THE battle to win promotion from League Two continues with the play-offs. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) takes a look at the runners and riders, pointing out the best betting opportunities along the way.
Southend United 2/1 (BetVictor)
- Home Record: W12-D8-L3 (6th)
- Away Record: W12-D4-L7 (4th)
- Last 8 Record: W7-D0-L1 (1st)
- Record v Top-Half: W7-D7-L8 (10th)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W1-D2-L3 (4th/4)
You have to feel for Southend. Over 2,200 supporters made the trip to Morecambe on Saturday expecting to see their side win automatic promotion. But a dismal performance saw the Shrimpers go down 3-1 and consigned Phil Brown’s team to another bash at the play-offs. The fact their 84 points total would have secured automatic promotion in 19 of the past 20 seasons will have proved even more galling for fans of the Essex club.
Southend had gathered real momentum following seven successive victories without conceding a goal to surge into third. But in truth, the Shrimpers had been riding their luck of late. The partnership of Cian Bolger and Adam Barrett in the heart of defence has helped protect goalkeeper Daniel Bentley’s incredibly run of clean sheets, especially at Roots Hall, but going forward they’re coming up short.
The Shrimpers are a well-organised unit but Brown doesn’t allow his team to play the most expansive football. Long balls towards bullocking centre-forward Barry Corr are favoured but there’s just not enough pace in and around those forward areas to really worry opposition defences. Carlise, Dagenham, Exeter, Accrington and Cambridge were just five of the 13 League Two teams to score more goals than Brown’s troops and only twice in six weeks have the Essex boys scored more than once in a match.
Brown’s been quick to reassure supporters that his squad will use the pain of last weekend’s loss to their advantage but with grinding games against a Stevenage outfit that give little away up next, it’s hard to find the faith in backing the Shrimpers at 2/1 quotes for promotion with BetVictor. Southend have lost each of their last three play-off semi-finals, fourth-placed finishers have won promotion just three times in the past 20 League Two play-off campaigns and I predict more play-off pain this time around.
Plymouth Argyle 3/1 (William Hill)
- Home Record: W13-D6-L4 (4th)
- Away Record: W7-D5-L11 (12th)
- Last 8 Record: W4-D2-L2 (8th)
- Record v Top-Half: W9-D6-L7 (4th)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W2-D2-L2 (2nd/4)
It’s been a stop-start campaign for Plymouth tinged with a touch of frustration; you could even go as far to say they’ve been a bit wishy-washy. But hey, I want Argyle right on side as we enter the play-off picture. Back-to-back wins against relegated Tranmere and promoted Shrewsbury helped secure seventh spot and manager John Sheridan has had to deal with plenty of murmurings of discontent throughout the season but he’s got his side into the end-of-season extravaganza and they’ll be a difficult team to negotiate.
The Pilgrims did the double over the Shrews and held Burton to draws home and away, proving the quality within the ranks. In fact, it was Plymouth’s poor performances away to the division’s lesser lights that held their campaign up; Argyle picked up just nine of their 71 points at bottom-half clubs.
Defence is certainly key for Sheridan though and with 21 clean sheets kept across their 46 regular season fixtures, you can be sure the Pilgrims will be set up from the back. The squad does boast a number of bright young talents but in midfield they tend to struggle to create against sides that defend deep. Should, as expected, Wycombe come out fighting, the Devon club will be in a far better position to attack and get the necessary result(s) to progress.
Reuben Reid will hog the limelight in those forward areas but one of League Two’s leading marksman has had his work-rate and desire questioned of late. Should the 18-goal hitman be in the mood alongside the willing Lewis Alessandra, Plymouth have a front pairing and defensive structure that stands out ahead of their play-off rivals.
In six of the previous eight play-off campaigns the seventh-placed side has reached the final with Bradford, Crewe and Dagenham all winning promotion in the past five seasons. Plymouth can repeat that trick and look a fair price at 3/1 with William Hill to follow suit.
Wycombe Wanderers 3/1 (Bet365)
- Home Record: W10-D7-L6 (11th)
- Away Record: W13-D8-L2 (1st)
- Last 8 Record: W4-D1-L3 (10th)
- Record v Top-Half: W9-D7-L6 (3rd)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W3-D2-L1 (1st/4)
If you felt an ounce of pain for Southend’s supporters then take a minute to think of Wycombe. Wanderers were in a top-three position from September until the penultimate weekend before missing out on automatic promotion by a point with a club record points tally of 84.
It was a marvellous achievement for a club with one of the smallest squads and rated as 80/1 rags for the League Two title last August. Boss Gareth Ainsworth trotted out the same ‘we’re only thinking about getting to 55 points’ line from the get-go and he wasn’t lying. The Chairboys targeting league survival this season but their young, ambitious squad has performed above all expectations to put the Bucks club in the promotion picture.
