With ten games or less remaining for virtually every Football League side, most supporters have a pretty good idea of what the next few months holds in store for their team: a promotion push; mid-table obscurity; or a fight against relegation.
Honing in on the bottom of League Two, a small but significant five point gap has opened up between Bristol Rovers and Barnet in positions 17 and 18 respectively, leaving seven teams adrift and in danger of playing non-league football next season. But, considering a number of factors, which have it in them to pull away to safety from now until the season’s end on April 27th?
Let’s not pussyfoot around; Barnet were awful in the autumn. Just three points were collected across their first 12 matches and – combined with their upcoming move away from Underhill – the immediate future looked unsettled for the Bees.
If that wasn’t enough, Edgar Davids’ botched arrival as pseudo manager in October allowed for yet more schadenfreude; just as chairman Anthony Kleanthous was claiming that Barnet were “not a dying football club, [but] a club that is going places” everyone else was looking the other way.
But Davids has been a minor revelation, instilling new belief amongst a previously lacklustre squad and ushering in a new Swansea-esque playing style. More recently, he’s made good use of the club’s central location, as well, and the short-term signings of players such as Dani Lopez and Ross Jenkins helped Barnet to a rousing 4-1 win against Morecambe on Saturday.
Their run-in is fairly comfortable, too, with the average league position of their ten remaining opponents 13.5 and only Cheltenham and Northampton to come in terms of the division’s top sides.
Verdict: safety with room to spare, but questions persist over the club’s longer-term strategy.
Like Barnet, York currently sit on 40 points. But the means by which these clubs have reached this tally stand in direct contrast; since beating Burton 3-0 on New Year’s Day, York have gone 12 games without victory and are now in contention to become the first team to be relegated in their opening Football League season.
As John Dobson bemoaned on these pages last week, this poor run of form has cost progressive manager Gary Mills his job and Nigel Worthington is now is situ after more than 18 months out of the game since standing down from the Northern Ireland job.
With no experience of managing in League Two and an open admittance that he hasn’t “seen a lot of games at this level in recent times”, supporters will have to hope that Worthington’s man management skills and / or luck are exceptional.
Of the seven teams fighting to avoid relegation, however, York’s run-in appears to be the kindest, the average position of their nine remaining opponents being 14.5. Of these fixtures, back-to-back home games against Rochdale tonight and Port Vale on Saturday provide an excellent chance to claw their way out of trouble, and if those opportunities aren’t taken then a further Bootham Crescent double header against rivals Plymouth and Accrington awaits.
Verdict: One win from the next couple of matches should spark a reversal of fortunes; if not, the Minstermen could become record-breakers.
Against a backdrop of financial struggle, Aldershot have been one of the bottom sides for pretty much the whole season and one has to wonder whether the club – whose average attendance at their ramshackle Recreation Ground is just 2,146 – is capable of maintaining their Football League status in the longer-term. Indeed, relegation to the Conference might well set the Shots up for a lengthy stay down below.
But, having seen them play very well under former manager Dean Holdsworth a few weeks ago, in some ways it’s difficult to work out how exactly they are where they are. In particular, Troy Brown, Danny Rose and Danny Hylton performed strongly and it’s no surprise to hear that the former is attracting potential suitors.
Taking a closer look, though, and the wider story begins to unravel. To date, Aldershot have used some 37 different players in league games this season, underlining Holdsworth’s penchant for wheeling and dealing.
It clearly wasn’t working, though, and Andy Scott – whose name must have been linked to just about every vacancy in Leagues One and Two since departing from Rotherham a year ago – has been brought in to steer Aldershot to safety.
Notwithstanding a late hiccup against Bradford on Saturday, things have begun reasonably well for the ex-Brentford man with 5 points collected from nine and – although the Shots’ final fixtures look fairly tough with their remaining opponents possessing an average standing of 10.5 – other relegation rivals look to be in a worse predicament right now.
Verdict: Safety, and hopefully a new transfer policy from this summer onwards.
If one is being harsh, then this season has been something of a missed opportunity for the Dons.
Yes they’ve done incredibly well to reach – and survive in – the Football League after such a short period in existence, but the decision to stick with manager Terry Brown over the summer was perhaps a tad naïve.
Brown had led the Dons to three promotions since arriving at Kingsmeadow in 2007, but after starting well last season things began to fall apart and in the end only Wimbledon’s late home form was the difference between survival and relegation.
