By Jason McKeown
There’s a side to life as a lower league footballer that we supporters don’t see, and that is the considerable amount of hours players spend sat on a coach, travelling up and down the country. Early starts, late drop offs, traffic jams, service stations, boredom. It can take its toll, and make those legs feel even heavier – especially at this time of year.
The quirk of the League Two fixture list is that it’s given everyone a late season Saturday-Tuesday turnaround, where you either have back to back home games or two consecutive away trips. All this, just days after the always-busy Easter weekend of two games. And in a promotion race of fine margins, the amount of travel needing to be completed by some over this period could prove telling.
Let’s start with Northampton, who at the weekend went through a 488-mile round trip to Carlisle where the two teams played out a 0-0 draw. That works out at about eight hours travelling time. And their injury-hit squad don’t have a lot of recovery time. On Tuesday, they’ve got a still considerable 190-mile round trip to Sutton to contend with. Two and a half hours journey time each direction. Not ideal.
Stockport County have it even tougher. They had a 478-mile round trip to Gillingham (over eight hours there and back), where they earned a 1-1 draw. On Tuesday, they go North to Carlisle – a 254-mile round trip (just over two hours each way). In total, that will be 732 miles travelled. Which puts them just ahead Northampton’s 678.
In contrast, Stevenage have two straight home games, against out-of-form opponents. They made home advantage count on Saturday, beating Wimbledon 2-1 to climb back to third. They’ll want to repeat that when they welcome Doncaster on Tuesday, so they emerge with a greater level of freshness than their commuting rivals. Especially as they have a not inconsiderable 232-mile round trip to Mansfield to come on Saturday.
Compared to Northampton and Stockport, the fixture list hasn’t been too unkind to City. On the road twice, but with their second-shortest away jaunt of the season to Rochdale (56-mile round trip, and one near enough that a group of dedicated Bradford City staff brilliantly walked it in support of Stephen Darby and the The Darby Rimmer MND Foundation). A 406-mile trip to Swindon on Tuesday is not ideal though – just over seven hours will be spent on a coach getting there and back. It’s meant an overall mileage of 462.
Of the play off chasing pack, Salford have the comfort of back to back home games (not that it counted for much on Saturday) and Mansfield had a relatively short, 169-mile round trip to Grimsby where they picked up a 1-1 draw. Though a 336-mile round trip to Newport on Tuesday is not ideal for the Stags. Still at 505 miles in total, they’ll have been sat in a coach for only 69% of the time that Stockport’s players will. Play off outsiders Barrow’s journeys to and from Swindon (504 miles, just under 10 hours in total) and Grimsby (248 miles, just short of four hours each direction) are horrendous.
A lack of time on the road definitely seemed to be a positive on Saturday, with Stevenage the weekend’s biggest winners in the automatic promotion race. Winless in five, Stevenage didn’t have the easiest of afternoons as Wimbledon continued their run of spirited performances undermined by hapless defending. Stevenage’s winner was gift-wrapped by their opponents.
“It’s a pressurised environment at this stage of the season,” reflected Steve Evans. “This ground was probably the loudest I’ve heard it despite the attendance compared to others. The noise just rose from all sides of the ground and there was a real atmosphere. If we ever needed the people of Stevenage we needed them at 65 minutes and they turned up and we got them a win.”
Boro moved back into the automatic promotion places due to Stockport’s failure to win in Kent. Having conceded just five times in their last 12 games, it was a shock to see County fall behind to Gillingham and they had to rely on an 89th minute equaliser from Will Collar to claim something.
It’s now one defeat in 16, but Stockport have fallen two points behind Stevenage having played an extra game. “The most important thing is that we do all we can to be in the top three come that Bank Holiday Weekend in May – I’m not going to be too fussed about where we sit at the minute,” was Dave Challinor’s verdict.
Northampton will probably be happier with the 0-0 at Brunton Park than Carlisle. It very much keeps promotion in their hands, with a three-point advantage over Stockport, Carlisle and City. “We are in a good position but we just have to focus on the next game and performing well,” stated Jon Brady.
In contrast, Carlisle will see it as a missed opportunity. Ahead of Tuesday night’s visit of Stockport, United have now failed to score in six of their last seven games. Remarkably Carlisle are the highest goalscorers out of the entire top six. A rueful Paul Simpson admitted of Carlisle’s sudden lack of goals, “I don’t know the answer and I don’t know what’s changed. It’s a mentality thing.”
