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:
- 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.
- 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:
- Recent results against strugglers have been impressive, with wins against four of the sides further down in the last seven matches.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Their positive goal difference could be crucial.
- 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):
- 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.
- 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.
- Pacey striker Kieran Agard hasn’t had consistent help in scoring goals.
- The Buckinghamshire side also don’t concede too many with a settled, well organised defence.
- 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):
- 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?
- 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.
- Too reliant on all-round striker James Vaughan for goals and he only has scored six of his 21 away from BL9.
- 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!
- Joe Murphy has kept six clean sheets in nine games since signing on loan and his influence cannot be understated.
- Positive substitutions have helped Bury not become too predictable when it comes to tactical switches.
Gillingham (currently 18th):
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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):
- 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.
- 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.
- Again, they face sides much higher on the league ladder and must hope Port Vale don’t bounce back themselves.
- Three home games in a row offer a decent chance of pulling away from the drop zone.
- 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.
- 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.
Port Vale (currently 21st):
- 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.
- 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.
- A lack of fitness among the players that are available for selection, coupled with a fixture pile-up, normally only leads to one outcome.
- 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.
- 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):
- Seven points from safety with a goal difference of -7 compared to Shrewsbury and having played a game more.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A side featuring a strike partnership of Nicky Ajose (back at the Robins on loan) and Jonathan Obika always stands a chance.
- 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):
- 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…
- 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.
- Two of their remaining fixtures are against a resurgent Bolton and champions-elect Sheffield United on the final day.
- 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.
- 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):
- 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.
- The sheer weight of the odds stacked against them. Their sixth win of the season felt like simply delaying the inevitable.
- 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.
- Miracles can happen. If they can repeat their victory from last night seven more times, it’s not impossible…
- 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…
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