Month: March 2017

Oxford United 5-1 Bury: Review

Oh boy. This almost makes me thankful for my laptop being out of action, thus consigning me to a bullet point review of the match:

  • The first alarm bell from a Bury point of view was the inclusion of both Ryan Lowe and Jermaine Pennant and no Callum Styles. The veteran striker has been largely disappointing in his third spell at the club even before last night (from a playing perspective) and isn’t the quickest anymore, which makes it harder to defend from the front.
  • Oxford had options all over the pitch from attacking situations and with a midfield three of Pennant, Jacob Mellis and Paul Caddis, it was little surprise to see the U’s almost cut through them at will. Even at their most effective individually, you’re looking at only two of those being combative (one with a good ratio of successful tackles and interceptions) and one defensive-minded. You could see at many intervals Caddis asking for more support, which was either late in arriving or didn’t come at all.
  • Pressing the home side high played into the Yellows’ hands.
  • As a direct consequence of the above, Oxford often had at least four players attacking five defenders, making it difficult for the Shakers to track runners. Left back Marvin Johnson had acres of space to run into and wasn’t challenged whatsoever for his cool finish into the far corner. The method of this goal evoked many painful memories of the October to December part of the season and is still something that needs addressing in the summer.
  • The second goal for Oxford was an even bigger gift than the first. 14 seconds after Leon Barnett’s easily cut out ball to Pennant, it was nestled in Joe Murphy’s open goal. Taylor Moore was caught high up the pitch and Johnson was again given the freedom of the university city to run at the retreating defensive line. His through ball was actually poor but with Murphy needlessly racing out of his area in an attempt to clear it when there were two covering defenders, Joe Rothwell had the simplest goal he’ll ever have in his career, taking the loose ball and curling it around the Huddersfield loanee.
  • The third goal came from the Shakers’ second most common area of conceding – a cut back inside the area, but it’s how it even got to that point that will cause manager Lee Clark the most concern. Poor positioning, decision-making and defensive organisation can be seen throughout the ranks, from Mellis’ no-look pass after a terrible corner from Pennant was half-cleared, Moore committing himself with a woefully timed sliding tackle with numbers at the back thin, Barnett jogging back to help out, Pennant just… invisible, Antony Kay not tracking right back Philip Edwards, whose dummy allowed Conor McAleny a tap-in (and let’s not forget that he was goal-side of Caddis).
  • Returning to Lowe, his horror tackle on Johnson should’ve warranted a red card. The frustrations of playing abjectly and being 3-0 down are not excuses for that sort of challenge, which could’ve been a lot worse for both men. I have called into question Lowe’s professionalism from the perspective of diving before but never malicious challenges. As a 38 year-old player/coach, I cannot overstate how bad of an example that is to set to his young teammates. You know it’s terrible when Clark doesn’t even attempt to defend him after the game. He has also not warranted continued selection in away games, with only a single goal to his name and little in addition to that from what he has brought to the side.
  • I had set my expectations low when Pennant signed for Bury, given his career trajectory and baggage. He has managed, albeit in limited minutes, to sink well below even that level. I’ve made it my raison d’être on this blog to be fair and balanced, but he is testing that mission statement. He doesn’t track back as part of a midfield three, his set pieces have been largely woeful and he has the demeanour of someone who doesn’t give their full effort to the cause, which is always the easiest way to draw the ire of supporters. It was therefore no surprise to see both Pennant and Lowe hooked at half-time.
  • A word also on Murphy: he had an abject game but his previous performances in the green jersey should not be forgotten. He slipped as he kicked for the fourth goal, with Greg Leigh drawn to the ball and not the man. Take nothing away from McAleny’s cool finish, though.
  • There was at least an ephemeral moment of quality to cheer for the depressed away supporters. Perennial sub George Miller’s direct running and endeavour won a corner for the Shakers. From which, forgotten Bolton loanee Tom Walker, playing his first minutes in months, showed Pennant how it’s done, with a curling ball straight onto the head of James Vaughan for the striker’s 22nd of the season. The marksman was also below par and perhaps still not fully recovered from his hamstring tweak during the stalemate with Fleetwood.
  • The fifth goal was testament to Oxford’s total control of the game, coupled with their ability to retain possession for long spells. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Toni Martínez was still able to drill the ball across for his partner McAleny to complete his second hat-trick in a yellow shirt. As a collective, they were bright, direct, each of them knew their compatriots’ roles and responsibilities and after their emphatic victory, they have maintained an outside chance of gatecrashing the play-offs and also go into Sunday’s EFL Trophy final with Coventry as firm favourites to lift the cup and cap off an excellent season for manager Michael Appleton and his charges.
  • As for Bury, it’s a long time until their next fixture (at home to Bradford). By then, the much-missed Cameron Burgess will be back from international duty, Vaughan and Styles should be fully fit and a lot of work can be done on the training ground to try to return to the solid looking outfit that has been seen of late.
  • I never read too much into any one result (good or bad), but I will be keeping a close eye on how the other sides at the bottom fare before another ball is kicked at Gigg Lane, particularly Port Vale. Their games in hand are key to dictating the course of the relegation battle and most Bury fans will be fully behind Rochdale next Tuesday to put a massive dent in the Valiants’ survival chances.
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Oxford United vs Bury: Mini Preview

Although most U’s eyes will be on their upcoming trip to Wembley to face Coventry in the EFL Trophy final on Sunday, they know that anything other than a win against Bury will likely scupper any remaining play-off hopes and a chance of successive promotions. It is fair to say that a lot of scepticism greeted Michael Appleton’s appointment after a pretty dismal track record at clubs higher up the pyramid at the time. He led them to 13th in League Two in his first season before employing an exciting brand of football (and some very astute signings) to roar them to promotion last term, although not without ridiculously boasting that the Yellows were “the best side in the league” despite finishing a full 13 points behind runaway leaders Northampton.

He has, however, continued to build on their success and could rest one or two players (such as striker Kane Hemmings) whilst still carrying threats to sully the visitors’ streak of clean sheets.

Oxford vs Bury

Exciting talent and EFL Young Player of the Year nominee Ryan Ledson remains with England U20s, so will miss out tonight. Both full backs who might start (Joe Skarz being yet another familiar face to Shakers’ fans) are adept at tucking in and nullifying direct dribbling and running into the channels. Again, an interesting battle will be Greg Leigh versus either Christian Ribeiro or Phil Edwards. Both Oxford right backs can physically dominate their men and the former Man City wing back will need to continue his rapid improvement to best his opponent.

