The League Two run-in – three rounds to go

By Jason McKeown

What’s better to have at this stage of the season – momentum, or points on the board?

On matchday 43 of this League Two season, points on the board certainly was the better camp to be part of. Sides who have not been in the best of form, but had previously got themselves into a good position, were able to nudge that bit closer towards the finishing line. Whilst the in-form teams, coming from behind the pack and into contention – but with little margin for error – stumbled when they couldn’t afford to.  

Nowhere more so did it pay off to have points in the bag than with Leyton Orient, who on Tuesday sealed promotion to League One despite losing 2-0 at Gillingham with 10 men.

In a strange game that saw long delays due to floodlight failure, Orient were able to play out the final stages knowing the loss didn’t matter, and so ran down the clock. Other teams – especially Bradford City – will be hoping it’s an attitude Richie Wellens’ side bring into their remaining fixtures.

“Whoever’s messing about with that power generator didn’t make it easy for us!” joked Richie Wellens. On the fact it was Swindon’s win over City that confirmed Oriend’s promotion, the ex-Robins boss added, “I’m pleased it was Swindon. Covid cruelly took the chance for us to win the league properly. These occasions don’t happen very often, so let’s make these next three weeks memorable and try to get the title.”

And the unusual, eventual closing stages of ‘action’ at Gillingham? “Usually when you’re off for 15 minutes you’d give a warm-up to the players. But me and Neil [Harris] spoke, [I said] we’re happy you’ve won and we don’t want any injuries, we’ve got four big games coming up.”

I mean, given Gillingham are at Valley Parade on Saturday, you could have crocked a couple of the Gills players for us Richie!

There’s no question Leyton Orient have been less impressive since Christmas. They’ve only won three of their last nine games. But when you start as incredibly well as they did – 51 points from their first 21 games – you give yourself a big cushion. Ultimately, Orient have been the best team in League Two this season, and could seal the title this weekend.

Another side who have been struggling but had points in the bank are Stevenage. We talked a week ago about how their next two home games, against out of form Wimbledon and Doncaster, were massive opportunities to get back on track. Stevenage have made hay. Neither win spectacular or hugely convincing, but vital at this stage of the season. Having dropped out of the autos a week ago, Stevenage are now four points clear in third and grateful for the early season achievements that gave them such a strong hand.

After the win over Doncaster, Steve Evans was typically modest. “We have got a good manager, passionate supporters and we have got really good players.”

In contrast, the teams with momentum, but gaps to make up, had the double whammy of not just failing to win, but seeing others prosper. Bradford City are of course in this group of clubs. Losing to Swindon, on a night where Northampton and Stevenage won, was a real blow to their automatic promotion hopes. City are second in the form table for the last 12 games, Swindon 18th. “It’s a big disappointment and one that we can’t afford to dwell on and we won’t do,” declared Mark Hughes.

What City’s County Ground loss did hint at is that City’s away form is not quite as strong as we thought. A first defeat on the road since Boxing Day maybe, but it was the eighth away game in 13 they’ve failed to score. They’ve only won four of those 13 trips on the road.

Stockport County (third in the form table) will consider this a period where things could have gone better. Just like on Saturday at Gillingham, County showed spirit by coming back late on to equalise. But having got up to third place over Easter, the run of two points from a possible six means they’ve now fallen behind again. Without doing a lot wrong, their top three hopes have taken a real hit.

Carlisle – who had got themselves into the top three a few weeks ago, having trailed the top three by nine points before Christmas – have also fallen away when it really matters. They caught up, but are now getting left behind again.

The final team looking for momentum to propel themselves over a dotted line was Barrow (fifth in the form table). They were defeated 1-0 at Grimsby on Tuesday, and in doing so their hopes are realistically over – seven points off the play offs, with three to play. We’ll stop talking about Barrow as a contender now, although they still deserve credit for a very good season.

This weekend Northampton – with seven points from their last nine, despite an injury crisis – have a kind-looking home game against a Harrogate team who are edging closer to confirming their League Two survival. The Cobblers, decimated by injury, won 2-1 at Sutton midweek, with a proud Jon Brady stating, “You don’t realise how tough it is and not many teams come here and get results so for those players to do what they did tonight, in the circumstances, is just incredible.

“It’s a good night, but it’s just another step in the right direction.”

