Promotion racing hotting up for U's

WHILE the current League One play-off dwellers have been struggling for form, the two clubs bubbling just outside the top six have strengthened their own promotion credentials.

By Carl Marston

WHILE the current League One play-off dwellers have been struggling for form, the two clubs bubbling just outside the top six have strengthened their own promotion credentials.

Southend United appear to have automatic promotion virtually wrapped up, but the race is on for both the second automatic slot, and the four play-off berths below.

Colchester United are in the thick of the race, especially as they would move level on points with second-placed Brentford if they could beat the Bees at Layer Road tomorrow.

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The U's, since their fantastic run of 20 wins from 22 games, have found points hard to come by over the last seven weeks. Fortunately, so too have Brentford, Swansea, Huddersfield and Barnsley.

Instead, it is Oldham Athletic and Nottingham Forest who have been taking League One by storm. The Latics are now level on points with sixth-placed Barnsley, and they will soar above Colchester into fourth position if they can beat Hartlepool this evening.

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Forest still have a lot of lost ground to make up, but don't rule out the former European Cup champions. They may be seven points adrift of the top six, but they are unbeaten in six matches and their two caretaker bosses, Frank Barlow and Ian McParland, were yesterday handed the title of League One manager-of-the-month for March.

Furthermore, Colchester face a tricky trip to the City Ground the following weekend. Forest have been solid at home all season.

I doubt whether Southend will be evicted from the top two. The Shrimpers have a healthy eight-point gap between themselves and third-placed Huddersfield, and they have showed little signs of slowing up after notching four wins from their last six fixtures.

By contrast, those below them have stumbled. It appears to be a race between six teams for the second automatic promotion spot, with Forest's only real chance being restricted to a play-off place.

Brentford replaced Huddersfield on Tuesday night, thanks to a rather fortuitous 1-0 victory at basement club Milton Keynes Dons. But it was not a convincing performance, and the U's will hope to inflict a fourth defeat in five matches when the Londoners visit Layer Road tomorrow.

Dons leading scorer Izzy McLeod had a night to forget against the Bees. He struck a post, and then missed an 85th-minute penalty, which would have cancelled out Lloyd Owusu's early strike.

That caused Brentford manager Martin Allen to admit: “At times we did ride our luck, but recently things have gone against us.”

With the exception of tomorrow's promotion showdown in Essex, the Bees seem to have the easiest run-in of all the promotion candidates. Their remaining six fixtures are all against teams outside the top 10.

Huddersfield, like Brentford, have also managed just one victory in their last five outings. They have also suffered an injury blow, with defender Martin McIntosh expected to be out for a month with a pulled hamstring.

The Terriers have a crunch game at home to lofty rivals Barnsley tomorrow. It will be a Yorkshire derby with added spice - a defeat for the Tykes would probably kill off their hopes of bursting into the top two.

Huddersfield's biggest boost has been the return to form of their experienced striker, Andy Booth. The 32-year-old has bagged four goals in the last two matches, including a hat-trick in the 4-1 demolition of Rotherham.

Since Barnsley poached a 1-0 win over visiting Colchester on February 25, courtesy of a late goal from Brian Howard, the Yorkshiremen have endured a lean March with no wins from five fixtures.

Just as the U's believed that they were robbed of victory at Scunthorpe (0-0 draw) last weekend, when Billy Clarke's 89th-minute strike was ruled out for offside, so the Tykes had a goal disallowed in a goal-less draw against Bournemouth. Howard's effort did not stand because of a foul.

Their manager Andy Ritchie blasted: “I thought the referee either had to blow for a legitimate goal, or for a penalty kick.”

Swansea City, who ended the U's dreams of a trip to the Millennium Stadium in the LDV Vans Trophy, have perhaps the most awkward run-in of all the leading teams.

Next month, the Swans have to go to Oldham, and also entertain league leaders Southend. In the league, they have only tasted victory in one of their last seven fixtures, although that run includes five draws on the trot.

Yet Kenny Jackett's men remain a big danger. They beat Wrexham 2-1 in the final of the Welsh Premier Cup in midweek, and they are looking forward to an appearance at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday, when they will take on League Two leaders Carlisle in the LDV Vans Trophy final.

With strikers of the calibre of Lee Trundle, Leon Knight and Adebayo Akinfenwa on the books, Swansea will still fancy their chances of a second successive promotion.

Which brings us to Oldham. Ronnie Moore was on the short list for the manager-of-the-month award for March, after a series of six wins from seven games.

The Latics have been transformed from mid-table no-hopers to automatic promotion candidates. They pipped the U's 1-0 at Boundary Park, after the heartache of an injury-time winner from Richard Butcher, and have also recorded home wins over Blackpool, Tranmere and Nottingham Forest, in addition to away successes at Bradford and Walsall.

Much might depend on the fitness of their skipper and centre-half Chris Swailes. The former Ipswich Town defender is struggling to shake off a heel injury.

Forest, relegated from the Championship last season, were warm favourites for an immediate return to the second tier of the Football League. But it has not quite gone according to plan.

However, they were the only team to go unbeaten in March. To make a late dash for promotion, they will probably have to stay unbeaten throughout April as well.

n Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for Colchester United's home match against Brentford tomorrow. Brentford sold out their allocation on Thursday, and U's supporters are being encouraged to buy their tickets in advance, even though it is not actually an all-ticket fixture.

A few hundred U's fans were left disappointed for the visit of Nottingham Forest on January 2, when they were turned away at the turnstiles. It is likely to be another capacity crowd tomorrow, so supporters are strongly advised to secure their tickets in advice. For more details, contact the ticket office at 0871 2262161.

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