Of course, it was understandable that Wimbledon wanted to reward Brown, particularly given the year that he’d experienced off the field, but this season’s poor beginning came as little surprise and Brown’s departure after just seven games felt overdue in football terms.
Given the hand that he was dealt, it’s difficult to assess how well Brown’s successor Neal Ardley has done so far in his first managerial stint. Certainly, though, on the basis of comparing eyewitness accounts of Wimbledon performances from March 2012 and February 2013 this year’s side seems much improved, both in terms of quality and experience, with the signings of defensive midfielder Harry Pell and Gary Alexander especially eye-opening.
At 12, the mean position of Wimbledon’s remaining opponents is so-so but three back-to-back away games lie in store next. Yet with two of those coming against relegation rivals, Ardley’s side have ample grounds on which to notch up a third season in the Football League.
Verdict: Safety and a fairer test of Ardley’s credentials next season.
Torquay’s fall has been as dramatic as York’s, if not more so.
Although this account from December casted doubt over the Gulls’ ability to match last season’s top 7 finish, few would have imagined that things would have panned out like they have, with popular manager Martin Ling off long-term sick; the team on a horrible run of eight defeats from nine games; and the club now just one place and point ahead of the relegation places with ten games to go.
Saturday’s defeat to Oxford – who arrived on the Riviera on the back of a 4-0 home defeat to Rotherham – seemed like a missed opportunity to turn things around and the Gulls currently look as likely as any to be heading southwards.
Alan Knill has come on board to see Torquay over the finishing line; he’s as experienced and capable as anyone the club might be able to attract at the present moment, but his recent failure with Scunthorpe doesn’t do much to inspire hope and the lift that accompanies the arrival of a new manager hasn’t materialised (yet).
The mean position of the Gulls’ upcoming opposition is 11.9, which represents a fairly straightforward endgame relative to those teams around them. That said, based on current form, any fixture looks potentially hazardous.
Verdict: It’ll go down to the last day…
After years of stability and slow growth – which has seen Accrington serve as a Football League member club for some seven consecutive seasons – things are looking incredibly iffy for Stanley and it may well be time for the League’s lowest-supported club to depart these shores.
Fingers have to be pointed at Paul Cook. Having been given a first stab at management in English football by his former club after long-serving John Coleman’s departure to Rochdale, Cook deserted Stanley after achieving diddly in just six months in the role.
Assistant Leam Richardson was left to pick up the pieces, but his spell in charge has been nothing short of a disaster thus far, with just three wins recorded from 22 league matches since being given the role permanently.
With ten games to run and three home matches coming up on the bounce many would understand if the Accrington board were to make a change now; bringing in club legend Coleman, perhaps, who’s available after being replaced by Keith Hill at Spotland. But that didn’t work for Hereford last season, who replaced their rookie manager (and former player) Jamie Pitman late on.
At 12.5 the average standing of Stanley’s remaining opponents isn’t so bad, particularly with those home fixtures in mind. But, again, the Crown Ground is where Accrington have struggled, their home record the worst in the league at the time of writing.
Verdict: the omens don’t look good. Relegation, at this rate.
Which leaves Plymouth. Plymouth? Just what are Argyle doing down there?
So many people will have no doubt asked themselves on scanning the League Two table these past two seasons.
But there, through a combination of a hangover from administration and a catalogue of poor decisions since James Brent bought the club, they are.
And they’re entrenched, with little more than a handful of loanees and a clapped out old battleaxe in Paul Wotton to invest hope in.
Results have picked up since John Sheridan replaced Carl Fletcher in January, but not as significantly as the situation has required and the Pilgrims have struggled to keep up with the quickening pace of their relegation rivals.
Like a couple of others, Argyle now have back-to-back home games coming up – in their case against Bradford and Fleetwood – and it’s imperative that at least one of those, if not both, yields three points; at 9.5, the average position of Plymouth’s remaining rivals represents the toughest run-in of all the teams at the bottom of the table, so unless Argyle can pull off a few surprises then it’ll be Pilgrims supporters who are looking up Braintree on the map ahead of next season.
Verdict: Argyle’s record against top-half teams just isn’t strong enough, so fingers either need to be pulled out and / or two other teams need to continue to slide if the Pilgrims are to avoid relegation.