If physical strength is the hallmark of the U’s defence, passing range is the centre of midfield’s calling card. Both John Lundstram and the versatile Josh Ruffels are very happy to sit in front of their back four and dictate the tempo, while Joe Rothwell and Liam Sercombe will provide only nominal width and are likely to cut inside at every opportunity to give the hosts numerical advantage in the middle and cut off Bury’s means of picking out the wing-backs at the source.

Robert Hall might play off Toni Martínez and could even constitute the fifth midfielder in their XI when out of possession. The former Bolton misfit has found his home further south and possesses electric pace, comfortable dribbling and shooting with either foot and an end product to boot and will be the biggest danger regardless of where he plays.

vs Oxford

Should James Vaughan not recover from a tight hamstring in time, expect to see Ryan Lowe leading the line with Hallam Hope working the channels. Antony Kay might make more forays into midfield to deal with Sercombe in particular and help Bury gain vital possession of the ball.

As for a prediction, I’m going with a 1-1 draw – this might be the best time (if there is such a thing) for Bury to play Oxford – some players will doubtlessly be looking to stake their claim for the Wembley trip but others might go into it with the mentality of protecting themselves just a little to prevent injury. It’s hard to say for certain but it should be a more flowing game of football than of late for the Shakers; Exile Jr. also thinks it will be a draw but 2-2. It’s difficult to see Joe Murphy concede more than one but he’s been correct before with such a prediction…

Bury 0-0 Fleetwood Town: Mini Review

Owing to my laptop displaying the pink screen of death (something a little like this), most of the upcoming articles are unfortunately going to be shorter for the foreseeable future. Please bear with me!

  • Bury claimed their fourth clean sheet in a row, a rare occurrence indeed. Joe Murphy has only conceded four in 10 matches.
  • The two sides, as expected, largely cancelled each other out. Fleetwood’s defence, particularly Cian Bolger, were a little more dominant.
  • The lack of space in the congested middle had both teams looking to play balls in the channels to disrupt the bolstered back lines.
  • Jacob Mellis had one of his best games in a white shirt – he was very positive with his runs into opposition territory from the outset.
  • Kean Bryan slotted in well to Cameron Burgess’ position, vacated by the latter being on international duty with Australia U23s. He offers a different skillset to the Fulham loanee, with generally more accurate passing and comparable tenacity in the tackle.
  • Vaughan had one of his quieter games even before he possibly tweaked his hamstring. A lot of the goal threat is unsurprisingly removed when he isn’t on the pitch, particularly when the combination up top is George Miller and Hallam Hope. That must concern Lee Clark.
  • Bobby Grant was Fleetwood’s best player and the Cod Army fans must hope he sees out his recent contract extension instead of it just being a way of increasing his market value. He gets in between the lines of midfield and attack very well.
  • Alex Cairns wasn’t really tested. His opposite number Murphy was… but mostly by his own players inadvertently.
  • The stalemate does Fleetwood no favours and they are increasingly likely to be battling it out in the play-offs in May, which would still represent brilliant on-field progress by Uwe Rösler.
  • Leon Barnett is beginning to earn a reputation as a match-saver with his last-ditch tackles.
  • Bury were the first team to prevent Fleetwood scoring at home in the league back on Boxing Day… and the first to shut them out on their travels.

Bury vs Fleetwood Town: Preview

Update: It has been brought to my attention that Conor McLaughlin has been called up for Northern Ireland’s World Cup Qualifier on Sunday against Norway.  Joe Davis or Victor Nirennold are likely to deputise and both of them are a touch more comfortable at centre back first and foremost, so it will be fascinating to see what difference it makes to Fleetwood’s strategy.

Since completing their remarkable rise up the FA pyramid to be included in the top 92 clubs in England (& Wales) several years ago, Fleetwood Town have enjoyed having a bit of an Indian sign over Bury, having never lost to their hosts for tomorrow’s match in any competitive tie.

On paper, they look unlikely to give up their dominance over the Shakers and sit in an extremely impressive third place despite being quoted with odds of 12/1 and longer prior to the opening weekend of the season to be promoted. Uwe Rösler has to be given a lot of credit for the success the Cod Army have had thus far and it was no surprise to me that he was announced as Sky Bet League One Manager of the Season earlier this week. Relative to the expectations of the club, the lateness of his own appointment just prior to the curtain-raiser and fanbase size, they deserve all the plaudits they are currently receiving regardless of what happens between now and the end of the 2016/2017 campaign. Rösler was harshly sacked by both his previous clubs (Wigan and Leeds) and is someone whose progress as a manager I have been keeping a close eye on and on at least two occasions, I have wanted him and his methodical approach to be employed at Gigg Lane.

The Lancashire side’s form has taken a little bit of a wobble by their extremely high recent standards, having gone 18 league matches unbeaten before succumbing to resurgent promotion rivals Bolton 4-2 at the Highbury Stadium and now look up at the Trotters four points off the pace and with an inferior goal difference. Nevertheless, they can be confident of coming away from Greater Manchester with at least a point and can boast one of the most settled sides in all of the divisions.

Fleetwood vs Bury

There are no new injury concerns for Rösler to contend with and central midfielder George Glendon will still be available for selection despite serious off-the-pitch allegations made against him. Alex Cairns is a goalkeeper blessed with excellent reflexes and he marshals his defenders more than competently.

Cian Bolger and Ashley Eastham are familiar names to Bury fans for differing reasons; the former was part of a Shakers side that arrested their poor form and finished 2015/2016 in a safe mid-table position. For his part, he looked comfortable if not spectacular. Eastham is remembered for less glowing reasons, with his nadir coming in a televised game away at Notts County in 2012/2013, being culpable for three of the Magpies’ four goals. However, along with loan signing Ben Davies from Preston, they have shut out many of the third tier’s most dynamic attacks, including runaway leaders Sheffield United. Davies’ versatility helps him cover for the foraging runs made by Amari’i Bell. Bell is an explosive talent at left wing-back and a big threat crossing from the flank. It is no surprise that he has continued to attract interest from higher leagues and he will provide Taylor Moore with his toughest challenge yet in a Bury shirt.

