few days.

At this time of year, it can help to be playing sides whose seasons are already over, and so lack intensity. Right now, it looks like five of Stevenage’s six remaining games are against such opponents (though Barrow will disagree).

Tim’s view:

From challenging Orient for the title to scrambling to stay in contention – Steve Evans’ side have overachieved all season, and it seems to be catching up with them. Their remaining fixtures look reasonable, but they just aren’t winning games. I still think they will sneak into the play offs, but it’s not looking great for them.

Alex’s view:

Like Carlisle, Stevenage will be a great test of whether ‘momentum’ actually exists. They are level on points with Stockport, with both a game in hand and a much easier run-in. Through one lens, they should really be favourites to get over the line. Yet, since the 1st of February, they are 16th in the division with only 3 wins from 14.

The next week will be crucial with eminently winnable must-win games at home to AFC Wimbledon and Doncaster, 23rd and 24th respectively in the form tables over the last ten games. Six points and some confidence from those games and you’d think they should be in very good shape.

And yet. They’ve been bang average for months. Luke Norris, their top scorer, suffered a “likely season ending ankle injury” in the draw at Colchester on Saturday. 20-year old Thimothee Lo-Tutala joined on emergency loan from Hull City last week to become the sixth different keeper to play in the league for them this season. They could only field six subs in their last game, and in stark contrast to Jon Brady at Northampton continually praising his side’s resilience amid injury crises, Stevenage’s manager is just complaining about referees.

WOAP dodgy prediction: 6th and play offs.

6. Bradford City P40 PTS 68 GD +16

We did a piece a few weeks back about City’s remaining fixtures, which now stand at a very kind 1.32 PPG. No one above us has an easier run-in based on this measurement, although the four chasing teams below City all have a more favourable PPG fixture list.

What has changed since our article is the date of the Crewe fixture. It’s now in the final week of the season, on a Wednesday night, in-between the Northampton and Leyton Orient games. And that means it could be absolutely huge. Imagine if City go to Gresty Road one or two points behind third place? Or even better, they’re a point or two ahead? Every promotion rival will only be able to watch on helplessly and hope that Crewe upset the odds.

It could be the night promotion is sealed. We can dream, can’t we?

Alex’s view:

There was a moment on Monday when City were only three points (with a game in hand) out of second, with a comfortable cushion to 8th place. Fortunes turned against them at the end, and despite the most promising home win of the season, City ended the weekend in a similar place to how they started it. Playing well but needing help.

It was a big win though, and Mark Hughes’ players have a right to be confident. Two (mostly self-inflicted) home defeats in their last 19 games. Since the additions of Adam Clayton and Sam Stubbs, City have become very hard to beat. With arguably the best goalkeeper and goal scorer in the division, alongside an otherwise functional and competent team, they should be confident heading into the final run in and, likely, play off battles to come.

Automatic promotion could still be within their grasp if they can find a run of wins down the stretch, though a consistently strong three weeks has continued to elude this team all year. If they can flip the switch now, they could have timed their run perfectly. More likely, a play off battle looms.

Tim’s view:

If we win the Northampton game (and don’t slip up against the likes of Rochdale, which seems almost inevitable now I’ve said it) then I think we might sneak into 3rd. Four wins out of the last six gets us to 80 points, and if we can get a fifth then we should have enough to go up.

The team looks like it’s coming into a decent bit of form, with the midfield looking as good as it has all season. This sort of run-in is exactly why we invested in the likes of Richie Smallwood and Sam Stubbs – if they play at their best, we can do this.

WOAP dodgy prediction: 4th and play offs

7. Salford City P41 PTS 66 GD +16

Salford City have completed three seasons in the Football League. Each time they’ve set a big budget, struggled to compete near the top, and sacked their manager. Finally, it seems they have got their act together, with the more understated Neil Wood making them a stronger force.

It looked like they were in big trouble on Easter Monday. 2-1 down at Wimbledon, and having fallen out of the play offs, it might have been a tall order to recover. But two stoppage time goals in London won the game and put them back into the play offs. Salford’s form (fourth best in the league over the last eight games) will give them confidence. They’ve only lost two of their last night games, and on the way won impressively at Mansfield and Stevenage, plus gained a point at Stockport.

Salford have the joint best away record in the league. Their final two away games are at Walsall and – on the same day City are at Northampton, and Stockport face Leyton Orient – Salford go to Carlisle. What a huge game that might be for both clubs.

