CAN Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) kick-off the New Year with a bang? He certainly reckons so with these three Football League fancies.
Fulham v Sheffield Wednesday | Saturday 15.00
The new Fulham manager, Slavisa Jokanovic, watched from the stands as the Cottagers enjoyed a 4-1 victory over Rotherham at Craven Cottage to end a run of 10 Championship games without victory on Tuesday night.
Cauley Woodrow made the most of his first start of the season by scoring twice and providing another for Alexander Kacaniklic before Ross McCormack rounded off the scoring with his 15th goal of the campaign, with Farrend Rawson having drawn Rotherham level after Woodrow’s opener.
The result moved the capital club six points clear of the drop zone and cemented Fulham’s place as the best offensive side in the second tier. The four goals took the Cottagers’ tally to 40 (1.67 goals-per-game on average) this term, three clear of next best Derby.
Yet it’s at the other end where the West Londoners are really suffering. Only Bristol City (43) have leaked more often than Saturday’s hosts (42) and in 12/24 (50%) league matches they’ve conceded at least twice.
Despite another positive performance in the final third against the Millers in midweek, they were again plagued by below-par defending. Fulham sat too deep inviting pressure and were all over the place when faced with Rotherham’s attacking set-pieces.
Jokanovic was credited with instilling grit and discipline into a free-flowing Watford side last season and alongside Stuart Gray, the duo should be able to tighten up the Cottagers and provide a more cohesive unit. However, I’d be surprised if that work will pay off quite so soon.
In £11m man Ross McCormack, Fulham possess one of the league’s most potent forwards. Only Odion Ighalo (30) has notched more league goals than the Scot (27) in 2015 whilst only Andre Gray’s (15) sits above the striker in the 2015/16 Championship goalscorer standings.
Visiting Sheffield Wednesday can call upon their own hot-shot. Fernando Forestieri is on McCormack’s tail with 10. The Argentine should be recalled to the starting XI after boss Carlos Carvahal opted to rest and rotate his Owls squad ahead of their trip to Middlesbrough on Monday.
Not for the first time, the Portuguese chief utilised his big squad, making six alterations at the Riverside. The move attractive criticism from club legend Carlton Palmer who suggested the squad rotation policy will undermine the Wednesday’s hopes of securing a top-six finish.
The Owls went down 1-0 at Boro, their third loss in four road trips, but it marked just the fifth occasion that Wednesday had failed to score this season and only their third blank in 12 on their travels. So I’m expecting goals to flow once more when they pitch up at Craven Cottage.
The September showdown between the two ended in a 3-2 Wednesday win, one of 9/12 (75%) of the Owls’ away days to feature winning Both Teams To Score bets. In all, a whopping 16/24 (67%) have proven profitable in this market for the visitors.
Fulham, as well as being the section’s top scorers, are also leading the way in the Football League for successful BTTS selections – 11 of their past 13 have rewarded Both Teams To Score punters as well as 19/24 (79%) overall and 10/12 (83%) at the Cottage. And the hosts have kept just six guests scoreless in 35 home league games since the start of last season.
Both Teams To Score has been chalked up at 4/6 by Boylesports but taking both teams’ BTTS records this term, finding the average (73% strike-rate) and turning that percentage figure into equivalent betting odds, we should be looking at something closer to 4/9!
Port Vale v Swindon | Saturday 15.00
Port Vale aren’t often in the headlines but it’s time to blow a bit of smoke up the arses of Potteries club as Robert Page continues to upset the odds and pre-season predictions with his hard-working side.
The Valiants have W23-D13-L26 – 1.32 points-per-game – since the Welshman took charge and following their 1-0 Bank Holiday victory over Bury have climbed into 11th-place, only four points adrift of the top-six.
Vale were dumped out of the FA Cup and took just a solitary point from nine before visiting Coventry on Boxing Day and although they left the Ricoh empty-handed, Page rated the 1-0 defeat as arguably the best performance in his 15 months in charge.
So they were delighted to end a frustrating spell with three points against the Shakers with Sam Kelly’s contender for goal of the season earning victory. The result means only Millwall have left Vale Park with a win in 2015/16 (W7-D4-L1) and it’s that fantastic home form that makes them a great betting proposition on Saturday.
Port Vale are 5/4 (William Hill) to defeat Swindon and I have to get involved. The 4-5-1 formation deployed by Page at Coventry and against Bury won’t win prizes for aesthetics but they’re a mighty tough team to out-battle and even though Anthony Grant remains suspended, veteran Michael Brown patrolled the midfield with a Man of the Match display last time out.