On the other wing, Conor McLaughlin also cannot be ignored. His place in the Team of the Season was more than warranted despite Kieron Freeman’s prolific scoring record from a similar role. He isn’t blessed with as much pace as Bell but can still rove up and down the length of pitch more than happily and chip in with a few goals of his own.

Markus Schwabl, a January signing from the 3. Liga in Germany, is not a natural defensive midfielder but has slotted in nicely in that role and offers another layer of protection when teams press Fleetwood high up the pitch or look to play on the counter.

Bobby Grant, a stalwart in the red, white and black and fresh from signing an extended contract, will drive forward at every opportunity afforded to him and ask questions of the Bury rearguard. He has seven goals to his name and is an ever-present figure in the side this season.

Up front, David Ball is just as happy attacking from a deeper position as he is leading the line and he offers plenty of support for forward runners and his strike partner, which is likely to be Ashley Hunter. The latter can play anywhere across the front of an XI and again, that versatility can assist him in finding pockets of space and drawing men to the ball.

vs Fleetwood

As a result of the Cod Army’s many threats and the relocation of Andrew Tutte to the injury table yet again, I expect that Lee Clark will give the visitors a lot of respect and blunt his own squad’s attacking ambitions up to a point. Greg Leigh and Taylor Moore will of course still be tasked with providing all the width but Moore in particular with his hands full with Bell and will need to call on Leon Barnett to assist him in stopping as many lofted passes into the area coming in as possible. Captain Antony Kay will have to keep Grant’s scheming and Kyle Dempsey’s direct dribbling in check and that could mean fewer opportunities to play the ball out from the back.

Paul Caddis, now fully up to speed, will be the most natural choice to drop back as and when required. The impressive Kean Bryan probably won’t start as Clark continues to manage his recovery from long-term injury, so most of the onus will fall on the former Birmingham utility man’s shoulders from a defensive point of view. Callum Styles should return after being taken out of the firing line against Milwall last Saturday and along with Jacob Mellis, they both need to balance positional discipline with creating goalscoring opportunities for James Vaughan and Tom Pope, which were severely restricted at the Den.

As for a prediction, I’m going to go for a low-scoring draw of 1-1. Most of the threats both teams possess, coupled with largely matching shapes, will cancel each other out. Exile Jr. is once again of a different opinion – he thinks it will end up 3-2 to Bury. A point would represent a very good result and most eyes in the home end will be glancing at their phones to keep abreast of Port Vale’s match with MK Dons and willing the away side to victory almost as much as their own boys in white.

 

League One Relegation Run-In 2016/2017: The Reluctant Contestants

Most sides at the bottom or not a million miles away were overjoyed (in secret at least) at Coventry’s surprise 2-1 win over Port Vale. The Burslem outfit’s three games in hand in the ‘top’ relegation spot prior to last night’s damaging defeat were a major source of concern for at the very least the four sides above the zone, if not all the way up to Northampton. However, none of them can afford to think that even with a depleted squad, the Valiants won’t at least put up a fight to maintain their League One status and there are bound to be more twists in the story of the 2016/2017 campaign to come. Here, I will try to analyse who will occupy 21st to 24th with reasons for and against their inclusion in the bottom four, with a prediction at the end of the post. The excellent Experimental 3-6-1 site by Ben Mayhew has a visualisation of the remaining games by difficulty*, which has a been a factor in the considerations below.

*If you ignore the first two columns after the club name, it is up-to-date.

Northampton Town (currently 14th):

Reasons for being relegated:

  1. They consistently concede goals, giving up 63. This is despite a relatively settled defence and when things become increasingly desperate, this could cost them dearly.
  2. They play Sheffield United and Millwall in successive games in April. Two big defeats could wipe out their favourable goal difference.

Reasons against being relegated:

  1. Recent results against strugglers have been impressive, with wins against four of the sides further down in the last seven matches.
  2. They have taken 16 points from their last 10 games, so they are far from out of form. Added to that, they consistently score goals with 57 to their name, the joint best in this list.
  3. If they can avoid defeat in the three-game sequence in April against Bury, Shrewsbury and Gillingham, you’d have to fancy their chances even if the other four games yield zero points.
  4. Goals are very well distributed throughout the side, with talismanic midfielder John Joe O’Toole leading the way on 10 but well supported by an able cast, not least of which comes in the form of veteran left-back Matty Taylor from dead ball situations with seven to his name.

Charlton Athletic (currently 15th):

For:

  1. Their form over the last 10 is equal worst in the entire league along with the tilting Scunthorpe. They have accrued just six points in that time.
  2. Manager Karl Robinson has continually called into question the resolve of some of his own players publicly, which does not bode at all well if their poor form continues.
  3. It would be a massive stretch to say that the majority of Charlton’s fans are behind the team, manager and ownership at present. Whilst that doesn’t necessarily have a direct bearing on results, it doesn’t help matters when the chips are down and you can’t as a player implicitly count on everyone being behind you.

Against:

  1. They only have to play two sides in the top half, one of which is a Peterborough side with nothing to fight for, which is beginning to be reflected in both their performances and results.
  2. Another fixture is away at Coventry, who are likely to be relegated by that stage… on paper, that should mean an away win but the Addicks can’t take anything for granted.
  3. Performances of late have been better and there was no disgrace in losing 2-1 to runaway leaders Sheffield United. Ricky Holmes is enjoying a very good spell lately and he even opened the scoring in that encounter.
  4. Their positive goal difference could be crucial.
  5. Their last two games are against Chesterfield and Swindon, with possibly the same context as their match at Coventry to consider.

MK Dons (currently 16th):

For:

  1. MK Dons have found goals hard to come by as of late, averaging fewer than one a game in the last 10. They have broadly continued Karl Robinson’s legacy of being a good passing side but lacking ideas of how to penetrate the opposition.
  2. Their last four games are all against teams in contention for automatic promotion or the play-offs and the stakes are bound to be high.
  3. Pacey striker Kieran Agard hasn’t had consistent help in scoring goals.

Against:

  1. The Buckinghamshire side also don’t concede too many with a settled, well organised defence.
  2. If they win their game in hand against Port Vale (which has been moved to this Saturday), they can be reasonably confident of avoiding the drop on that basis alone.