Salford’s home record is even worse than City’s, but visits from Colchester, Hartlepool and Gillingham won’t hold too much fear. With a remaining opponents PPG of 1.18, Salford have the easiest run-in of the entire top nine.

Tim’s view:

What a difference one stoppage time makes. They looked like they were slumping out of the play offs, and dropping back from the rest of the promotion pack, and then missed a penalty in the 92nd minute to equalise. It would’ve been easy for them to collapse, but instead they turned it round and are still in contention.

Their fixture list doesn’t look quite as easy as Jason says though – Gillingham are a new team since January, Colchester’s recent away record is impressive and Hartlepool have been a completely new team since the appointment of John Askey, and keep taking points off promotion contenders. I think they make the play offs, but it’ll be tight.

Alex’s view:

This year has been characteristic of their entire Football League tenure so far. Promotion has been here waiting for them, but they can’t seem to put it all together. A miraculous comeback last week against AFC Wimbledon however, for once grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat, could be the catalyst they need to spark their play off run.

And yet, they’ve only won back-to-back league games three times all season. They haven’t once strung three league wins in a row together. They absolutely have the run in they’d want, with winnable games throughout. But those games need winning, consistently, if Salford are going to tie up their playoff spot.

With Conor McAleny, Callum Hendry and Matt Smith they have goals in their team, and a likely League Two Team of the Year midfielder in Elliot Watt pulling the strings. Northampton would love to have Salford’s talent; Salford are desperate for some of Northampton’s resilience. Do they have enough about them to get themselves over the line, or will this be yet another should-have-been?

WOAP dodgy prediction: 7th and play offs

8. Mansfield Town P40 PTS 65 GD +15

Mansfield are a funny team. Brilliant one week, awful the next. They won 4-0 at Carlisle, and then barely a week later lost 5-2 at home to Salford.

But they have spirit, and you dare not write them off. They got a last minute equaliser at Valley Parade in February of course, and more recently did the same at Stockport. Unbeaten in six, but having only won two of them, it’s too many draws that are hurting Mansfield’s chances. Five points off the top three is a lot, but the Stags do have a game in hand,

You would not want to play Mansfield in the play offs, but with a remaining fixture list of 1.36 PPG that could well be the fate for someone. Mansfield go to mid-table Grimsby and Newport next, before huge home games against Stevenage and Leyton Orient. Their last two fixtures are struggling Harrogate at home and Colchester away, so if they emerge from the Leyton Orient game with a strong chance of promotion, they’ll back themselves to take it.

Alex’s view:

Last year’s play off finalists, Mansfield have been here before. In mid-March last year they lying down in tenth, before rattling off six wins in ten to charge into the playoffs where they saw of a reeling Northampton to make it to Wembley. They also made the playoffs in 2019, and missed the dance by 3 points in 2018 finishing 8th.

Two defeats since early January, Mansfield – like City – will feel confident coming in. Yet similarly to Salford – and again like City – they will wonder about why they haven’t been able to iron out the poor performances and fire on all cylinders.

This promotion fight has been, and remains, wide open for someone – anyone – to string three weeks of good football together and take what is there for the taking. Yet Mansfield, like their peers just haven’t found the consistency to do so. The run in is not bad, and no defeats in six should leave them with a spring in their steps (though four draws in that same time may leaden their gait). The play offs are there for them, if they can get out of their own way. Carlisle seem their most likely target to pick off.

Tim’s view:

I think they’re just a bit too far back to go up automatically, though the Stevenage game is a big one in that regard. They’re not a side I’d want to face in the play offs though, despite Andy Cook’s tendency of making them regret releasing him.

There’s a talented and spirited side there, and a good coach in Nigel Clough – I wouldn’t rule them out.

WOAP dodgy prediction: 5th and play offs.

9. Barrow P41 PTS 61 GD -1

They’re the dark horses but they’re not out of it. Barrow go into this weekend five points off the play offs, and the momentum of three wins in four. They have the fourth-best home record in the division, though their final two Holker Street opponents of Carlisle and Stevenage won’t be easy. Away from home, where their form is less impressive, Barrow go to Swindon, Grimsby and Hartlepool.

Like Mansfield, their remaining opponents PPG is 1.36. It’s not impossible, but they can’t really afford any slip ups and that’s probably too much to ask. For City and others, you want Barrow to be in with a chance for as long as possible – so they have the right intensity when they face Carlisle and Stevenage.

