A League 2 blog with an overwhelmingly pro-Torquay United bias
Today’s previews were typed out on the train to Devon at an unreasonably early hour on Friday morning, as I headed Devonwards for Torquay’s last home match of the season before the Royal revelry made public transport unusable. The Gulls are one of 4 sides scrapping it out for the remaining 3 playoff spots in an incredibly close race that could well be decided by goal difference. It’s hardly serene at the opposite end of the table as Barnet’s unprecedented resurgence has kept the 4 sides directly above them under pressure: 3 of them could replace the Bees in 23rd this weekend.
This season’s been so open that it’s only now, in the penultimate round of fixtures, that we finally have some ‘dead rubbers’: up until now, every side in the division has had either promotion or survival to play for. Easter Monday’s games may have decided the fates of some, but plenty still hangs in the balance. Once again I’ve arranged the weekend’s fixtures in descending order of potential significance:
STAR GAME: Accrington (5th) v Barnet (23rd)
Previous league meeting: Barnet 2-0 Accrington
A match with potentially massive ramifications at both ends of the table, this is both Accrington’s chance to cement a play-off spot and Barnet’s opportunity to leap out of the relegation zone. Few sides come away from the Crown Ground with anything, which is at least in part due to the pitch looking like somebody drunkenly crashed a helicopter into it. Regardless, Stanley have massively overachieved this season given their paltry attendances and ongoing financial struggles. As well as being unbeaten in 11 consecutive games, they’ve kept a whopping 11 clean sheets here: the highest of any team in League 2.
Barnet’s spirited performances of late as they scrap for their league status have been nothing short of inspirational and I really hope they can stay up. Being the away side doesn’t seem to hamper the Bees much: if anything they’ve looked even more dangerous on the road, sticking 4 past both Burton and Gillingham. While they look capable of beating anyone at the moment, I’d still be surprised to see them come away with 3 points from this one, so it looks as though their fight for survival will go right down to the final day.
Bury (2nd) v Wycombe (3rd)
Previous league meeting: Wycombe 1-0 Bury
Bury’s 100% record under caretaker manager Richie Barker now stretches to 6 matches, most recently a 3-2 win at table-topping Chesterfield which gives them a psychological edge in the title race. Going forward they look irresistible with League 2’s Player of the Season, Ryan Lowe, as well as the ever-dangerous Man Utd loanee Nicky Ajose tearing teams apart. Wycombe have inspiration of their own in evergreen captain Gareth Ainsworth and are on an 8 match unbeaten streak (albeit including a fair few draws) that finds them clinging on to the final automatic promotion place. However, they’re up against a side who’ve scored in their last 13 home matches without conceding in their last 4, and having seen the Chairboys overrun at Plainmoor recently I can’t see them offering sufficient resistance. However, Nikki Bull was inspirational in that game to repeatedly deny Torquay and I can see him keeping the scoreline respectable here.
Torquay (8th) v Chesterfield (1st)
Previous league meeting: Chesterfield 1-0 Torquay
While Chesterfield haven’t won in 4 away matches, their visit to Plainmoor still represents a tough examination of Torquay’s promotion credentials. The Spireites remain at the division’s summit and are one of only two sides who’ve lost less games than the Gulls this season (the other being fellow playoff-chasers Accrington). They also have a solid defensive record away from home, while their hosts have sometimes struggled to convert their chances lately. Still, Torquay’s goal difference is impressive for a reason and when they hit their stride they’re a match for anyone. Despite some frustrating draws of late they’re unbeaten in 10 and haven’t conceded in their last 3 home games. What sort of fan would I be if I didn’t back the Gulls to edge this encounter and plant one foot firmly in the playoffs?
Northampton (22nd) v Stevenage (6th)
Previous league meeting: Stevenage 0-1 Northampton
18 games without a win is so bad that it’s almost impressive; Northampton are running out of time to end that run and secure their league status. In truth, this fixture looked more daunting a month ago when Stevenage were in the ascendancy, but their recent decline (they’ve won just 1 in 4) suggests that they may well have been found out. Boro still have the division’s best away defensive record though, so I’m going for a score draw which would prolong both sides’ campaigns until the final game of the season.
Oxford (12th) v Lincoln (21st)
Previous league meeting: Lincoln 3-1 Oxford
Oxford have made a solid return to league football and will be looking to make amends for a poor recent run in their last home game of the season. They’ve got a gilt-edged chance to record their first win in 6 matches against Lincoln, who themselves are winless in 9 and have kept just 2 away clean sheets all season. The Imps are just 2 points from the relegation zone with a horrible goal difference, so they should be going all out to try and win here. They’ll fancy their chances, but their hosts are unbeaten in 4 games at the Kassam Stadium and should have enough about them to prolong their visitors’ relegation worries.