Bury (currently 17th):

For:

  1. Six of the remaining seven games are against sides in the top 10, with crunch derbies away at Bolton and at home to Rochdale in the mix. The Shakers have failed to score against either of them this season (or indeed Oldham in both matches); the Trotters might be in a position to confirm automatic promotion by the time the contest at the Macron takes place and what better way to do it than to defeat their neighbours and possibly condemn them to relegation?
  2. Despite excellent recent form, they are still only four points above the drop and Port Vale have two games in hand. It is difficult to see where the remaining winnable games on paper are, with Northampton at home being the possible exception.
  3. Too reliant on all-round striker James Vaughan for goals and he only has scored six of his 21 away from BL9.

Against:

  1. New boss Lee Clark has only lost once since being appointed and, following from Chris Brass’ formation change, has tightened things up at the back considerably to the extent where conceding more than once is now a surprise!
  2. Joe Murphy has kept six clean sheets in nine games since signing on loan and his influence cannot be understated.
  3. Positive substitutions have helped Bury not become too predictable when it comes to tactical switches.

Gillingham (currently 18th):

For:

  1. Like Bury, all of their remaining seven matches are against sides above them in the standings, with the Kent side hosting both Millwall and Fleetwood in April. That is a tough ask on paper to come out with more than a single point…
  2. Especially when the defence has been incredibly leaky, with 21 in the last 10 given up and eight in just the previous 180 minutes of football. This has seen them overtake the Shakers as the worst defensive side in League One at just the worst time possible.
  3. Ady Pennock has hardly inspired his charges to new heights since taking over from previous incumbent Justin Edinburgh, who was sacked with the Gills a place higher in the table. There hasn’t really been a ‘new manager bounce’ in the weeks and months following his appointment and there are many fans uncertain of his abilities as a result.
  4. They are likely to have six defenders out for Saturday’s clash with Peterborough in what would otherwise be a very winnable fixture. The lack of any real stability with team selection in the most important part of the pitch is a big worry.

Against:

  1. More recently under Pennock, they have shown they can win certain games whilst being dominated in terms of shots and possession (Bury and Scunthorpe in particular). That element, even if it includes a little bit of luck, could be the difference between the third and fourth tier.
  2. An abundance of goals in midfield this season has helped take some of the pressure off Cody McDonald. The creativity (and end product) of Bradley Dack has been a decisive factor.

Oldham Athletic (currently 19th):

For:

  1. A cursory glance at the ‘goals scored’ column reveals the reason why Oldham are still in danger. Undoubtedly, there has been some improvement in that regard since John Sheridan returned for a third time but the Latics have only seen the opposition net bulge more than once on just eight occasions.
  2. Take a look at their remaining games with the exception of AFC Wimbledon. It is by far the worst run-in of any side. A resolute defence might not be enough to stem the swashbuckling attacking talents that pepper the teams at the right end of the table.

Against:

  1. The Latics can count themselves unlucky to not have had Peter Clarke alongside goalkeeper Connor Ripley in the recently announced EFL League One Team of the Season. The centre back has not only been an ever-present, rock-solid wall in a blue shirt, he has also chipped in with some vital goals and until very recently, he led the scoring charts for Oldham (which is astonishing for more than one reason).
  2. Sheridan has made full use of his defence’s strengths and weaknesses, inviting visiting clubs to Boundary Park to bring all their siege engines to the battlefield and more often than that, has seen them flounder on a bog of a pitch. 15 clean sheets is an incredible haul from 39 games for any side, let alone one near the foot of the table. He has galvanised the club to brilliant effect thus far.
  3. Former Bury loanee Lee Erwin has begun to find his feet at their near neighbours, bagging four in his last five outings. He is not blessed with lots of skill or pace but he has good aerial ability and can change roles to suit the context of a game better than most of his peers at this level. Sparking into form has come at a great time with the stiff opposition looming with 21 points to play for.

Shrewsbury Town (currently 20th):

For:

  1. A deflating defeat to Port Vale last Friday has them back in serious trouble, despite Coventry’s win over their relegation rivals on Tuesday. Facing a Bolton side racking up the goals of late doesn’t bode well for a game with a realistic chance of a win and by the time it’s over, they could be in the bottom four themselves.
  2. They also failed to beat either Coventry or Chesterfield, capping off an extremely poor return of two points from three games they could ill afford to not be triumphant in.
  3. Again, they face sides much higher on the league ladder and must hope Port Vale don’t bounce back themselves.

Against:

  1. Three home games in a row offer a decent chance of pulling away from the drop zone.
  2. Recent form has been mixed but they have won four from the last 10. A repeat of that figure in their remaining eight matches (a game more than most) should see League One football being played for another season in Shropshire.
  3. Freddie Ladapo and Tyler Roberts are both precocious, young and talented forwards. Ably backed up by Louis Dodds in the hole or roaming forward from deep, there is more to come from them before the season is out.

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Port Vale (currently 21st):

For:

  1. A bloated but depleted squad. Poor recruitment in the summer has come home to roost, coupled with a very unfortunate injury to JJ Hooper, who has been a glimmer of hope in a dismal 2017.
  2. The continuing rotation of goalkeepers, much like what happened to Bury earlier in the season, makes establishing any rapport with their defenders extremely difficult. Individual errors certainly haven’t helped their cause.
  3. A lack of fitness among the players that are available for selection, coupled with a fixture pile-up, normally only leads to one outcome.

Against:

  1. Chris Eagles has been excellent in a white and black shirt, evoking memories of times gone by when he graced the top tier on merit. He also has plenty of experience fighting relegation and that can only help.
  2. Of course, the number of points available to them is greater than anyone else on this list. That fact alone should be drummed into the players and it could still work in their favour.

Swindon Town (currently 22nd):

For:

  1. Seven points from safety with a goal difference of -7 compared to Shrewsbury and having played a game more.
  2. Allowing Bradford to win having been 1-0 up with five minutes remaining will be a hammer blow both to their confidence and survival prospects. An early kick off against another play-off contender in Millwall is not the sort of fixture that will afford Swindon any respite or ability to find their stride.
  3. The continued selection of Raphael Branco at centre back has drawn the ire of many fans; his mistakes have directly led to dropped points in key fixtures but Luke Williams has stood behind him.
  4. The same can’t be said of some of his other players. To have an internal disciplinary problem at this time of the season does not reflect well at all on the club or the players in question.
  5. Again, the fans are not behind their head coach. He has not been able to follow up his relatively successful interim spell last season with a similar performance this campaign.
  6. Tim Sherwood’s bizarre appointment as Director of Football and continued question marks over who’s really in charge of the team… and bringing the club into disrepute has not helped matters. The lack of harmony at the club is debilitating any efforts on the pitch.

