MARK O’HAIRE (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over the Saturday Football League card.
Huddersfield v Birmingham | Saturday 15.00
In early November, Huddersfield relieved Chris Powell of his duties and took British football fans by surprise when appointing relatively unknown (on these shores) David Wagner as his replacement.
The former Borussia Dortmund II chief was (or is) better known as Jurgen Klopp’s close pal – his best man, actually – and the pair boast very similar characteristics. The duo have shared playing and coaching backgrounds, both promote the Gegenpressing concept and the duo even a share a fondness for the beard and baseball cap look.
It was a big leap for the Terriers to take but club officials admitted they ‘needed a culture change’ at the John Smith’s Stadium. Thing have certainly changed – Town now regularly prepare with double training sessions as well as finding time to train in the evenings.
Wagner has said he’s been pleased with how receptive the players have been to his methods and although results have been relatively inconsistent since taking over (W10-D5-L13), there have been clear signs that the Huddersfield boss isn’t just riding on the back on Jurgen Klopp’s reputation.
The German has introduced full-throttle football and ensured Championship survival with a number of eye-catching performances. And it’s been the Terries dominance in the bulk of those 28 fixtures that gotten Football League fans taking serious note of Town.
Remarkably, only six of those 28 outings have seen Huddersfield lose the shot-count and they’ve been averaging 4.57 shots-on-target per-game – over the full campaign, Hull have been the most threatening going forward averaging 4.76 shots-on-target per-match.
The Tigers also top the shots-on-target ratio table – the average share of the total shots-on-target in Championship matches – with 59.88% but Huddersfield’s return of 56.39% under Wagner would rank the Terriers fourth!
Town have also proven reasonably predictable, depending on the level of their opposition. The hosts have won just three points (W0-D3-L13) against the top-eight but 94% of their points tally (W13-D8-L6) against clubs in ninth and below. Their visitors this weekend are Birmingham, in ninth.
I’m a massive Gary Rowett supporter and the Blues boss has worked wonders to have City sat comfortably in the top-half of the table but the former Burton manager has been hearing a few dissenting voices in recent weeks.
Birmingham supporters have suggested Rowett doesn’t have the tactical acumen to change a game and his blinkered approach is to blame for the Blues’ premature end of their play-off push.
Since February, City have W3-D4-L7, shipping two or more goals in five of their most recent six, including Tuesday night’s 2-2 draw with Preston where Rowett accused his team of being psychologically weak.
Players have admitted there’s an anti-climatic feel as the campaign peters out and with Jon Toral, Maikel Kieftenbeld and James Vaughan all unavailable for this weekend, Birmingham might not be in the best position physically and mentally for the heavy metal football Huddersfield are capable of.
Town are a decent price but I’m chucking Over 1.5 Goals into the mix to make this a 15/8 shot (Paddy Power).
The home side have won 1-0 just once under Wagner with only three of their 28 games under his watch featuring fewer than two goals whilst in 37 away trips under Rowett, Birmingham have been beaten 1-0 just twice.
Fleetwood v Blackpool | Saturday 15.00
It’s been billed as the biggest game in Fleetwood’s history and Saturday’s Fylde Coast derby won’t be for the feint hearted.
Fleetwood and Blackpool are separated by just seven miles and two League One points – three points for either side could prove the difference between survival and relegation.
Steven Pressley’s hosts are rated 17/20 (Bet365) shots to take maximum points and it’s a price I’m keen to invest in as, similarly with Huddersfield, the Cod Army’s dominance in matches suggest they’re a much stronger outfit.
Pressley says Town must go for the jugular on Saturday after unfortunately losing 1-0 at Millwall on Tuesday night. The Cod Army missed a number of chances and controversially were not awarded a penalty before suffering the second-half sucker-punch from the Lions.
Speaking post-match, the Scot said: “I think the game itself encapsulates our whole season. We have dominated, we have had chance after chance, missed chances and then in one moment we concede a goal and it cost us the game.
“But again if you are to look over the last 25 games, statistically we are so far ahead of teams – but games are not decided statistically. They are decided by the important moments in the box, and unfortunately we missed those moments and Millwall were clinical with possibly their one and only chance of the game.”
Pressley described the weekend meeting as ‘Groundhog Day’ with Town hanging onto 19th-place in the table. But he wasn’t wrong when speaking to the press – no side should be fighting relegation at this advanced stage of the season when posting shots-on-target ratio figures of 54.37% – the seventh best record in the third tier.
Only Colchester (24.32%) and opponents Blackpool (23.35%) have posted a worst shots-on-target conversion rate than Fleetwood’s 25.39% but I’m convinced the severity of the situation will focus minds in the home camp ahead of the weekend’s Highbury Stadium showdown.