Cheltenham (17th) v Shrewsbury (4th)
Previous league meeting: Shrewsbury 1-1 Cheltenham
Cheltenham ended, or at least deviated from, an abject run of form with victory over fellow doldrums-inhabiters Lincoln last weekend, but they’ll find it much tougher going against the promotion-chasing Shrews. Their visitors are locked in an intense battle for 3rd place and arrive at Whaddon Road in good form: they’ve not conceded in 3 matches and have won 3 of their last 4. The Robins themselves have been awful to the point that their own chairman openly criticised the players’ efforts, and with just 4 home clean sheets this season you can understand the frustration. While the visitors will be favourites for this one, the pressure on them to get a result may just allow their emboldened hosts to grab the point they need to guarantee survival.
Hereford (20th) v Bradford (18th)
Previous league meeting: Bradford 1-0 Hereford
If Hereford hadn’t suffered their points deduction they’d actually be 3 places above Bradford, albeit on goal difference as one of 5 sides tied on 51 points. However, the reality is that defeat could well see the Bulls sink into the relegation zone if Barnet win at Accrington. Neither of these sides have impressed this season: no League 2 side has failed to score on more occasions than Hereford, who’ve drawn a blank 17 times this season, while Bradford’s 16 is arguably worse given the significantly larger support they enjoy. It’s another of those matches likely to be settled by who plays the least badly, with Hereford’s better recent form probably sufficient to give them the upper hand.
Gillingham (7th) v Macclesfield (16th)
Previous league meeting: Macclesfield 2-4 Gillingham
The Gills have a strong home record this season despite not scoring that many goals at Priestfield, although they’re without a win in 3 matches there. With their next and final match being away to leaders Chesterfield, the pressure will be on them to end that sequence here to maximise their chances of staying in the playoff zone. While the Silkmen are a lot lower down the table with 3 defeats in their last 4 away games, they’ve netted in each of their last 8 matches on the road so must be taken seriously. Macclesfield have a lot less to worry about, as while mathematically capable of being relegated it isn’t overwhelmingly likely, but they’ll still be keen to get the point that guarantees League 2 football next season. I expect a nervy encounter with the home side doing most of the attacking and narrowly prevailing.
Southend (11th) v Burton (19th)
Previous league meeting: Burton 3-1 Southend
Southend haven’t got much to play for any more, aside from achieving the most flattering mid-table position possible, but they’ve actually been pretty good at home lately. They’ve not lost in 8 matches at Roots Hall and haven’t even conceded a goal in the last 4 of these. Their visitors may have won their last away match, but that was something of a rarity for Burton, being only their third away victory of the season. The Brewers don’t often find the net on their travels either, although they’ve been more prolific of late, scoring in each of their last 4 away from the Pirelli. Needing 3 more points to guarantee survival will force a positive approach from Burton, meaning that there should be goals in this one: I’ll wager that more of them will come from the home side.
Crewe (13th) v Stockport (24th)
Previous league meeting: Stockport 3-3 Crewe
This qualifies as the least disinteresting of the three dead rubbers in the league for two reasons. Firstly, it’s not mathematically a dead rubber at all, as Stockport could still escape relegation if they win their last two matches and Northampton lose theirs, provided that all of these matches finish with an average winning margin of 9 goals to counterbalance the Hatters’ horrific goal difference. Secondly, this should be an action-packed game for the neutral: these are the only two sides in the division whose matches boast an average over 3 goals, with some ridiculous scorelines being recorded this season (including 5-5, 7-0, 8-1 and some 5-0s for good measure). Crewe are the living embodiment of home advantage – they have the joint best home defence but the worst away one – so it’s hard to look beyond them here, although the end of their playoff dream looks to have taken some of the wind out of their sails.
Port Vale (10th) v Morecambe (15th)
Previous league meeting: Morecambe 1-0 Port Vale
There was a time this season when a visit to Vale Park was the toughest away fixture imaginable: while Vale didn’t score that many, they conceded far less and rarely dropped points. The horrible decline in their fortunes following Micky Adams’ departure has seen them drop like a stone and they now find themselves with nothing but pride to play for. The current stand-off between the fans and the board, with a sizeable chunk of the former refusing to renew their season tickets unless the latter fall on their sword, will do nothing to improve morale. Realistically the only way is down for Morecambe, as even winning their last two games is unlikely to result in them climbing the table further and they still need a point to guarantee their league status. They’re in reasonable form at the moment so I can see them getting it here.
Aldershot (14th) v Rotherham (9th)
Previous league meeting: Rotherham 1-0 Aldershot
It’s been a season of mid-table mediocrity for the Shots and they’re one of the few sides mathematically guaranteed to be in League 2 again next season. Despite a poor recent run they’ve netted in their last 9 home games, although they remain one of the division’s lowest scorers. Rotherham’s season has fizzled out frustratingly and they now find themselves all but mathematically out of the playoff reckoning. The Millers are winless in 6 but have managed to score in each of their last 3 away games, so I expect these two to cancel each other out in a game that’s effectively meaningless for both sides.