Against:

  1. A side featuring a strike partnership of Nicky Ajose (back at the Robins on loan) and Jonathan Obika always stands a chance.
  2. The squad is incredibly young, with the possible effect that they might not suffer fatigue as much as some of the other clubs in this list. The fixtures left are also kinder and feature several teams who will have little to play for.

Chesterfield (currently 23rd):

For:

  1. At the time of writing, they are effectively 11 points from safety because of a far worse goal difference than Shrewsbury. They must win at least five or six from their last seven to stand even a slight chance. The sheer number of teams they need to catch could work in their favour as it’s unlikely they will all gain a handsome number of points. The Shrews also have a game in hand…
  2. Getting goals consistently has been a challenge. When you see that they scored three against Peterborough at home and still failed to win underwrites their problems neatly. There is no shortage of at least competent attack-minded players in the squad, especially Ched Evans. The issue has been keeping him fit and when he hasn’t been available, the likes of Sylvain Ebanks-Blake and Kristian Dennis not always performing to their best in what is actually quite an adventurous shape under Gary Caldwell.
  3. Two of their remaining fixtures are against a resurgent Bolton and champions-elect Sheffield United on the final day.
  4. They are another team that have often had off-the-pitch problems overshadow their efforts on it this season; relegation would only deepen those concerns. Players are not automatons – anxiety over job security can spread very quickly and it is hard to perform to your best in any task if your mind isn’t clear.

Against:

  1. Scunthorpe are listing badly and home fixtures against both Port Vale and Charlton present the Spierites with at least a squeak of a chance of getting to safety.

Coventry City (currently 24th):

For:

  1. Much like Charlton, their long-suffering fans have been witnesses first-hand to the disastrous effects of uncaring (at best) ownership. They have not been in the fourth tier since 1958/1959 and it’s far from clear where their future lies.
  2. The sheer weight of the odds stacked against them. Their sixth win of the season felt like simply delaying the inevitable.
  3. A general lack of quality in the squad. Effort can only get you so far and the rebuilding task is likely to be massive whilst in the background there is always tumult of one kind or another.

Against:

  1. Miracles can happen. If they can repeat their victory from last night seven more times, it’s not impossible…
  2. In Mark Robins, they have a competent manager who has had relative success at the Sky Blues before and has proved he can work under SISU…

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, general rules of thumb concerning form tend to be less prevalent at the end of a season. Results you might not normally expect occur with increasing regularity. That said, I am confident that the current bottom three will go down but perhaps with Chesterfield in 24th rather than Coventry. Swindon have too great a task to overcome and coupled with a divided fanbase and questions over leadership of the team, they will also fall by the wayside.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Port Vale will survive. Yes, their currently fit players are not all 100% up to speed but they do have more games than anyone else to play in this post. I predict that if they can get to their rearranged tie with Walsall in 20th or higher, then they will stay there. Oldham and Bury will defy their tough fixture lists and survive relatively comfortably. Shrewsbury will gain enough points from their run of three home games to be safe. Both Northampton and MK Dons are more than likely going to have a stress-free end to the season.

It will come down to either Charlton or Gillingham. The former have a more talented squad and it’s very surprising they even have a chance of relegation but ability must be backed up by effort and endeavour and those elements have been missing too many times as of late. However, their superior goal difference and much tighter defence will ensure a second straight season of League One football (a low bar for a club of the Addicks’ recent history) and condemn Gillingham to a spell in the basement.

Final Table Prediction

  • 13. MK Dons
  • 14. Northampton
  • 15. Bury
  • 16. Peterborough
  • 17. Oldham
  • 18. Port Vale
  • 19. Shrewsbury
  • 20. Charlton

=================

  • 21. Gillingham
  • 22. Swindon
  • 23. Coventry
  • 24. Chesterfield

Millwall 0-0 Bury: Review

A resolute and dogged display by Bury allowed them to escape the Lions’ Den with a point and clean sheet intact.

Veteran player-coach Ryan Lowe was the man preferred up top next to James Vaughan for the Shakers in a change that is beginning to become a pattern away from home. Manager Lee Clark must believe that the former three-time Crewe talisman is a better bet defending from the front than either Tom Pope or George Miller, given his many years of experience and ability to still cover a lot of ground… and there was certainly a lot of defending to be done against Neil Harris’ men but little in the way of clear-cut opportunities. As I predicted, Callum Styles was left out of the XI, but for Jacob Mellis and not Kean Bryan. The latter then made his entrance after only 10 minutes with Andrew Tutte reporting cramp in his leg. I sincerely hope it is just that as I’m sure the management team will be closely monitoring injury proneness and records when deciding whose contracts to renew in little over five weeks’ time.

The match itself was characterised by well-drilled backlines, half cleared balls and hopeful punts from outside the area. The first to chance his arm was the lively Jed Wallace from a poor clearance inside the 18 yard box, but the winger didn’t get a good connection on the ball and it span high over Joe Murphy’s bar. Many of Millwall’s early forays came down Taylor Moore’s flank, perhaps sensing that he is still adapting to his new role. One of these crosses from the left was again only cleared as far as a blue and white striped shirt; Ben Thompson beat his midfield rival Bryan in the air and this time it was Steve Morison who drove the ball into Murphy’s arms from 20 yards out.

Bury’s best chance of the game didn’t even result in a shot being taken. Bryan hooked the ball away from the edge of his own area and bounced in front of a tussling Vaughan and Byron Webster. For once, the centre back made a misjudgment, allowing the 21 goal striker to run free and leave both Webster and right back Shaun Cummings trailing. However, he then dribbled too far in front of himself with Lowe free in acres of space to his right and in the process, losing both the chance to finish himself or pick his partner out. That said, nothing can be taken away from the superb sliding challenge from the covering left back Tony Craig, underlining his importance to his side.

