Big injuries, patchy form and Covid call-offs... How the League One play-offs battle is shaping up
- Credit: PA
Just five points separate fifth and 13th in the League One table as the season enters the final run-in. STUART WATSON takes a look at the state of play at Ipswich Town's main play-off rivals.
LINCOLN CITY - 4th, P37, 62pts
The Imps occupied a top-two spot for much of the campaign, but are now down to fourth and looking over their shoulders after claiming just three wins from their last 14.
Liam Bridcutt has become the latest key player to pick up an injury, following on from Joe Walsh, Jorge Grant and Tom Hopper, the latter two having bagged 19 league goals between them.
To make matters worse, Covid in the camp has seen both their scheduled Easter games against MK Dons and Charlton postponed. That will make for real hectic run-in.
Speaking after last weekend’s 2-1 loss at Oxford, boss Michael Appleton said: “We want to get to the (points) target as quickly as we possibly can, then we can regroup and start preparing for what we know is going to be an exciting end to the season.
“But the longer it goes on and you’re not hitting those targets and you’re not getting closer to those targets, it becomes more difficult.”
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FIXTURES: Blackpool (h), Bristol R (a), Burton (a), Hull (h), Shrewsbury (a), Peterborough (a), AFC Wimbledon (h). To be rearranged: MK Dons (h), Charlton (a).
PORTSMOUTH - 5th, P36, 58pts
Six defeats in eight saw Pompey slide out the play-off places. There was also a Trophy Final loss to League Two side Salford City.
The Cowley brothers, Danny and Nicky, replaced Kenny Jackett in the dugout and have provided an instant lift to players and fans.
Back-to-back wins against Ipswich and Shrewsbury have the South Coast club back in the top-six, but a shortage of strikers must still remain a concern.
Ellis Harrison and Jordan Hiwula are out for season, while leading marksman John Marquis is now suspended for the next three games.
Cowley said: “We’d already watched something near 15 Portsmouth games prior even to taking a phone call. So we have a good idea of the group, how to help them particularly in the short term.”
FIXTURES: Rochdale (h), Wigan (a), Burton (h), Crewe (a), MK Dons (a), Swindon (a), Bristol R (h), Accrington (a), AFC Wimbledon (a), Accrington (h).
GILLINGHAM - 6th, P39, 58pts
Steve Evans’ direct and physical underdogs refuse to go away.
Since the end of January they’ve taken points off Sunderland, Charlton, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Lincoln, Doncaster and Hull.
The Kent side moved into the top-six with a 1-0 win against Wigan last night.
Evans, speaking in the build-up to that game, said: “It’s squeaky bum time for all those teams on big budgets. All those managers who say ‘we can’t get beaten by them’, well they haven’t done so well since we beat them.
“When it all levels out, wow, wouldn’t it be interesting if we can get in that mix, or four or five points off it with four games to go.”
FIXTURES: Blackpool (a), Shrewsbury (h), Oxford (a), Peterborough (a), Northampton (h), Burton (a), Plymouth (h).
BLACKPOOL - 7th, P35, 57pts
The Tangerines’ 2-0 loss at Portman Road on February 6 is their only defeat in 15 league games (W8 D6).
They look like a team bang in form, but recent season ending injuries to Matty Virtue and CJ Hamilton are major blows.
And the fact that late equalisers have been conceded at home against Crewe, Wimbledon and Plymouth in recent weeks may also provide an element of doubt in their minds.
“It seems like we’re making a habit of that,” admitted boss Neil Critchley. "We’re still in a good position in the league though.”
FIXTURES: Swindon (a), Gillingham (h), Lincoln (a), Accrington (h), Sunderland (h), Rochdale (a), Shrewsbury (h), Sunderland (a), Northampton (a), Doncaster (h), Bristol R (h).
DONCASTER ROVERS - 8th, P35, 57pts
Things look to be slipping away for Rovers.
First, star playmaker and captain Ben Whiteman was sold to Preston in January, then manager Darren Moore was lured away to Sheffield Wednesday at the end of last month.
