Surprise packages, pressure building and standards slipping - A look at the League One promotion race
- Credit: PA
A stinking relegation hangover quickly banished, with a squad full of Championship and top end League One experience. Table-topping Hull City are in good shape, but can they last the distance?
Only three of their 15 league games have come against sides currently in the top eight so far. Grant McCann’s men beat Ipswich and Doncaster recently, having previously lost to Peterborough and Fleetwood.
A run of games against Portsmouth, Sunderland, Lincoln and Charlton either side of Christmas will tell us a lot about the Tigers’ credentials.
They do look to have the ingredients though, with a settled defence, George Honeyman’s midfield assists and forward men such as Mallik Wilks, Josh Magennis and Keane Lewis-Potter chipping in with goals.
Speaking after his side’s 3-0 win at Ipswich, McCann said: “Numerous times, people have said we have not been tested and when we do get tested, we fail. I think this maybe puts that to bed.”
Next six: Shrewsbury (h), Blackpool (a), Portsmouth (h), Sunderland (a), Lincoln (h), Charlton (h)
Record v top 8: P3 W2 D0 L1 Pts 6/9
Record v middle 8: P6 W5 D0 L1 Pts 15/18
Record v bottom 8: P6 W4 D1 L1 Pts 13/18
Michael Appleton has done a super job of a complete summer rebuild.
Dutch defender Lewis Montsma looks an unbelievable find, winger Jorge Grant is providing goals and assists, while young Forest loan striker Brennan Johnson has been outstanding. Could the latter be recalled in January, just like Forest did with Tyler Walker midway through last season?
The Imps responded well to back-to-back defeats against Doncaster and Portsmouth. Currently on a three-game winning run in the league, the festive fixtures provide an opportunity to gain momentum.
“We’ve just got to try and stay in there. Around the turn of the year, we’ll know where we are,” said Appleton. “Hopefully we can find a couple of new additions in January, you never know. It’s exciting.”
Next six: Sunderland (h), Shrewsbury (h), Northampton (a), Burton (h), Hull (a), AFC Wimbledon (a)
Record v top 8: P5 W2 D1 L2 Pts 7/15
Record v middle 8: P4 W3 D1 L0 Pts 10/12
Record v bottom 8: P6 W5 D0 L1 Pts 15/18
Ipswich started last season well before badly falling away. Unlike last season, there’s a clear identity of play. Just like last season, the record against promotion rivals has been poor.
Manager Paul Lambert recently received a vote of confidence from owner Marcus Evans off the back of some growing supporter unrest. It will be interesting to see how the return of spectators affects the team.
Gwion Edwards and Teddy Bishop started the season brilliantly, but have recently joined a huge injury list that already contained key men such as Flynn Downes, James Norwood and Kane Vincent-Young. It feels like a case of waiting until the cavalry comes.
Speaking after Saturday’s 2-1 comeback win at 10-man Plymouth, Lambert said: “We lost two games (to Hull and Charlton) and I think everyone thought we were sitting bottom of the table. We’re sitting third. Will this change the negativity? No.”
Next six: Portsmouth (h), Burton (h), Peterborough (a), Northampton (h), AFC Wimbledon (a), Fleetwood (a)
Record v top 8: P5 W1 D0 L4 Pts 3/15
Record v middle 8: P5 W4 D0 L1 Pts 12/15
Record v bottom 8: P6 W4 D2 L0 Pts 14/18
Following finishes of 8th, 4th and 5th, including successive play-off semi-final defeats, the pressure is on Kenny Jackett to deliver promotion in the final year of his contract.
After a sticky start, things have started to click. A settled starting XI is creating plenty of chances and looking good at set-pieces. Since mid-October they have been free-scoring, bagging three or more goals in a game on six different occasions.
Saturday’s 2-0 home win against Peterborough was their best display of the season so far.
“We’re around about a third of the way through the season and we feel there’s some optimism in it – we want to try to maximise that,” said Jackett.
Next six: Ipswich (a), Fleetwood (h), Hull (a), Swindon (h), Bristol R (a), Accrington (a)
Record v top 8: P4 W2 D0 L2 Pts 6/12
Record v middle 8: P6 W4 D1 L1 Pts 13/18
Record v bottom 8: P6 W2 D3 L1 Pts 9/18
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Posh co-owner Darragh MacAnthony dubbed this campaign ‘Operation Vengeance’ after the points-per-game method of determining last season’s final standings robbed his in-form club of a play-off place.
The loss of star striker Ivan Toney, who bagged 26 goals in 19/20, has proved massive though.
Boss Darren Ferguson kept his players in the dressing room for more than half an hour after Saturday’s comprehensive 2-0 loss at Portsmouth. That was their fourth successive League One loss.
“We have too many individuals out of form and our confidence has now been affected – this is now a big problem,” said Ferguson. “We enjoyed an outstanding October, but since we lost at Crewe at the start of November we have played well in one game out of six. It’s now time we showed some mettle. We need to show some character and resolve and end this poor run of form. It’s easy to talk about it, we have to go out and do it. We’ve shown already this season we have the ability. The issue for me now is mental. We need to dig deep and start performing again.”
