This is it. After Port Vale’s not-at-all unexpected triumph over a youthful Walsall side, the pressure is back on both teams at Roots Hall in the Sunday lunchtime kick off to attain a positive result.
For Phil Brown and Southend, they must go all out for a win to snatch the final play-off place from Millwall, with Rochdale ready to pounce if they both slip up. The Lions and Dale have on paper tougher fixtures but even that must be called into question with Bristol Rovers out of the picture and Bradford assured of at least fifth place (but with one eye on gaining a second leg clash at home in their semi-final). The Shrimpers’ vastly superior goal difference could still prove to be a key factor, too.
At the other end, a draw would mathematically see the Shakers safe but that is a dangerous mentality to have when your opponents have a lot riding on the outcome. Immediately below them in the standings, Gillingham have a visit to Northampton with former boss Justin Edinburgh in no mood to give them any quarter.
The Valiants have the daunting task of preventing one of the stories of the EFL this season from having an extremely happy ending for Uwe Rösler’s Fleetwood. The Cod Army are chasing promotion to their highest ever level of professional football but are heavily reliant on rivals Bolton falling to defeat against a schizophrenic Peterborough outfit who wax and wane from dominant to hopeless seemingly at the flick of a switch. With an insurmountable goal difference to make up, they will nevertheless have to push forward from the start, which could leave gaps for Vale to exploit.
Southend could line up in the same fashion as their last game. Form has been erratic in April but they have had former Bury loanee Christian Walton to thank for keeping them in the hunt for points whilst losing. The Brighton stopper can consider himself a bit hard done by during his time between the sticks for the Lancashire side and could have a point to prove.
The centre back pairing of Antony Ferdinand and Adam Thompson are competent but not commanding, so look for the usual schitck of Tom Pope occupying one or both to create space for James Vaughan in behind.
On the right, Jason Demetriou will prove a more difficult proposition for his opponents. He is quick, adept at crossing and relishes a physical battle and getting forward.
Speaking of agile, Ryan Leonard will cover lots of ground behind the rest of the midfield and hoover up any loose balls and win possession back for the Shrimpers and spread it to both wings.
Will Atkinson and Demetriou make one of the more potent partnerships down a flank in the third tier, so Greg Leigh will have his work cut out to contain both of them.
Up top, Nile Ranger has had a productive season on the pitch and has had a rapport with both his manager and Simon Cox. The summer signing from Reading has largely gone under the radar in terms of end of season awards dished out but his contribution to his side’s cause has been massive, with 16 goals and eight assists to his name. If Southend do make the top six, they will need to call on his vast experience and end product to make it two promotions in three years.
Lee Clark has claimed that proceedings going down to the wire hasn’t changed his approach to Sunday’s game, so that should be reflected in the lineup as well.
For all his shortcomings, Ryan Lowe has big match experience and is a harasser for the ball and opportunities to manage the game to Bury’s advantage and ought to retain his place.
As for a prediction, I don’t think any of the three teams still threatened with relegation will lose. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that Port Vale will pull it off at Fleetwood in a tense tightly contested affair. Gillingham should get something at Sixfields and there is enough wherewithal in Bury’s squad to claim a share of the spoils. For the reasons stated above, I’m opting for a 1-1 draw, which won’t prove enough for Southend to scrape into the play-offs but will prove sufficient for Clark to plan an assault on the top half of the League One table in 2017/2018.
Exile Jr. believes it will be a 2-2 draw. In both cases, Gillingham are the team we have to go down and Rochdale will leapfrog into sixth. I hope we’re right at least about Bury’s survival!