After losing just five league games in the first five months of the season, the South Yorkshire side have now lost seven times in seven weeks to slip out of the top-six.
Southampton loanee Josh Sims has been struggling with a leg injury, while Jon Taylor’s season is over due to an ankle injury. With the wing duo out, goals have dried up.
Andy Butler, who has been promoted from player to manager, said: "There’s a bit of disappointment and frustration at how things are going at the minute, but this is just another test I will knock out of the park.
“With the squad I’ve got and the players I’ve got, all it takes is that little tweak and all will be right.”
FIXTURES: Charlton (h), Bristol R (a), Wigan (h), Burton (h), Shrewsbury (a), Accrington (a), Fleetwood (h), Peterborough (a), Rochdale (a), Blackpool (a), Peterborough (h).
OXFORD UNITED - 9th, P37, 56pts
Nine wins from 10 during December, January and February catapulted Karl Robinson’s side up the table.
The U’s form has been patchy since, but last weekend’s big 2-1 win against Lincoln keeps them in the play-off hunt.
Robinson said: “We now go into one of the hardest away games of the season at Sunderland. We can go there for a free hit knowing on the Monday we’ve got Accrington back here.
"We’ve got two massive games coming up."
The influential Marcus McGuane will not play again this season because of a thigh problem.
FIXTURES: Sunderland (a), Accrington (h), Crewe (a), Shrewsbury (h), Gillingham (h), AFC Wimbledon (a), Plymouth (h), Shrewsbury (a), Burton (h).
CHARLTON ATHLETIC - 10th, P37, Pts56
The Addicks, now under new ownership, looked to have been fading from the promotion picture but are right back in the mix after a six-game unbeaten run.
Nigel Adkins replaced Lee Bowyer in the hot-seat after latter’s surprise move to Birmingham earlier this month.
The former Scunthorpe and Southampton manager said: “Although I didn’t want to go back into League One – and I could’ve waited – this is an exciting opportunity.”
Striker Conor Washington pulled out of Northern Ireland's squad last weekend and will be absent for crunch Easter clashes against Doncaster and Lincoln.
Next three fixtures look make or break.
FIXTURES: Doncaster (a), Sunderland (a), Ipswich (h), Plymouth (a), Peterborough (h), Crewe (h), Accrington (a), Hull (h). To be rearranged: Lincoln (h).
MK DONS - 12th, P38, 54pts
Four straight wins, against Accrington, Plymouth, Burton and Doncaster, have kept Russell Martin’s possession-based side within four points of the play-off places.
Asked of his team were top-six contenders, Martin said: “If we get through the next three with wins, the conversation could change. It’s a really big ask as we’ve got to win seven of eight to do it.
“We’re so reliant on other people (dropping points), so that’s why we’ve not spoke about it.
“We won’t get carried away. The last time everyone spoke about it we lost four in a row so I’m reluctant to let anyone engage in that conversation.”
FIXTURES: Crewe (h), Ipswich (a), Portsmouth (h), Bristol R (a), Swindon (h), Fleetwood (a), Rochdale (h). Plus: Lincoln (a).
ACCRINGTON STANLEY - 13th, P36, 53pts
Manager John Coleman admits that, after a superb season, the play-offs look a step too far.
The Lancashire side suffered a heavy 7-0 defeat at Peterborough last weekend, picking up four more injuries in the process.
Mark Hughes, Ben Barclay, Sean McConville, Colby Bishop, Joe Pritchard and Seamus Conneely are among those out.
“I can’t ever remember an injury crisis like this in almost 25 years as a manager,” Coleman, whose side have a difficult looking run-in on paper.
“We are still blessed that we are playing League One football and there is a good chance we will be playing League One football next year. I still think, with a little bit of luck, we could have been knocking on the doors of the play-offs ourselves this year but we haven’t had a great deal of luck.”
FIXTURES: Burton (h), Oxford (a), AFC Wimbledon (h), Blackpool (a), Rochdale (a), Doncaster (h), Sunderland (a), Portsmouth (h), Charlton (h), Portsmouth (a).