Next six: Rochdale (h), MK Dons (a), Ipswich (h), Gillingham (a), Charton (h), Doncaster (h)
Record v top 8: P3 W1 D0 L2 Pts 3/9
Record v middle 8: P7 W3 D0 L4 Pts 9/21
Record v bottom 8: P6 W5 D1 L0 Pts 16/18
Once a long-awaited takeover was completed, and a transfer embargo lifted, Lee Bowyer quickly pieced together a squad packed with experience.
Six straight wins catapulted the Addicks up the table, but their form has hit the buffers of late. Either side of a win at Portman Road at the end of November, the South London side have dropped points against Gillingham (1-1 draw), Burton (4-2 loss), MK Dons (1-0 loss) and Shrewsbury (1-1 draw).
Speaking after the Ipswich win, Bowyer said: “We are solid and have got a lot of experienced players in the squad. A couple of years ago in this division we had a lot of youngsters and probably away from home we weren’t quite as strong. That’s not the case this year.”
Speaking after the MK Dons defeat, Bowyer said: “Even though it was 2,000 (fans back in the stadium), I expected non-stop singing, supporting the players and pushing them. But it wasn’t like that. It was very, very quiet apart from some negative shouting – and I didn’t expect that tonight.”
Next six: AFC Wimbledon (h), Bristol R (h), Swindon (a), Plymouth (h), Peterborough (a). Hull (a)
Record v top 8: P4 W2 D0 L2 Pts 6/12
Record v middle 8: P6 W4 D2 L0 Pts 14/18
Record v bottom 8: P5 W2 D1 L2 Pts 7/15
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Since a 2-0 defeat at Portman Road on October 17, Stanley haven’t lost a league game (W5 D2).
Their standout results have been home wins against Peterborough and Fleetwood. Whether they can stay in the top-six mix remains to be seen.
It’s a small squad and injuries could quickly derail things. Their schedule will be more congested then most due to having games called off for coronavirus reasons earlier in the campaign.
Speaking after Saturday’s 2-1 home win against MK Dons, boss Jon Coleman said: “My aspirations are only to try and keep winning games of football. This league is unforgiving, there are no easy games, and our focus is just on the next one. We have been playing some good football, we have a great set of lads here, some of the football we played – including the build-up to the two goals – was brilliant.”
Next six: Wigan (a), Gillingham (a), Blackpool (h), Doncaster (a), Sunderland (h), Portsmouth (h)
Record v top 8: P3 W1 D1 L1 Pts 4/9
Record v middle 8: P4 W4 D0 L0 Pts 12/12
Record v bottom 8: P6 W3 D1 L2 Pts 10/18
Darren Moore has once again used the Premier League loan market well.
With skipper Ben Whiteman starring in midfield, the South Yorkshire club have had eye-catching wins against Charlton, Portsmouth, Ipswich and Lincoln.
Whether this talented young side can deliver consistently over the course of a season is a question mark.
After seeing his Hull side edge a competitive South Yorkshire derby recently, Grant McCann said of Doncaster: “Without a doubt they’re promotion contenders. They’re one of the better teams in this league.”
Next six: Gillingham (h), Swindon (h), Burton (a), Shrewsbury (h), Accrington (h), Fleetwood (a)
Record v top 8: P5 W4 D0 L1 Pts 12/15
Record v middle 8: P6 W2 D2 L2 Pts 8/18
Record v bottom 8: P3 W1 D1 L1 Pts 4/9
After a referee-assisted 2-1 home win against Ipswich on November 3, Sunderland went on a five-game winless streak and manager Phil Parkinson was duly sacked.
First team coach Andy Taylor subsequently oversaw a 1-1 home draw with lowly Burton, before former Bristol City manager Lee Johnson was appointed as ‘head coach’ in a new continental structure.
His first game in charge was a 1-0 home loss to struggling Wigan at the weekend.
“I feel that characters have been a little bit suppressed for whatever reason,” said Johnson. “If they bring the best versions of themselves and if we add a little bit - not a lot - in January, then I feel we will be on the right path to success.”
Next six: Lincoln (a), AFC Wimbledon (h), Shrewsbury (a), Blackpool (h), Hull (h), Accrington (a)
Record v top 8: P5 W2 D2 L1 Pts 8/15
Record v middle 8: P3 W2 D1 L0 Pts 7/9
Record v bottom 8: P7 W2 D3 L2 Pts 9/21
There have been big wins against Hull (4-1), Bristol Rovers (4-1) and Plymouth (5-1), but Joey Barton’s men have faltered of late with 1-0 defeats to Northampton and Blackpool.
It’s an experienced side, with the likes of Paul Coutts, Glenn Whelan, Charlie Mulgrew, Ched Evans and Paddy Madden all in their 30s.
“We set our standards every week,” said Barton, whose side have lost as many as they’ve won so far.
“Every single time you step foot on the park you can’t live off past performances. It doesn’t matter what you have done in the past, you have to live in the present and you can’t take anything for granted. We have work to do to better last season’s play-off finish.”
Next six: Swindon (a), Portsmouth (a), Wigan (h), Crewe (a), Doncaster (a), Ipswich (h)
Record v top 8: P5 W2 D2 L1 Pts 8/15
Record v middle 8: P6 W2 D1 L3 Pts 7/18
Record v bottom 8: P5 W4 D0 L1 Pts 12/15