Campaigns in the lower leagues can at times give the impression of distinctly thankless tasks. Those wet, miserable Tuesday nights getting turned over by the side in 15th on a pitch the local farmer must graze his cattle on can feel like they are adding up to a season where every step forward is merely compensating for the most recent step back. Until the clocks go forward and the days get longer and all of a sudden you realise for all the misery along the way, the prize remains in reach. And you realise all 24 teams still have something to play for. It makes the first eight months feel a bit pointless, really. Anyway, the finishing line is in sight at last.
Hull City: 1st, P38, Pts 70
The leaders are Hull City and that they have dropped points 17 times this season is symbolic of a League One season with no standout side. Faith in manager Grant McCann to deliver the immediate return to the Championship required on Humberside has wavered over the course of the season, but the Tigers possess obvious quality in the likes of George Honeyman, Malik Wilks and Keane Lewis-Potter. A recent run of five straight wins included success at 2nd place Peterborough but has since been brought to a halt by Shrewsbury and Steve Evans’ Gillingham (more on them later). Sunderland and Lincoln at the end of April will be key, but otherwise, City will see little room for excuses given what is a relatively kind final eight games.
Peterborough United: 2nd, P37, Pts 69
The response to that home defeat to Hull has been inconsistent from Darren Ferguson’s Posh. Victory over a then hapless Portsmouth was followed with a late equaliser, but still, points dropped, in a 3-3 draw at struggling Rochdale and then defeat at in-form Blackpool. The London Road outfit’s most recent outing, however, was a serious statement. Saturday’s 7-0 demolition of Accrington Stanley gave off the air of a side determined to not let their usual April slump derail yet another promotion charge. In Johnson Clarke-Harris they boast the division’s top scorer and in Sammie Szmodics and Siriki Dembélé, they have players more than up to the task of providing for him. Peterborough United playing exciting, high-scoring football at the upper end of League One is beginning to feel like a tale as old as time – and one that always seems to have the same ending. Easter Weekend may well reveal if they can finally get over the line, but the real test of nerve comes in the final four when four play-off contenders await.
Sunderland: 3rd, P36, Pts 67
Easter Weekend sets Papa John’s Trophy winners Sunderland on a collision course with Ferguson’s men. The league’s form team find themselves uttering that most typical of phrases to hear in the EFL in April – ‘games in hand’. Having played two less than leaders Hull and one less than Posh, the impetus appears to be with Lee Johnson’s men. However, Saturday’s ugly win at Joey Barton’s two-wins-in-10 Bristol Rovers should serve as a timely reminder that even the lowliest of opponents pose a threat at this level. Sunderland are hopeful that dynamic winger Jordan Jones will be back ahead of the weekend and the sight of left-back Denver Hume getting a run-out for the Academy side on Monday can only be encouraging. Unlike those above them, the Wearsiders must play both of their main promotion rivals before the season is up, along with a whole host of sides with play-off ambition, including Charlton, Oxford and two meetings with Blackpool. With 10 hurdles to clear, Sunderland are in form and in position to seize the initiative this weekend and lead the pack home.
To discount Lincoln City from the top two hunt may seem harsh, but failure to build on a strong performance and point at the Stadium of Light saw Michael Appleton’s men’s poor form continue at Oxford on Friday. The Imps now find themselves fourth and looking down, not up, at the usual unruly mob of early Spring play-off hopefuls. Their 62 points give them a cushion of five points back to 7th place Doncaster, who – guess what? – have two games in hand. The disparities in the numbers of games played make anything other than form tough to go on, but the two sides currently sitting 5th and 6th all of a sudden look not unreasonable bets to stay there. In Jerry Yates, Blackpool have found themselves a late-season goal machine and with just one defeat since the 2nd of January, The Seasiders seem to be riding a wave at just the right time. Danny Cowley has replaced Kenny Jackett at Fratton Park, and a Pompey side who looked truly hopeless two weeks ago have won two in two since his arrival. Seeing out Saturday’s success at Shrewsbury with 10 men appears the perfect boost ahead of a kind looking run-in.
Below that, Doncaster are winless in five, Charlton have endured a season of turmoil (again) with the departure of Lee Bowyer coming amongst consistently inconsistent results, Karl Robinson’s Oxford have failed to capitalise on a cracking run of Christmas form, and Ipswich Town are yet to get going under their new boss Paul Cook. Chief among the outsiders are Russel Martin’s easy-on-the-eye MK Dons, who, while 12th, are on a tidy run of four straight wins, and the rather less easy-on-the-eye Gillingham, whose neat habit of getting results against the high-flyers continued at Hull on Saturday. The Gills are a great watch as long as you enjoy relentless abuse of all kinds from the sidelines, games that last three hours and waking up on a Sunday morning with a stiff neck – enough said. Their Tuesday night trip to Peterborough four games from the end is an interesting prospect if you are of the Sunderland or Hull persuasion, though.
Lastly, a word of caution. Year on year, the apparent mid-table wastelands produce one last addition to the play-off picture, with remarkable winning runs the order of the day when you seemingly have nothing to lose. Shrewsbury Town in 17th are just nine points off 6th with games in hand on most. From them upwards, anything is possible. From them downwards, everyone is in danger. Strange things happen when it’s all to play for.
Verdict: Peterborough (3), Portsmouth (4), Lincoln (5), Blackpool (6).
Image: hollidaypics via Creative Commons