By Jason McKeown
This is it. When the 24 League Two sides take to the field at 12.30pm on Monday lunchtime, they will bring to an end a regular season which began 284 days before.
Over the 10 months that have followed that July start, there’s been plenty of drama and intrigue. Leyton Orient raced out of the traps and have not looked back, winning the league with some ease. Grimsby and Stevenage flew the League Two flag with memorable FA Cup heroics. Rochdale waved a sad farewell to over 100 years of league football – they’ve been such a mainstay, this league has habitually been nicknamed ‘The Rochdale Division’ – along with a yo-yo-ing Hartlepool United. Crawley Town stay up, in spite of all the Wagmi United nonsense.
Stockport didn’t blitz the league as was expected pre-season, but have certainly proved a strong force. Barrow and Sutton overachieved for their resources. Doncaster, AFC Wimbledon, Swindon and Walsall badly underachieved. Gillingham were abysmal for half a season, then got new owners and bought a new team, leading to a reversal in fortunes. Stevenage were this year’s Morecambe or Forest Green – the small club who surprised everyone by getting promoted ahead of much bigger names.
In truth, it hasn’t been a vintage League Two season. That Barrow are ninth, with a negative goal difference, speaks volumes about the overall standards. The top eight were streets ahead of everyone else, although the points threshold for finishing inside the play offs will be lower this season. Hartlepool go down with a points total that would have been good enough to keep them up last season. No one was absolutely terrible. It has been very competitive. But amongst many teams in the bottom half, it has been a much of muchness.
And so we go into the final round of fixtures with most matters settled, but with still enough intrigue that means six of the 12 fixtures have something riding on them. There have been plenty of twists and turns over the last few weeks, and yet the biggest drama of the regular season may still lie in store.
The biggest focus of the day is undoubtedly at Prenton Park, where Northampton travel to Tranmere, still in the driving seat for automatic promotion. The equation is simple for Jon Brady’s men – win and they go up. Against a Rovers side who have the 10th best home record in League Two (they’ve picked up 36 of their 58 points on home soil), it’s not the easiest of tasks.
And that’s before we talk about the emotional baggage. For it was on the final day of last season, when Northampton embarked on a trip to the North West, where the Cobblers missed out in the most heartbreaking way possible. They won 3-1 at Barrow, but the fact Bristol Rovers thrashed a youthful Scunthorpe United side – already relegated and in a mess – meant Joey Barton’s side pipped them at the post. Northampton missed out on automatic promotion on goals scored. They did everything asked of them, but fell short by the tiniest of margins.
The journey from Sixfields to Prenton Park will see players, manager and supporters follow a very similar route up North as they would have undertaken when going to Barrow 12 months ago. They’ll turn off the M6 slightly earlier this time, but the ghosts of the past may well be swirling in their minds.
Imagine if they failed to win promotion on the final day two years in a row? That will be their very real fear.
Especially because Northampton had such an opportunity last weekend – beat Bradford City in front of a sell out home crowd, and they’d have done it. Instead, they fell to defeat thanks to stoppage time agony. In hindsight, the fact Sam Hoskins was somehow voted player of the season ahead of Andy Cook may have hurt them – as it ensured they had to face a fired up divisional top scorer with a point to prove.
The decision to give out clappers to home fans also backfired. Whilst there have been claims Northampton have been giving out clappers at all games, inadvertently, the Cobblers were giving out messages that they were already celebrating. And for Mark Hughes, looking for any reason to give his players that bit more motivation, it was a gift. .
Brady reflected after the City defeat, “There are always ups and downs in football, we should have won today and in the end it’s a bit of a sucker punch but it’s still in our own hands.” And of the final day challenge? “We have the right mindset, Tranmere will be tough but if we play like we did today in the second half we can beat anyone. We will be refreshed and ready and we go there with a job to do.
“This is a strong group, we are missing a lot of players but there mindset is excellent and we will get ourselves together and we will be prepared and right.”
Tranmere have just appointed Ian Dawes as their new manager, and you’d assume his players will want to impress him by ending the season well. Dawes took caretaker charge in March when Micky Mellon was sacked, and Rovers have lost only two of the eight games he has been at the helm.
If Northampton fail to win, Stockport County are waiting to take advantage. The Hatters begin the day two points behind the Cobblers, with a superior goal difference. And their last day opponents are an already relegated Hartlepool United, who have lost 13 of their 22 away games this season. No League Two club has conceded more goals on the road than the 41 Hartlepool have shipped on their travels. Yikes.
To make it seem even more unlikely Stockport will slip up, they are unbeaten in 12 games, have lost just once since January, and haven’t been beaten at home since November. And they’ve just thumped the champions, Leyton Orient, 3-0 at Brisbane Road.
