The closest play-off race ever? League Two goes to the wire
With three games of a season to play, you usually have a clear idea of how the final table will look and those teams that will be celebrating or commiserating come the final reckoning.
But not in League Two.
While Doncaster, Plymouth and Portsmouth have sewn up the automatic promotion places in England’s fourth tier, the play-off picture is unclear.
Ten teams are legitimately still in with a realistic chance of taking one of the four spots.
Only four points separate Stevenage in fifth and Wycombe in 13th. By way of comparison, at this time last campaign, four points separated seventh-placed AFC Wimbledon, in the play-offs and with a game in hand, and eighth-placed Wycombe outside the play-offs.
This season is arguably the closest at this point of a campaign since 2009-10, when four points separated sixth and 12th.
|League Two play-off race|
Strugglers turned contenders
Oddly enough, the majority of sides in the play-off picture had wretched beginnings to the campaign.
Exeter have risen from bottom in November to sixth, fifth-placed Stevenage were just above the drop zone in October, while Colchester’s start was so bad that forward Kurtis Guthrie said his side were on their way to relegation.
Cambridge United may now be sitting just two points outside the top seven, but things were not looking so rosy at the start of the season.
Three points from their first eight games led the U’s board to have a meeting to discuss manager Shaun Derry’s future, during which the players reportedly urged the club to keep him. Since the decision to stick by him, Cambridge have not really looked back.
“It’s turned into a three-game season,” Derry told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, having defeated their play-off rivals Exeter 1-0 on Monday.
“As a player and a manager I always look at the season in parts. Clearly we didn’t have the best of starts but it’s been an incredible rise since those first eight games.”
Blackpool and Mansfield have been in and out of the play-off places throughout the season with the typical peaks and troughs in form, but another side that have gone on to have a memorable season after a poor start are Wycombe.
The Chairboys, who were 21st in October, went on a 16-match unbeaten run in all competitions, reached an EFL Trophy semi-final, received nationwide accolades following a dramatic 4-3 defeat by Tottenham in the FA Cup, and are now just two points off the top seven.
“It has been a successful season,” manager Gareth Ainsworth told BBC Sport. “But it’s easy to forget those things when you’re striving for the play-offs. If we don’t make it, people will just look at that and say we didn’t make the play-offs.”
So why does Ainsworth think there are so many teams still in with a chance, with even 14th-placed Grimsby still, mathematically anyway, in with a shot?
“The league really has been split into two halves. It’s crazy. Accrington are the only team that have made a huge run from bottom to top later on. Everyone else has been there or thereabouts.
“Ourselves and Accrington are probably the ones raising eyebrows because of the size of our clubs, but otherwise, you probably could have picked your top 10 in League Two this season. It’s one of those seasons where the top teams have been beating the bottom.”
The latecomers to the party
Ainsworth is right. Accrington have put together quite a run of form – 15 games unbeaten, to be exact – to put themselves in with a chance of the play-offs.
Stanley, who were defeated by eventually-promoted AFC Wimbledon in the play-off semi-finals last season, are also just two points behind seventh-placed Blackpool, having been 20th in late February.
|Did you know?|
|No League Two play-off winning team has come straight back down to the fourth tier since 2010 final winners Dagenham and Redbridge.|
Manager John Coleman told BBC Radio Lancashire: “You’re always aware – anybody who says they’re not are lying – you’re aware of what’s going on around you. It doesn’t matter what stage of the season it is.
“It is as tight as it has ever been and we’re happy to be one of those teams.
“Once we got on a three-game or four-game run, we set the players a challenge – could we go unbeaten until the end of the season?
“I hope that comes to fruition but it would be a shame if we did go unbeaten and then didn’t reach the play-offs.
“Whatever happens now, I think we can be proud of the season that we’ve had as the players have turned it around.”
The side currently best placed for the end-of-season ‘lottery’ are fourth-placed Luton Town, helped in no small part by the league’s third-highest goalscorer – Danny Hylton.
The Hatters have only been outside the top seven for one week this season, but boss Nathan Jones said those sides automatically promoted were “one year” ahead of the Bedfordshire club.
“They definitely had a lot more experience than we did in most areas,” Jones told BBC Three Counties Radio. “We’re just a young group evolving, developing, we play a certain way.
“It would have been easy to play in a static way, play in straight lines, but we ask them to do different stuff. And I think it’s just been that – a bit more experience, a bit more know-how.”
|Did you know?|
|Since the change to four teams being promoted from the fourth tier in 1995-96, the most frequent placing for the play-off winners has been fourth, with 10 winners.|
|However, four of the past seven finals have been won by the side that finished seventh, including AFC Wimbledon in 2015-16.|
Luton have a four-point cushion to outside of the play-off places, prior to Saturday’s home game against Notts County.
“We’re in pole position at the minute because we’re in fourth,” added Jones. “We want to stay there, because in theory you get the ‘weakest’ side, even though it’s never that way, and you’re at home in the second leg.
“What we want to do is finish as high as we can, on as many points as we can, because we wanted to improve on last year.”
While Luton have barely been out of the top seven this season, similar could be said for Carlisle’s tenure in the top three.
The Cumbrians were third as recently as February, but a run of six defeats in seven saw Keith Curle’s side slip down the table, eventually outside of the play-off places altogether.
“I think we need two wins, that potentially could be enough to get into the play-offs and then you get that momentum off the back of a few wins,” Curle told BBC Radio Cumbria straight after Monday’s draw against Stevenage.
“I back us over two games against anybody and in a one-off game I think we can give anybody in this division a very good game of football.”
Follow live text coverage of every 2016-17 EFL play-off match (4-29 May) on the BBC Sport website and app, plus radio commentary of selected fixtures.