The League One promotion race is heating up. With five of the top six winning at the weekend, we are little wiser about which three clubs will claim the Championship places up for grabs. Tom Simmonds tries to make sense of a crowded picture.
All of the teams in League One down to Rochdale – only four points off sixth place and currently sitting 11th – will fancy their chances of sneaking into the top six and earning a tilt at the third promotion slot.
The team who look likely champions are Burton Albion, who will see Leicester as soulmates. Like the Premier League-leading Foxes, they have been subject to a constant chorus insisting they will fall away as the sharp end approaches. Like their bigger East Midlands neighbours, this talk doesn’t appear to be affecting Burton. Nigel Clough has been sensible in not disturbing what Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink created before QPR came calling for him. While their current form hasn’t got them streaking away, the Brewers are doing enough to distance themselves from the pack, and a six-point lead with nine games left means that they should secure automatic promotion.
Of the chasing pack, highly-fancied Wigan currently sit second on 68 points. Their 1-0 win against Bradford on Saturday was their first in three, but they are in the happy habit of not losing. While they have drawn a lot, Wigan are unbeaten in 16, and have a deep squad that their fans will fancy will see them promoted again at the first attempt.
Walsall (third) and Gillingham (fourth) have both been wobbling recently. The Saddlers, who sacked Sean O’Driscoll in mid-February after their home form collapsed, have been put back on track by caretaker Jon Whitney. Walsall have a settled squad that has grown together over three seasons, one that has the best away record in the division, and surely enough points to be sure of at least a play-off place.
Gillingham’s wobble has been more pronounced. Injuries to talismanic attacking midfielder Bradley Dack and key defender John Egan have hampered them, with three wins in their last 10 games the harvest of this dip. Five points from their last three games hints that Justin Edinburgh’s men might be snapping out of this, though they will be sweating on the fitness of Dack, the division’s best player, for any post-season campaign.
Millwall have established themselves in the top six after a wretched start, finally straightening out a home record which saw them lose their first four home games. Neil Harris has moved quickly to replace on-loan creative muse Jed Wallace after his recall by Wolves with the all-action Chris Taylor. An excellent away record, plus three players in Lee Gregory, Steve Morison, and Aiden O’Brien, who have scored 10+ goals each, mean the Lions will provide a serious test for any team they face post-season.
The final spot appears to be between Barnsley, Bradford, and Coventry. The Yorkshire clubs are hitting their stride at the right time, whereas Coventry are fading after a dazzling start amid accusations of overplaying from the Sky Blues faithful.
Coventry’s start was in diametric opposition to Barnsley’s. The Tykes suffered an eight-game losing streak in the autumn, endangering Lee Johnson’s job. In a complete turnaround, Johnson oversaw six straight league wins through January and February. His reward was to be poached by Bristol City. Caretaker Paul Heckingbottom has kept the good run going, and Barnsley consequently have the look of that team who enter the play-offs with momentum on their side.
Joining Barnsley in making up ground, though not so dramatically, are Phil Parkinson’s solid Bradford side. Founded on a mean defence that has only conceded 38 goals so far, they also don’t score many; 43 is by far the lowest of any at the top end of the division. This suggests that Bradford will need to grind it out if they are to taste Wembley glory in May, though these statistics suggest they are well placed to do so should they get the chance.
Who do you think will prevail in the League One promotion bunfight?
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