Stockport manager Dave Challinor declared of the final game, “If we do what we do well, which is all I can ask, then I can’t ask for more. We are one special group. If it has to be the play offs, so be it.” There is some quirk of fate that Callinor is facing Hartlepool, given he quit United last season to take over at Stockport.
What will be interesting is what sort of side Hartlepool pick, and how United players react to some very strong comments their manager, John Askey, made about them in the wake of relegation.
“I’ve met some of the most selfish individuals I’ve ever met in football,” Askey fumed. “Whether that’s society now and people are getting a little bit more selfish I don’t know but that’s why we’re in the position we’re in because there’s some people who just think about themselves. They’re not the type of people we need in this football club and they’re not the type of people I want to work with.”
If you’re a Hartlepool player hearing those words, how do you react? After last season, Northampton fans will just be begging that Askey isn’t about to ditch his first team squad and turn to the kids.
We all hoped there would be a third team in the mix for the final automatic promotion place, albeit as rank outsiders. But after the midweek defeat at Crewe, Bradford City are no longer in the reckoning. In fact, of the teams currently positioned 4th-7th, they are the side most at risk of falling out of the play offs.
Hughes reflected on the Crewe defeat, “We’ve taken it to the last day, we probably always felt that was going to happen anyway. That’s the reality now and we can get our heads round that and make sure we take that final step against Leyton Orient. We’ve got a job to do.”
Back in September, City defeated Tranmere Rovers 2-1 at Prenton Park to climb up to 6th in the table. Since that round of fixtures, City have remained inside the play off spots for 82% of the season. They only briefly dropped out after the Boxing Day loss at Carlisle, and for a time in January when a few match postponements left them with games in hand. They’ve not been out of the top seven since the end of February.
Surely we’re not going to fall out of the play offs right at the end?
Standing in City’s way of course is the small matter of the champions. Having confirmed promotion three weeks ago, it has been an up and down time for Leyton Orient and it’s not clear what sort of frame of mind they will be in for the trip to Valley Parade.
Orient have been in party mode. There were rumours they barely trained before last week’s home game with Stockport, which they lost heavily. “We’ve got Bradford away, I want to enjoy these games, I don’t want to be talking about signing players of this, that, the other,” said Richie Wellens recently.
City go into the game three points ahead of Mansfield, with a goal difference of +18 to Town’s +15. As long as City don’t lose, they’re in the play offs. But if they fall to defeat, they could yet be overtaken.
Prior to City’s slip up at Crewe, it appeared that Mansfield’s shock home defeat to Harrogate Town – where they had a whopping 29 attempts on goal – had pretty much done them. But they can still catch City, plus Salford and Carlisle. The Ammies have a goal difference of +19 and Carlisle +23.
Mansfield must win away at Colchester (who have won their last two home games, scoring four goals on both occasions). They must also hope City lose, along with a three goal swing. Or that Salford are beaten at home to Gillingham, and there is a four goal swing. If City and Salford get at least a draw, Mansfield will need Carlisle to get heavily beaten away at a Sutton side who are ending the season in dismal form.
“We have fallen short in the 45th game and, barring a miracle, not managed to take it to Colchester next week,” admitted Nigel Clough, who also conceded he picked the wrong team against Harrogate. “It is highly unlikely we will make it now, but we will go there to try to win the game, as we do every game, and you never know – we will see what happens. But I am realistic and I don’t really believe in miracles.”
Meanwhile in the Salford camp, Neil Wood is understandably not counting any chickens just yet. “We have to be confident with the position we’re in. We’ll prepare to win the game, we won’t go out there and try to get a point. That’s not quite us. If you’d offered us this at the start of the season – one point, in our own hands with a home game on the last day of the season – we’d have taken that.”
Carlisle manager Paul Simpson is also mindful the job isn’t fully done. “I’m delighted what this group has done for 45 games, but we are not guaranteed to be in the play offs,” he admitted. “You saw it last season when Bristol Rovers smashed how many goals they did on the last day of the season – and Northampton missed out as a result.
“We won’t take anything for granted. We have to finish it. But if we’re not good enough to go to Sutton and get the right result – and an eight-goal swing does happen – then the truth is we don’t deserve to be in the play offs.”
As well as needing at least one point to rubber stamp their play off spot, City, Salford and Carlisle are jockeying for final positions and the opportunity to finish 5th, which would offer the advantage of playing the play off away leg first. Carlisle’s goal difference puts them in the driving seat for now, but if Salford or City better what United do on the final day they could steal in to take 5th. Carlisle will be without the influential Jon Mellish, who’s crazy red card against Salford also rules him out of the play off semi finals.