The play-off hopefuls enjoyed long but largely fruitless spells of possession in their opponents’ half for much of the game as Bury were continuing to successfully restrict their hosts to long distance efforts that barely constituted a quarter-chance; Shaun Williams sent a left-footed drive well wide with little in the way of viable options. Their best opportunity of the first half was the result of some fine work in the area after a long, angled pass from Cummings. Morison headed down to his strike partner Lee Gregory, with the latter playing the ball back rapidly. Instead of hitting it first time however, he opted to take another touch and the much-improved Leon Barnett was able to apply enough pressure to turn a presentable chance into a half-one, with Morison trickling the shot wide with his second touch.

After the restart, the London side became a little more penetrative for a short spell. A high ball from Thompson had Morison wriggling in between Cameron Burgess and Greg Leigh; he just about managed to get to the ball first and Murphy stopped it with his leg but it was still loose in the area. The Welsh striker deftly backheeled it looking for Gregory’s run but Barnett beat him to the punch and hooked the ball away to safety in the nick of time.

From a well-executed short corner, Wallace was again on the ball at the edge of the box, his shot fizzing close to Murphy, who nevertheless had to get a lot of power behind to save to prevent the opening goal. The on-loan Huddersfield sweeper keeper was at his imperious best all afternoon; the few saves and he had to make he did with aplomb, he was decisive in coming for high balls and he was constantly cajoling and organising his teammates in front of him effectively to the extent that he drew praise from Harris after the game. I think the goalkeeping ‘woes’ Bury have suffered over the past few seasons are a little overblown, with some fans too quick to judge past custodians. On the other hand, the difference Murphy has made is very lucid and he can boast an incredible record of six clean sheets in nine outings and only four conceded in the games he didn’t manage to keep the opposition’s tally down to nil.

Having said all of that, there would’ve been little he could have been able to do about Jake Cooper’s downward header from another Lions corner had the centre back directed it better at the far post, but credit must go to the home side’s organisation and action from set pieces.

Subsequent to that chance, Bury had their only shot on target all game. A neat triangle between Leigh, Caddis and Mellis was executed down the Shakers’ left flank from an initial throw-in. Mellis cut the ball back to the waiting Caddis, whose first time effort was comfortably saved by an under-employed Tom King. Vaughan flashed over on the volley a little while afterwards and that was the closest he came with any shot he took to adding to his impressive season’s haul.

It was from a cut-out pass Vaughan attempted to make to Leigh in the opposition penalty area that Millwall’s best move (and disallowed goal) occurred. Wallace picked up the ball well inside his own half and ran more than half the length of the entire pitch. Morison had peeled off Barnett but in doing so had crucially made himself half a yard offside when receiving the through ball. His finish was expertly taken but all in vain. Despite more sustained pressure, the game petered out to another away day stalemate for Bury and a costly two points dropped for Millwall, especially with Southend leapfrogging them in the table into sixth spot.

The home side must now make the long trip to another team in the upper echelons in the league with dreams of a trip to Wembley in the form of Rochdale, fresh from a reinvigorating (and convincing) 4-1 success over Gillingham. They will need to be more penetrative in order to maximise their chances of punching their way back into the top six with the three games in hand available. For Bury, the difficult run of games continues with surprise promotion contenders Fleetwood Town coming to Gigg Lane on Saturday in what is bound to be a must-win game for both Lancashire outfits, especially if as expected, Port Vale beat Coventry tonight to crank up the pressure on the teams surrounding them in the table.

 

 

Millwall vs Bury: Preview

League One Manager of the Month for February Neil Harris leads his Lions into tomorrow’s encounter with Bury 14 matches unbeaten in the division; not since before Christmas have Millwall tasted defeat. As a result of their FA Cup exploits, they also have three games in hand on most of their play-off rivals and a maximum haul would take them level with Fleetwood in second place.

Harris can also boast a fully fit squad to choose from, which no manager at the Shakers’ helm has had for at least two years.

Millwall vs Bury

Goalkeeper Tom King, if selected, will be looking to make amends for the manner in which he conceded the sixth goal against Tottenham in the FA Cup last weekend. That error and his proclivity to punch the ball might be something Lee Clark instructs his front five to test him on, especially from dead ball situations in the latter case. To even get that far, they will have to breach one of the meanest defences of 2017 first.

Millwall Run

Spurs aside, the above shows the platform on which Harris’ men have roared into the top six, including shut-outs against Premier League opposition in the cup run. King will be very well protected by a mostly conservative back four; the key battle in the game could centre around Tony Craig and Taylor Moore. Craig isn’t exactly the paciest of full backs but makes up for that with his positional sense. He will be more than ably helped out by his defensive teammates, not least of whom is Byron Webster, one of my picks for the League One Team of the Year (look out for that in a future blogpost). He normally manages to stay on the right side of physical and can outmuscle almost any striker in the third tier – another war of attrition could be fought with either James Vaughan or Tom Pope.

Shaun Cummings will look to bomb up the flank in support of an array of possible candidates. It could be Jed Wallace, on loan from Wolves. Wallace has struggled in the old gold shirt to make the right wing berth his own but he would give Greg Leigh and Cameron Burgess plenty to think about with his crossing ability and forays into the channels. On the opposite side, Shane Ferguson is more defensive minded and could be deployed narrower to make up a midfield three when out of possession to match Bury’s shape and win it back quickly. Central midfield duo Ben Thompson and Shaun Williams take turns to shuttle between the back four and front two and that dynamism is something else the visitors will have to be watchful of and contain when possible.

Up top, penalty expert Lee Gregory is likely to lead the line. It was his spot kick in the reverse fixture after Niall Maher handled at the near post that kickstarted Millwall’s comeback to win 3-2 after being three down with 20 minutes on the clock. Better in the air than with the ball at his feet, he is also quite agile and will rove between Antony Kay and Burgess in an attempt to be goal-side of them when the crosses come in (mostly from the right flank). Again, it’s uncertain who he will playing alongside but if it’s precocious talent Fred Onyedinma, as a pair they would offer a lot of movement for the London side.