Since Page arrived, the Valiants have returned W15-D8-L8 figures on home soil – that’s a 1.71 points-per-game average. The hosts have conceded just four goals before the interval at Vale Park this term despite five of the top-nine visiting and that also opens up the option of backing against Swindon scoring a first-half goal at 4/7 (Bet365).
The Robins saw manager Martin Ling sadly resign from his post earlier this week because of health reasons. The 49-year-old had been in charge for 56 days and guided a previously struggling team to five wins from nine matches. My thoughts are with Martin and his family at what’s undoubtedly a tough time.
It’s difficult to imagine the Wiltshire raiders taking the news well and back-to-back losses to promotion-chasing Burton and Gillingham coming into this contest will have also taken an edge of their fine recent form. They’ve already been beaten in exactly half of their away days and failed to net in four of those 12 road trips.
Neither Vale nor Swindon fare particularly well in the performance data (shots, shots-on-target, shot ratios etc.) but it’s true too that the home side are ahead of the Robins in the majority of these tables and so I’m happy to give the hosts the benefit of the doubt.
Northampton v Barnet | Saturday 15.00
‘The best bet of 2016’, I declared on Twitter. So I’ll make sure I’m sitting comfortably at 5pm on Saturday when the aftertimers arrive to tell me what a terrible ‘tipster’ I am.
Anyhow, I’ll begin by blitzing you with the most important stats before giving a bit of background to the contest and reasoning behind the odds.
Firstly, it’s the best home record in League Two (W8-D1-L3) up against the worst away record in the division (W1-D2-L9).
Northampton have notched in each of their last 19 games, have won 25/46 (54%) of their home games under Chris Wilder and have returned W12-D3-L2 in the league since early September. Only five clubs have bettered their 1.80 points-per-game average in 2015 (W25-D8-L13) and they sit second.
Barnet have taken 23 of their 28 points at their Hive home and pocketed just W1-D2-L9 on their travels since promotion. The Bees have failed to keep a clean sheet on the road, leaked at least twice in 11 of their 12 and six of those nine losses have arrived by at least two clear goals.
So you’ve seen the stats. Now process this – Northampton are 21/20 to win with BetVictor.
Yep, for the first time in months when scanning and preparing for the Football League column I froze, I stared, the eyebrows rose and I stared a bit more. It’s the best value bet of the season so far.
Of course, there are always a few negatives that require airing. Firstly, the Cobblers have been drifting since the odds went live and that’s because home boss Wilder has promised to make a few changes to his side.
Alfie Potter is a doubt and looks set to be replaced by Ricky Holmes for his first start of the season following injury and Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Sam Hoskin may also be given the nod as the Town head looks to mix things up.
Straight-talking Wilder admitted their 1-0 win over Accrington on Monday belied their lofty league position with goalkeeper Adam Smith having a far busier game than Cobblers fans would have liked.
Stanley cut apart the home side on several occasions leaving Wilder to say, “You’re scratching your head and wondering where to start. How many substitutions can you make? You’re allowed to make three but I’d love to have made 10 at half-time and they knew that.”
It’s also worth pointing out, Northampton do appear to be overachieving compared to the data. Only York and Yeovil are averaging fewer shots and Town rank mid-table amongst their peers for efforts landed on-target. But nevertheless, the aforementioned results speak for themselves and I’m happy to bite the bullet.
Martin Allen was pleased with his Barnet side despite their Bank Holiday defeat at Cambridge and bemoaned a few lapses in concentration from his side. The madcap boss believes the hours on the training paddock are starting to count but I still need a lot of convincing the Bees are strong enough at the back to justify their price here.
The visitors have faced more shots-on-target away from home than any other divisional rival and although Allen gave his squad two days off after the Cambridge loss, he’s still without Josh Clarke and goalkeeper Jamie Stephens whilst Graham Stack and defender Michael Nelson remain long-term absentees.
This is a bet and price that just has to overrule the number bods. It’s based on gut feel, instinct and interpretation and I’m going in headfirst. See you on the other side, maybe…
Fulham v Sheffield Wednesday – Both Teams To Score (4/6 Boylesports)
Port Vale v Swindon – Port Vale to win (5/4 William Hill)
Port Vale v Swindon – Swindon not to score in the first-half (4/7 Bet365)
Northampton v Barnet – Northampton to win (21/20 BetVictor)
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