Stockport also have a favourable fixture on Saturday – at home to bottom club Rochdale, who will be relegated if they don’t win at Edgley Park. You do get shocks at this time of year, but it’s a stretch to expect Northampton and Stockport to slip up this weekend.

Stevenage – with that four point gap over Stockport and Carlisle, and five point advantage over City – go to Mansfield. That’s a tough game, especially considering Stevenage have not won away since February 28. With Mansfield’s tails up and edging closer to City after the 2-1 win over Newport, there’s an argument to make that a draw would be the best outcome for the Bantams. (Though if we’re being picky, can each side have four players sent off and suspended too?)

Evans said of the trip to Field Mill to face the club he used to manage, “We know it’s going to take a monumental performance against a really good manager in Nigel and the passionate support they have.”

Meanwhile Nigel Clough is eyeing up a huge week for the Stags, with three home games in a row (the other two are their game in hand, against Leyton Orient, next Tuesday, before Harrogate go to Field Mill next Saturday). “With four games left it’s in our own hands, so let’s make it count,” Clough said. “We have three home games in a week. I hope fans get behind us as they did [at Newport] and appreciate the effort you’ve seen the players give.”

City themselves play a resurgent Gillingham who are taking lots of points off teams at the top. But the Gills do have a poor away record, with only two victories on their travels all season (at struggling Colchester and Rochdale). They’ve also lost their last three on the road. So definitely reasons for City to take heart.

Carlisle have an away derby at Barrow, and much here will depend on how Pete Wild’s team treat the rest of the season now they’re out of the running. Carlisle will be disappointed to have lost two points late on against Stockport midweek, but they finally managed to score some goals and that could give them the kick-start they needed. Paul Simpson declared after the Stockport draw, “I thought they were outstanding second half and put a real shift in. We now need to get freshened up because we’ve got an absolutely brilliant game to look forward to on Saturday.”

Finally, Salford, who won 2-0 at home to Hartlepool on Tuesday, go to a Walsall team in terrible form – one win in 21. Salford have been better on the road than at home, with only one away loss in their last six, a run that’s included convincing victories at Mansfield and Stevenage.

On Tuesday’s success, Neil Wood said, “It was important for us to bounce back with a win, the two goals we scored were excellent quality and the second half was a professional display to see the three points through,”

Time is running out on the regular League Two season, and yet there is still so much to play for. And so Saturday is not an afternoon where any chaser can afford to slip again.

Categories: Opinion


7 replies

  1. Yes, it’s fascinating to speculate, Jason. As soon as the Grand National is out of the way, the football season seems to adopt it as a metaphor and moves into the final few fences of its great steeplechase. There are now three to go. Leading horses can fall, riders thrown in the frantic final furlongs. Hang in there is the old jockey’s advice: anything can happen. Who knows whether the months of training and conditioning will be rewarded or whether it’s now all down to last-minute luck. Are we on a blood and thunder charge to the line or will it all be thud and blunder!

  2. Stevenage have 3 games away from home – and they have only won one since October in the league – they are the ones to chase down.

  3. We have 4 games left? We are paying the price of complacency in formation and effort at home all season. With a semi decent home record we would be home and dry in second. The owner and CEO need to explore this with MH when the season inevitably ends with us in L2. Still hope but realism says otherwise.

  4. Win all 4 and we are automatically promoted. Simple as that. We start on Saturday in the quest for 83 points as nothing less will be enough for top 3. We can do it !!!!

    • Dreamland, we have struggled to win 3 in a row when it counts let alone 4.
      6th or 7th placed finish at best.

    • need to win 4 out of 4?

      Tough ask when the injuries are piling up, the bench looks absolutely threadbare and scraping the barrel – and the main man who has carrried us the whole season with goals has gone way off the boil and no one else can score !!

      Losing on Tuesday was a massive hammer blow – looking at the season when this has happen in the past it’s taken a couple of games to get back up to speed – we no longer have that luxury.

      Hindsight is the best predictor of the future and we’ve bottled every one of those moments so far this season !!

  5. Injuries mounting and difficult games to come has a playoff at best end of season look. Smallwood and Walker looked tired second half at Swindon and even Cook seems a tad off his game. Still , we never like to do owt easy, so it’s hold tight and enjoy the ride.

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