Wycs have managed to secure their quartet of loan stars to extended deals meaning Alfie Mawson, Fred Onyedinma, Nico Yennaris and Sam Saunders can all play their part in the play-offs but I can’t help question the physical condition of the group. They clearly faded in the final few weeks of the season whilst three wins at their Adams Park home since January puts enormous pressure on their ability to grind out victories on the road.
With semi-final opponents Plymouth a tough nut to crack at their Home Park base, Wycombe will need to be mentally and physically in the right place entering the play-offs if they’re to complete the unthinkable. Recent history also goes against Ainsworth’s men; Fleetwood last season were the first fourth-placed finishers in six seasons to clinch promotion via the play-offs (or even reach the final).
Stevenage 4/1 (888 Sport)
- Home Record: W15-D3-L5 (3rd)
- Away Record: W5-D9-L9 (15th)
- Last 8 Record: W4-D3-L1 (6th)
- Record v Top-Half: W7-D7-L8 (9th)
- Record v Play-Off Rivals: W2-D2-L2 (3rd/4)
He’s certainly not the coolest kid at the disco. He’s definitely not the best-dressed chicken in town. But what Graham Westley is, is a sharp-minded man who knows what’s required to get a group of players organised as a team and capable of competing in football matches.
It’s easy to sneer at Westley; point and laugh from afar – he’s more enemies than friends in the game – but I prefer to celebrate the positives and guiding Stevenage into the play-offs after last year’s relegation deserves high praise. Last summer the mad-cap boss brought in a raft of unknown players to completely rebuild his relegated side and after an unsurprising slow start, things have started to click.
Every player in the Boro team will understand the role required to carry out Westley’s masterplans but crucially, the rigorous training methods imposed on the squad mean the Stevenage side will be fitter, faster and stronger than any side they come up against. The Boro boss demands enthusiasm, passion and hard work as the bare minimum and that’s what makes playing a Westley side a living nightmare.
Preferring to play with a target man up top, Stevenage will look to support their leading forward as much as possible; Charlie Lee’s grabbed most the headlines this season with his goalscoring qualities from midfield but introduction of 18-year-old Ben Kennedy has added a sprinkling of stardust on the team’s attacking potential. It’s no surprise to learn that Boro scored in 35/46 league outings this term.
Defensively Bira Dembele and Dean Wells have formed a solid partnership at centre-half and whilst the grit and determination can’t be called into question, it is a big blotch on Stevenage’s copybook to see the wild inconsistencies between their home and away results.
The past four sixth-placed finishers have all reached a Wembley final and that run of results started with Stevenage’s play-off success in 2011. I’ve plenty of faith that Westley can rally the troops and overcome a crestfallen Southend side in the semi-finals and from then they’re just 90 minutes from promotion. I couldn’t put anyone off backing the Boro at 4/1 (888 Sport) to bounce straight back to League One via the play-offs.
League Two Play-Off Trends
Below is a full list of the past 20 League Two play-off positions and how they've played out. I adore statistics and whilst the table can make interesting reading, it's worth taking the trends with a pinch of salt. This is the play-offs and this is the Football League after all…
|1994/95||Chesterfield (W)||Bury (RU)||Preston||Mansfield|
|1995/96||Plymouth (W)||Darlington (RU)||Hereford||Colchester|
|1996/97||Northampton (W)||Swansea (RU)||Chester||Cardiff|
|1997/98||Colchester (W)||Torquay (RU)||Scarborough||Barnet|
|1998/99||Scunthorpe (W)||Rotherham||Leyton Orient (RU)||Swansea|
|1999/00||Darlington (RU)||Peterborough (W)||Barnet||Hartlepool|
|2000/01||Hartlepool||Leyton Orient (RU)||Hull||Blackpool (W)|
|2001/02||Cheltenham (W)||Rochdale||Rushden (RU)||Hartlepool|
|2002/03||Bournemouth (W)||Scunthorpe||Lincoln (RU)||Bury|
|2003/04||Huddersfield (W)||Mansfield (RU)||Northampton||Lincoln|
|2004/05||Southend (W)||Macclesfield||Lincoln (RU)||Northampton|
|2005/06||Grimsby (RU)||Cheltenham (W)||Wycombe||Lincoln|
|2006/07||MK Dons||Lincoln||Bristol Rovers (W)||Shrewsbury (RU)|
|2007/08||Stockport (W)||Rochdale (RU)||Darlington||Wycombe|
|2008/09||Bury||Gillingham (W)||Rochdale||Shrewsbury (RU)|
|2009/10||Morecambe||Rotherham (RU)||Aldershot||Dagenham (W)|
|2010/11||Shrewsbury||Accrington||Stevenage (W)||Torquay (RU)|
|2011/12||Southend||Torquay||Cheltenham (RU)||Crewe (W)|
|2012/13||Burton||Cheltenham||Northampton (RU)||Bradford (W)|
|2013/14||Fleetwood (W)||Southend||Burton (RU)||York|
(RU) = Runners-up