FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) reveals his favourite selections from this weekend's EFL action.
Port Vale v Scunthorpe | Saturday 29th March 2020, 15:00
Port Vale boss John Askey believes six more wins should be enough to place the Valiants in the play-off picture come May. The Burslem boys head into the weekend sitting just outside of the top-six on goal difference thanks to a fabulous run of results since Boxing Day (W7-D3-L2) – only Plymouth and Crewe have averaged more points per-game in that sequence.
Last weekend Askey’s outfit avoided defeat at Walsall without playing close to their potential. The 2-2 draw felt like one point gained rather than two dropped because, despite having twice taken the lead, Vale had to withstand a 25-minute onslaught from the Saddlers which forced the equaliser and could easily have taken the game away from the visitors.
The club’s largest travelling support of the season (2,300) backed the Valiants in the Black Country and the mood around Vale Park is positively buoyant. Gone is the eccentric control of Norman Smurthwaite and in his place are successful local business owners Carol and Kevin Shanahan, both of whom have the interests of the Potteries club at heart.
Askey himself has brought a sense of calm to proceedings. The former Macclesfield manager steered Vale to safety last season and continues to plot incremental progress with a clear and consistent playing philosophy. The Valiants prefer a hybrid 4-3-3 that can often appear as a 4-1-4-1 with a target man flanked by pacey and intuitive wingers.
Defensively, particularly at Vale Park, the hosts give little away. Only Northampton have shipped fewer home goals and that firm foundation allows Vale to remain supremely competitive here (W9-D7-L1). Of course, Shaun Brisley’s injury is a blow, but Askey can simply push Nathan Smith across alongside Leon Legge with James Gibbons returning at right-back.
On Saturday, Scunthorpe pitch up in the Potteries. The Iron have endured a tumultuous campaign with Russ Wilcox now in charge until the end of the season. Two 1-0 home victories in their last three outings have alleviated immediate concerns surrounding a second successive relegation, although the visitors remain an unconvincing prospect.
Scunny conceded at least two goals in seven of their past nine League Two tussles, have tabled only four triumphs on their travels all season and managed just W1-D2-L5 when traveling to top-half teams, shipping 20 goals (2.50 per-game) in the process.
Port Vale are underrated due to their uninspiring performance data but even the underlying numbers suggest the Valiants are the strongest suit for Saturday’s showdown, and that’s before taking home advantage into account. With that in mind, I’m more than keen to take up the appetising 4/5 (Marathon) offer on Askey’s men in the Draw No Bet market.
Stevenage v Walsall | Saturday 29th March 2020, 15:00
Walsall were a League One mainstay for 12 years but the Saddlers dropped out of the third-tier on the final day of last season following a dour 0-0 draw at Shrewsbury. The club’s board issued an apology to supporters and also promised the club will look to rebuild it’s football philosophy and soon appoint a new manager.
Darrell Clarke – formerly courted by Leeds during a successful stint with Bristol Rovers – was given the gig and set about overhauling the squad. As with many reconstruction projects, growing pains existed and Walsall diehards understandably began to question the direction and process as the Saddlers slumped to 22nd before the November international break.
Six defeats on the spin put Clarke’s position in jeopardy, however, the team regrouped, refocussed and have since enjoyed a largely positive upturn in performance level, as well as results. The Black Country boys have posted W8-D5-L5 in their following 18 encounters – only seven sides have banked a larger points return, five of which occupy the top-five in League Two.
Clarke has built from the back with the central partnership of Mat Sadler and Dan Scarr growing in importance, offering the platform for a more youthful midfield to add bite, thrust and tempo. Liam Kinsella has excelled in a variety of roles, whilst Wes McDonald has begun to put in consistent displays from the left wing of Walsall’s largely 4-4-2 system.
Goals had been hard to come by during the Saddlers’ lean spell – notching more than a solitary strike just once in their opening 17 fixtures – but Josh Gordon, Caolan Lavery and Elijah Adebayo have all contributed in the final-third to good effect in recent weeks with Clarke’s charges now firing blanks just three times in that 18-game spell since November.
And Clarke insists there’ll be no let-up with the final furlong in sight. The Walsall chief is keeping his players on their toes, eager to stave off complacency as he encourages competition within the squad, whilst also dampening expectations when questioned about the potential for a late play-off push. So I suspect the Saddlers will be at it on Saturday.
Walsall’s road record is the seventh best in the division (W7-D3-L7) with W7-D1-L3 of that being earned against clubs in seventh and below. Clarke’s side are set up well to absorb pressure, breaking forward and cause opponents problems on the counter, and 9/10 (Marathon) quotes on the visitors in the Draw No Bet market have to appeal here.
Stevenage started their new era under Alex Revell’s watch with a 2-0 reverse at Crawley. The defeat leaves League Two’s bottom club eight points adrift from safety with 11 games to play as their losing run stretched to seven matches. The Hertfordshire club’s 10-year stay in the Football League is under serious strain and the hosts are easily opposed again.
With Boro picking up a paltry three League Two triumphs from 35 across the campaign, failing to even score on 19 (55%) occasions, the Great Escape is looking increasingly implausible. The market is moving against Stevenage for Saturday and all sense, logic and underlying data suggests Walsall should be firm favourites to succeed at Broadhall Way.
Grimsby v Northampton | Saturday 29th February 2020, 15:00
Grimsby have undergone a remarkable transformation since Ian Holloway arrived at Blundell Park on New Year’s Eve. The Mariners have motored up the League Two table with 18 points from 11 games (W5-D3-L3), including four triumphs from five in Cleethorpes.
Town’s resurgence continued in midweek with a thrilling 4-2 success at home to Newport and the Mariners, in the midst of a hectic schedule, are hoping to extend the honeymoon streak on Saturday when promotion-chasing Northampton arrive. Victory for Grimsby would move the hosts to within eight points of the play-off places with a game in-hand.
So there’s plenty still riding on the season from Holloway’s perspective and the former QPR boss’ infectious character is sure to invoke a ferocious attitude from the Mariners between now and May. Few visiting teams will be handed an easy ride at Blundell Park and it sets up this weekend’s encounter nicely for another stab at the bookings market.
Northampton can be backed at 3/4 (SkyBet) to collect 20+ Bookings Points and that’s a price that won’t be available come 3pm on Saturday, that’s for sure. Why? Well the Cobblers are about as consistent at collecting cards as any in the Football League, particularly on the road.
Keith Curle’s troops have delivered in this market in 15 of their 17 away days this term, as well as 36/40 (90%) games as guests since the beginning of 2018/19. Looking purely at the current campaign, Northampton have averaged 24.43 Bookings Points per-game and are second in the League Two standings for fouls committed.
The Cobblers average 2.94 cards per-game outside of Sixfields, as well as 32.06 Bookings Points, so the quote looks a little off for a team playing away under the pressure of a top-seven assault in the early Spring.
If you’re new to Bookings Points – 10 points are awarded for a yellow card, 25 for a straight red card and 35 points if a player is shown two yellow cards and a subsequent red.