Carlisle are down in fifth, but Bradford City are now level on points with them following their weekend victory at Rochdale. “We are in a good position at the moment, and we have to keep going until the end of the season,” was Mark Hughes’ verdict. Potentially of significance is that the 3-0 victory means City’s goal difference (+19) is now higher than Northampton’s (+17). In theory, City could draw at Northampton in two weeks and win their other four games, and in doing so finish ahead of the Cobblers.
Meanwhile a gap has now opened up between the automatic promotion-chasing pack and the dotted play off line. Salford blew a big chance to put pressure on those above, losing to struggling Colchester despite having 72% possession and 26 attempts on goal to the U’s five. “It was a strange game,” reflected Neil Wood. “On another day we score three or four. We’re not out of the running and there’s still plenty of games to go.”
Luckily, the Salford iFollow commentator took defeat well:
Salford have dropped out of the play offs for now, with Mansfield’s 1-1 draw at Grimsby putting them back into the top seven – though given the Mariners’ lowly status, it will have felt like two points dropped for the Stags. “It was a bit frustrating again, having got our noses in front,” declared Nigel Clough. “Over the course of the 95-100 minutes we had enough chances and situations to score more than one goal.”
The failure of Mansfield, Salford and dark horses Barrow to win means that City and others have taken a big step forward to at least ensuring a play off place. Whilst Carlisle United’s lack of form may still leave them sweating over finishing in the top seven, it looks increasingly like it’s a fight between Salford and Mansfield for the last spot, whilst the rest of us focus on the automatic promotion battle. When Hughes was asked about Mansfield and Salford’s weekend slip-ups improving their play off grip, he declared, “I wasn’t looking that direction. That’s not what we hope for.”
The big game on Tuesday is clearly Carlisle vs Stockport. With City and Stevenage having winnable-looking games on paper, a defeat for either United or County could be a crushing blow to their automatic promotion chances.
City, as they did at Rochdale on Saturday, simply have to concentrate on doing their job. A win at Swindon is guaranteed to lift them at least one place higher. A draw at Brunton Park, plus a failure of Stevenage to win, could even lift City up to third, providing the Bantams don’t slip up.
The Robins’ 0-0 draw with Barrow on Saturday ended a run of four straight defeats, but Swindon have not tasted victory since the end of February and their coach Jody Morris is under mounting pressure.
It’s a very favourable-looking fixture for in-form City. And if they do their job, the long coach ride home won’t quite seem such a chore.
Tuesday League Two promotion fixtures
Leyton Orient vs Crewe
Orient will be promoted if they win, or if either of City and Northampton fail to win
Stevenage vs Doncaster
Doncaster 23rd in form table last 12 games, no wins since 11 March
Sutton United vs Northampton
Sutton have seventh best home record in League Two but are winless in seven overall
Carlisle vs Stockport
Stockport beat Carlisle 2-0 at Edgley Park in October
Swindon vs Bradford City
Swindon have picked up only four points from the last 27 available
Newport vs Mansfield
Newport unbeaten in four at home
Salford vs Hartlepool
Hartlepool have won only four of 21 away games – the third-worst record in the league.
Grimsby vs Barrow
Grimsby have only won four home games all season – and have only one victory at Blundell Park since New Years Day
Most interesting digest of the run-in for the relevant teams. The point about distances travelled is relevant. It’s also pertinent to mention that many footballers might well have already had, say, a 70 or 80 mile journey from home before they climb aboard the coach – with a similar distance to return once back in Bradford. However, travel time provides a good chance to build on team spirit, and modern luxury coaches have got all the on-screen entertainment gear to wile away the hours. Momentum is the key at this stage of the season: winning begets winning, success generates success – and defeat is a disease that can be terminal. For the first time in my life, I actually feel more confident when we are away. Certainly we have nothing to fear on the road if we turn up and play to our strengths. Let’s stay strong and firm of purpose in Wiltshire!
Jason, I think you’ll find Barrow have double the mileage you’ve given them- over 500 miles to Swindon and back; an astonishing (to me) 400 miles + to Grimsby return.
Thank you I have fixed this
Speaking as a native of Barrow; I believe that the Barrow squad lives and trains in the Manchester area not Barrow and has done for some time. Presumably this is where they travel to and from?
One simple question; Why’re you using *miles*? I thought UK calculates distances in kilometers! Or has that changed?
We all definitely use miles 🙂