Fleetwood’s W8-D7-L6 return in front of their home supporters includes a +11 goal difference and victories over Burton, Millwall and Gillingham – it’s a world away from their Lancashire rivals who make the short hop up the coast struggling to stay afloat.
While Fleetwood’s position is a tale of woe and missed chances, Blackpool are very much where they deserve to be.
“You’re not fit to wear the shirt” rang out amongst angry away supporters last weekend as the Seasiders slumped to a woeful 3-0 defeat at Rochdale. Neil McDonald’s men capitulated with a rotten second-half display that stank of a lack of commitment to the cause.
McDonald was snappy in pre-match dealings with the press this week, well aware defeat could send Blackpool crumbling to back-to-back relegations.
Supporters are also dreading the encounter, knowing it’s the potential to provide the Tangerines with one of their most humiliating afternoons in history. The very fact Fleetwood could all but seal Blackpool relegation to the fourth tier is almost unthinkable around Blackpool.
And having W4-D4-L13 on their travels already this term, firing blanks on 10 occasions, keeping just four clean sheets and returning a terrible 36.15% shots-on-target ratio, I’m counting on the Cod Army finding their shooting boots and claiming a vital victory.
Morecambe v Stevenage | Saturday 15.00
In my pre-season pieces I suggested backing Morecambe at 22/1 for promotion – don’t laugh.
The Shrimps were 100/1 no-hopers for the League Two title but there was a positive feeling around the club with Jim Bentley putting the Lancastrians on an upward trajectory following a league-high finish in 2014/15.
Amazingly, Morecambe won 59% of their points total last season against the top-nine (W11-D3-L4) and only five clubs fired in more shots-on-target in League Two – three of which went on to be promoted. With stability in the ranks, it looked like a perfect combination for a top-seven push.
In mid-October of 2015, the Shrimps were seventh (W7-D2-L5), scoring goals for fun and seemingly capable to out-score any fourth tier side that stepped in their way.
However, Bentley’s boys have suffered a major collapse over the past six months, losing 18 of their following 29 matches whilst keeping their sheets clean on just three occasions.
The Shrimps boss’ near five-year reign reached a real low point on Tuesday night with a 7-0 defeat at Cambridge United and many fans are calling for the Wembley-wining captain turned manager to walk away.
But the club record reverse in the Football League hasn’t changed Bentley’s thinking and Morecambe’s manager has vowed not to resign. However, with chairman Peter McGuigan having put the club up for sale, Bentley’s future remains uncertain.
Against Cambridge, a young backline was ruthlessly exposed but Saturday’s hosts hope to field a more experienced side this weekend with a number of players due back from injury and suspension at the Globe Arena.
I tipped Stevenage to suffer relegation but the Hertfordshire side confirmed their League Two status h a battling 0-0 draw at home to high-flying Bristol Rovers last time out.
Boro, led by Darren Sarll having dispensed with the services of former England striker Teddy Sheringham in February, have been a pretty dour watch in recent weeks as the new head coach, alongside help from Glenn Roeder, have made Stevenage gritty and tough to beat.
It’s just one loss in six for the guests now but with the pressure off, I’m expecting the goals to flow at the Globe Arena. Despite their lowly position, Stevenage have managed to score in all bar five of their 21 away trips this term whilst keeping a solitary clean sheet.
It’s led to 15/21 (71%) of Both Teams To Score winners on Boro’s travels with 13/21 (625%) breaking the Over 2.5 Goals barrier – 12/21 (57%) of those League Two contests have proven profitable for Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score backers.
That Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score option has to be the plan of attack here with William Hill offering even-money on a repeat.
I’ve already mentioned Morecambe’s porous defensive record and their last five games have seen scores of 4-2, 2-2, 1-2, 2-5, 0-7 – just a 5.40 goals-per-game average.
When welcoming League Two opposition this term, the Shrimps have seen 16/21 (76%) BTTS winners, 14/21 (67%) profitable Over 2.5 Goals selections and 14/21 (67%) triumphant Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score bets.
Together, the two teams have landed 26/42 (62%) winners in our chosen market, a percentage chance that implies odds of 8/13. With even-money offered, I’ll happily gobble up another goal-heavy game.
Huddersfield v Birmingham – Huddersfield to win and Over 1.5 Goals (15/8 Paddy Power)
Fleetwood v Blackpool – Fleetwood to win (17/20 Bet365)
Morecambe v Stevenage – Over 2.5 Goals and Both Teams To Score (1/1 William Hill)
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