Go on agent Jake Young, get a goal in either game to help your parent club!

Tim’s view:

They aren’t completely out of the question when it comes to the play offs, but their main role might be in deciding the automatic places. If they can take points off Carlisle and Stevenage, then that might be a fatal blow to their opponents. I can’t quite see them sneaking into 7th though – they’re just too far back.

Alex’s view:

Barrow just will not go away. An excellent year for them given their paucity of resources. They really should be out of this by now, but the sides above won’t put them away, and they won’t roll over.

They’ve beaten Mansfield, and Stockport (twice) and City (twice) this season. On their day they can take it to anyone. Yet they just lost 3-0 to Crewe on Good Friday, and lost at home at Harrogate three weeks ago. Them being alive in the playoff race past Easter is as much other’s doing than theirs, but three wins out of four will have them dreaming

They will need to continue this recent form to have an outside chance and the run in isn’t too bad. But they will need help. Thankfully, their competitors are a generous bunch so you can’t rule them out. In any event, a great season for Barrow and Pete Wild far surpassing expectations into a top ten finish. Repeating it will be the next challenge.

WOAP dodgy prediction: 9th.  

Can City do it?

After Monday’s win, it feels like City have a real chance of making the top three. But with Stockport’s blistering form, it is still a big ask. Leyton Orient are just about home and dry. So it’s probably a matter of seven teams competing for the two remaining spots.

There’s still a chance City will miss out on the play offs too, given the threat immediately below them. There’s going to be at least one of the current top eight that loses out, and it will seem harsh on whoever just fails.The play off themselves will be hugely competitive. There isn’t really any side you’d prefer to face.

For City, they’ve got to get a good points haul from these upcoming away trips to Rochdale and Swindon. Dale have improved of late but are bottom of the league for a reason, and Swindon are ranked 22nd in the League Two form table for the past 12 games. With Gillingham at home to follow, a return of seven to nine points gives City a real chance of crashing into the top three. These next three matches will go a long, long way to deciding City’s fate.

You don’t want to go to Northampton needing to win, but that seems an unavoidable scenario if City are to make the top three. And though a visit from the Champions-elect on the final day might be a good time to play Orient, like Dale they’re in their current league position for a reason.

The twists and turns are going to be dizzying. The drama is only just getting started. Don’t take your eyes off this hotly contested League Two promotion battle for one second.

Categories: Opinion


7 replies

  1. Superb article, thank you Jason, Alex and Tim. It’s difficult to predict and one thing is guaranteed, there will be twists and turns before 2:30pm on Monday 08 May. I hadn’t realised that Salford City missed a penalty before their two late, late goals at AFC Wimbledon. For us, I think that the timing of our rearranged Crewe Alexandra game could be crucial. I’ve said for the past few months, that we would end up in the play offs and I’m sticking with my prediction. I just don’t think that we are consistent enough to finish in the top three places. Then, it would be the play off lottery. It’s certainly exciting with six very important games to come.

  2. Win all six and we’re up. Simples!! LOL!!

  3. There is a ‘Kamara 96’ feel about this season. A good but not great side that just starts to pick up momentum as the season comes to a close. Our squad suddenly looks balanced, with a great keeper, tough defenders, wingers in midfield and a true goal scorer too.
    I hope for third place but play offs seems the most likely.
    Superb article as always. Thank you

  4. Great article unbiased in depth. Well done guys.

  5. Very interesting article and I can’t argue with most of it. The only exception would be our final match against Leyton Orient. I wouldn’t necessarily assume their players will already be on the beach somewhere. Does anyone remember being thrashed 5-0 by Portsmouth in the final match of 2002/3 season. They were already champions but showed us no mercy on the day. Admittedly, we were much lower in the old 2nd tier table then but I don’t think you can assume that Leyton will be easier to beat because they will likely be already crowned champions.

  6. Great analysis of all the promotion contenders. Let’s hope we can sneak the third automatic place – don’t fancy the play offs with this lot!

  7. Great piece and well written. O’s fan here and has been a weird season for us being miles clear and watching our form drop off a little since Christmas, but others following the same fate. Orient’s key stat at the moment is although we have thrown away leads against Colchester, Hartlepool and Harrogate of late, we are unbeaten in 12 and Wellens will try to keep that run going to the end. Expect plenty of drawn matches in our run-in. We also do much better against the better, football playing sides. An exciting few weeks ahead.

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