It’s hard to imagine anything as spectacular as last season’s final day of League Two repeating itself, but there is a very real possibility of a similar heartbreaking ending for Northampton. It’s going to be an afternoon where some teams are praying for unlikely events to take place, otherwise a League Two season that’s been relatively low on surprises will have a relatively formulaic ending.
At least before the encore of the play offs.
Thanks as ever for this, Jason. And whilst the beloved team we follow have been their familiar agonisingly inconsistent selves, thanks for the consistently high quality writing and analysis by yourself and others (especially Adam Raj, as your roving away reporter…).
A bit of cursory Statto analysis from browsing the L2 table…
– You’ve said before that Leyton Orient did a lot of their heavy lifting at the start of the season. Both them and us lost our last game. And both won the one before that. And in fact over the last 5-6 games, we have almost identical form.
– Both teams have over the League season scored the same number of goals (60)…but their goal difference is materially better, having ominously conceded 9 less goals than we have (and the fewest in the league). The takeaway we might take from those stats is a need to go for goals and the win from the off, because if we concede first, they will be a tough team to come back against.
It was typical City really losing to Crewe, as we never do things the easy way.
With them having nothing to play for, I think we underestimated them, thinking they were going to go through the motions, yet it was anything but, and they were obviously determined to put one over on what they perceived to be the biggest club in the division.
I think the way the game had gone, and the fact Crewe were in the ascendancy for the last 15/20 mins, it was important to make sure we came away with a point.
Obviously that’s gone now, but I think there is some big decisions to make for Monday. Certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see Clayton come in for his big game experience as I think he’s got 4 promotions in his career, and left wing has been a problem so maybe that means Gillead will be shifted out there.
I also think we’ve been shaky at the back last 3 games, and at league 1/2 level you need that 6 foot 3/4 inch centre back, to repel those balls going into the box, so Platt has to come on for me.
I’ve been critical of why City signed Clayton and played him beside Smallwood. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him between Smallwood and Gilliead on Monday. In general, I don’t like pragmatic football but setting-up not to lose against Orient may be a wise decision. I’m still puzzled why we setup not lose at home against Hartlepool. Two critical points lost.
What will be will be. So much is imponderable: so much hangs in the balance: so much depends on the day. I do hope this is not going to be Workington all over again.
You really do have a good memory. That was an awful day.
An awful night, John! Never forgotten, I’m afraid. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
I think it’ll be a dangerous tactic to set up not to lose, given that our game management has been so weak in latter stages of games.
That Crewe result was a killer at such a crucial stage of the season and must have boosted Mansfield’s mood. I guess, our play off chances all boil down to Orient’s approach to the game.
At least, it’s nice to go into the final game, with do much riding on it. I, too, remember that Workington game and the dismay that followed. Please, City, don’t let us have a repeat.
I’ve said it a number of times. We’re just not quite good enough. I’m not saying we’re a bad team. Far from it. But we have flattered to deceive too many times.
The margins are always very tight. Always will be really unless you’re blowing teams away week in week out. But I still think back to the 95th minute point “salvaged” at barrow followed by the 96th minute conceded goal. Only a point lost but we’d be guaranteed a play off spot now. I make this point because it was so early in the season and the attitude was oh it’s ok plenty of games to go to learn. Turn it around and do better next time. Which often we did. But. The same mistakes have plagued us all season right up to our penultimate game and through the last 5/6 game run in. Just when you need to do all the right things we’ve given it away too easily. Gillingham at home was sickening and frankly that was the nail in the promotion (automatic) coffin.
If we get our result tomorrow I for one am hoping it’s Stockport who finish third. I do not fancy us against them. Whereas Northampton, Carlisle and Salford I think it will be tight. but we have a better chance of grinding a result out. Either way make no mistake this will be a grind. An attrition of will. It won’t be pretty or flair football. We won’t be blowing any of these teams away if we’re successful. Just like the vast majority of the season
Good luck City.
Thanks Jason, great article as always!
So, it all comes down to what happens today, but then I always sort of knew it would. Losing just isn’t an option this afternoon, as I am convinced Mansfield will do their job at a poor Colchester side who have very little to play for. League 2 is a poor league in general, but next season’s league 2 will sink to new lows, with Accrington, Forest Green, MK Dons, & Adam’s Morecambe joining once again from League 1. This surely makes our current opportunity for success, even more vital that we take it. Our hardest opponent today won’t be Champions Orient, but ourselves. If we play with nerves & fear we will freeze, & Orient will have an easy game. If we play like we have shown we can do, with pace, intent, & confidence, we can do this. It’s in our hands at least.
For me, today isn’t about who I’d prefer in the Playoffs, today is only about actually getting into those Play-Offs.
I know I won’t have any finger nails left by 2.30 this afternoon, but I do hope we’re all smiling at full time.
Good luck to Bradford City!!!