There are also many options from the bench to consider, which is always the hallmark of a team gunning for promotion. Everyone at Bury is already aware of what David Worrall can do; alongside him are likely to be target man Steve Morison and versatile inside forward/support striker Aiden O’Brien, who each have 10 league goals to their names to complement Gregory’s 14. If things aren’t panning out too well, there is a lot of ammunition on the sidelines to affect the outcome.

vs Millwall

As for the Shakers, I have a sneaky feeling we might see Kean Bryan start for the first time since being sent off in the derby debacle against Rochdale back in October (and he was subsequently injured in training during his suspension). He will add more bite to what is bound to be another hard fought contest and is more defensively inclined than any other Bury midfield option fit and/or still being considered for selection. That would allow Callum Styles to be a choice to have on the bench if a spark of creativity is required. Jacob Mellis might also return to the squad but I think this game will come too quickly for him to feature prominently.

Much like with my Bristol Rovers prediction, I suspect that the Lions will come out on top but not without a fight: I am going for a 2-1 victory for the home side. Exile Jr. has opted for a 1-1 draw, which I would take if offered it right now. All eyes down at the bottom will be on Port Vale’s tussle with Shrewsbury – a draw or win for the Shropside side would mean that even a defeat wouldn’t be too alarming for Lee Clark. There are bound to be a few more twists and turns yet and a thousand other clichés.

Bury 3-0 Bristol Rovers: Review

Stuart Sinclair (aka ‘Beard’) was very much Bury’s unsung hero as the home side won comfortably 3-0 once Bristol Rovers went controversially down to ten men late in the first half.

Manager Lee Clark made the changes I anticipated to the starting lineup, bringing in Andrew Tutte for the injured Jacob Mellis in the centre of the park and also restoring target man Tom Pope to the forward line. Visiting boss Darrell Clarke rotated things a little more, with the aforementioned Sinclair chief among them.

What will of course rankle Clarke and the travelling Gas fans is that they were very much in the game up until that incident, with the opening exchanges evenly matched. James Vaughan, playing more of a supportive role than usual, played the ball after a good spell of possession by the home side through to Callum Styles, but the pass was a little too close to goalkeeper Joe Lumley and the danger was snuffed out. Vaughan then chose to go alone when both Styles and right wing-back Taylor Moore were free in the area, the end result being that he was crowded out. The way he out-muscled the defence up until that point was an indication of the torrid time he would continue to serve up for almost the entirety of the match.

Left back Lee Brown had a pop from outside of the area after the ball was only half-cleared but saw his effort go narrowly wide of custodian Joe Murphy’s near post.

The first moment of the controversy came shortly afterwards; Sinclair ran across Greg Leigh and went down. The referee immediately gave a free-kick to Bury and awarded him a yellow card, much to the roaming midfielder’s consternation.

Following a poorly placed pass, Styles was able to pick out Vaughan running in behind the yellows’ defensive line with a delightful lofted through ball. The forward was shaping to apply the finish when an exceptionally timed tackle from centre back Tom Lockyer prevented the away side going a goal behind.

A carbon copy at the other end occurred moments later; a hurried clearance by Moore was played back into danger and some clever work by Sinclair allowed Rovers’ own Moore in Byron to be in between the centre backs with only Murphy in goal to beat. Just like his compatriot on the opposing side, Leon Barnett was the exponent of probably the best goal-saving tackle in a Bury shirt all season long, clawing the ball away from a certain goal in one motion and in the next, preventing his striking partner Luke James from breaking his duck. Barnett has previously come in for some of the heaviest criticism and vitriol I’ve both read and heard in several seasons and in my mind, some of it crossed the line. He was brought back too quickly after an injury lay-off by David Flitcroft and both of them paid the price for it. He has found his niche as part of the current central back three and has barely put a foot wrong after a more phased return to the side after another spell on the sidelines.

The battle of the Moores continued with the striker winning out after a tussle near the byline; only a strong hand from Murphy kept proceedings at 0-0.

The moment that changed the course of the game happened five minutes from the end of the opening period; Sinclair, having been warned by the referee on a second occasion for what he deemed to be simulation, received the ball in space on the right flank after a slip from the otherwise rock solid Cameron Burgess. Styles covered for his teammate, tracking Sinclair’s dribble. ‘Beard’ once again went down and it is almost impossible to determine whether he was fouled or took a dive. The referee was much more certain, showing a second yellow to the 29 year-old and giving his manager plenty to chew on in the process.

Right back James Clarke then had to go off with what appeared to be a breathing complaint. Fortunately, he seems to be recovering well since and has been discharged from hospital. Rovers reverted to a back three in light of both of these events.

Lee Clark’s response after the interval was to take off Andrew Tutte (who hadn’t had the best game of his career and was on a booking) and bring on George Miller in his place, matching The Gas’ change of shape at the back in a very positive move. Another good spell of possession after Miller’s hold-up play allowed Styles to pick out Leigh, who cut inside into the penalty area. Byron Moore was the closest to him when the left wing-back went down quite easily and a spot kick was the result of it, which Vaughan converted with some power to open the scoring for his 21st of the season. It wasn’t Rovers’ evening at all.

In spite of this, the away side didn’t give up and remained very much in the tie. A terrible tackle by skipper Antony Kay on Chris Lines could easily have evened up the numbers but only resulted in yet another yellow being shown in the game. From the resulting free-kick, a training ground move saw Lockyer race to the edge of the box and hit an effort straight at Burgess, which lopped horribly onto the post and only an instinctive clearance by Pope stopped Lockyer’s defensive partner Ryan Sweeney from following up.

A Vaughan assist is a rare thing indeed but for only the second time in Bury colours, he turned provider. A Moore cross was headed out by Lockyer and onwards by Lines but with the ball bouncing, the hitman executed what was akin to a karate kick pass to the back post to give a stooping Leigh his first goal for the Shakers in his 42nd game and you could see just how much it meant to him and the group as a whole.

On-loan Manchester City hot prospect Kean Bryan, making only his second appearance since October and from the bench, was brought on to bring a bit more crunch and steel to the midfield. It was his bravery that set up the decisive third for Lee Clark’s charges. He won his 50/50 with Lines and Leigh, who has really improved as the season has progressed, clipped a curling ball over the defence. Miller had timed his run superbly to beat the offside trap and in a moment of brilliant composure, turned Sweeney and aimed high into the goal to claim his seventh of the season in just 873 minutes, underlining his talent. He still has plenty of scope (and time) to improve but under player-coach Ryan Lowe’s watchful eye, he has one of the best lower league marksmen of the 21st century for guidance. Their relationship was underlined when the 18 year-old went straight to his colleague on the sidelines, sparking joyous scenes in the technical area.

Still, The Gas came forward and their performance merited at least something from the game. Sub striker Rory Gaffney shot into the side netting and James drew a very good low, diving save from Murphy to keep the goalkeeper’s clean sheet intact. The final whistle blew and the visitors shouldn’t be too concerned by their own efforts but they can feel harshly treated by the referee on at least one of the three key decisions in the match. It makes their own late charge for the play-offs that little bit more improbable looking, especially with Millwall’s games in hand. The New Den is where Bury head off to on Saturday and they will need to keep up their own levels of endeavour and commitment to not come back to Greater Manchester empty-handed.

 

 

 

Bury vs Bristol Rovers: Preview

Taking the long view, both teams go into tonight’s game in pretty decent form. Bury have lost just twice in the last 11 games since the alarmingly long winless run was halted in spectacular fashion.

Bristol Rovers are unbeaten in their last nine, albeit the majority of those are draws. Their previous two games have bucked that trend, however. They deservedly bested two of their rivals for a possible play-off spot in the shape of Oxford and Southend and did so without conceding a goal.

The Gas’ current streak is epitomised by young manager Darrell Clark’s bullishness. It is not outside the realms of reality that he could lead his charges from the National League to the Championship in consecutive campaigns, which would be an amazing feat; even if it’s not achieved in May, they are more than likely to finish in the top half and that can be an excellent springboard for a more concerted assault on the promotion places in 2017/2018, providing they can retain some of their better players.

vs Bristol Rovers

They are likely to face a Shakers side with two changes from the Oldham stalemate; Jacob Mellis is a serious doubt after going off injured and Ryan Lowe is unlikely to start two games in such quick succession. Luckily, Andrew Tutte is back from his latest spell on the sidelines and manager Lee Clark will need him at his box-to-box best. He is likely to partner Paul Caddis, who is still a little bit off full fitness and the youthful exuberance and élan of Callum Styles, fresh from only playing the first half of the derby as a precaution after receiving a yellow card. Tom Pope is likely to come back in attack and ask questions of The Gas’ backline.

Bristol Rovers vs Bury

Bristol Rovers are likely to retain the same XI who brushed aside Southend at the weekend; as energetic midfielder Ollie Clarke serves the second game of his ban. Since leading goalscorer Matt Taylor’s under-the-radar move across the city, the burden of scoring has been shared throughout the side. The most direct threats come from both wings, with Christian Montaño and Billy Bodin providing pace and a goal threat. Look for them to try to clip Bury’s wing-backs’ own attacking effectiveness whilst their central midfield colleagues sit deeper and soak up the pressure. Rory Gaffney has already scored once against the Lancashire outfit this season and whilst far from consistent in front of goal, he can hurt the defenders in white.

The defensive unit has not been tested too much in the past couple of outings, ably helped out by physicality throughout the ranks. Bury will need to find a way to bypass Pope’s good friend Chris Lines and put them on the back foot as much as possible. Both sides have scored and conceded plenty in the league this term and it is hard to see tonight being a drab affair. Unfortunately, whilst I don’t think it will be “an easy win” for the visitors, I do see them continuing their great run and upping the ante for their opponents’ relegation worries with a 2-1 success. Exile Jr. is of a similar mindset but sees more goals in the game once more, opting for a 3-2 win to take back to the Memorial Stadium and give them a real chance of gatecrashing the top six.

Oldham Athletic 0-0 Bury: Review

Because of the quick turnaround in matches, this review is shorter than most others written to date. Hope you still enjoy!

Well, that went pretty much how I expected it to go, even down to the starting XIs chosen. If ever there was a game you could be sure that the defences were going to come out on top, it was Saturday’s derby encounter between relegation rivals Oldham and Bury.

The pitch played a massive part in limiting clear cut chances. When they did arrive for the visitors in the first half, they were almost always either scuffed or lacking power. One shot that that can’t be said about however is Taylor Moore’s volleyed effort from a looping cross by his wing-back compatriot Greg Leigh that hit the side netting.

The real moment of controversy in the game occured when canny operator Ryan Lowe was played through by Jacob Mellis and after a tangle of legs with Paul Green, tracking back well from a midfield area. The veteran striker was deemed by the referee to have dived and the problem for Lowe is that he does have a propensity for looking for free kicks and penalties a little too often, so his claim could’ve worked against him in this instance. In hindsight, the ball could’ve been played a little more ahead of him to make it more of a one-on-one situation and it’s difficult to know for certain whether the pitch had an effect on Mellis’ pass.

Bury did most of the running in the first half but it was the Latics who came out the stronger in. A wicked deflection from a Tope Obadeyi cross was cleared with power by Cameron Burgess straight into Ollie Banks’ body. Luckily from a Shakers’ point of view, the ball pinged wide.

Obadeyi is a bit of an enigma in that he has the right build for the game and no shortage of pace or skill but his decision making is what often lets him down and there were several instances of that on show on Saturday’s evidence.

Prolific marksman James Vaughan had to adapt his game a little without Tom Pope in the same side and whilst winning his fair share of aerial challenges, he was very limited in terms of goalscoring opportunities.

Joe Murphy didn’t have a save of real note to make all game long and Connor Ripley had to be alert to save twice late on from perennial substitute George Miller.

The final whistle sounded and the stalemate suited neither team, especially given results elsewhere. Whether it will be enough for Oldham to maintain their brick wall at the back and still be in the third tier for yet another season remains to be seen. They were bereft of quality up front and I’m not certain even drawing the remaining nine games will be enough. They might need to be a little more cavalier if Port Vale can make the most of their own fixture pile-up.

For Bury, losing Jacob Mellis to injury in an area where there aren’t exactly many match-fit candidates for selection is a big worry, even if it only turns out to be for a couple of weeks. The next tranche of fixtures features promotion and play-off hopefuls and the visitors will need to be at their best to upset their loftier opponents, starting with Bristol Rovers tomorrow. A lot rests on the midfield and it is crucial that they remain both firm and creative if they are to stand a good chance of going for promotion next season, which chairman Stewart Day has targeted.

As for the prediction results, it’s 1-0 to me this time. Exile Jr. was dead wrong to anticipate a goal fest!