Tag Archives: Doncaster

Sheffield United labelled “prehistoric” by angry managerial candidate

Sheffield United have been branded “prehistoric” by a man they hoped would be their next manager.

Former Australia manager, Graham Arnold, took the unusual step of publically slating the club after he was interviewed for the job by the Blades board. The West Coast Mariners boss was so disgusted by his interviewers’ attitudes towards football he actually quit the interview, which was being conducted through video-link, and stormed out half-way through.

Sheffield United have been labelled "prehistoric" by Graham Arnold.

Sheffield United have been labelled “prehistoric” by Graham Arnold.

Arnold told The Australian: “In all honesty, I didn’t have to think too long or too hard about it. It just wasn’t for me.

“Forget that the financial offer in itself was quite poor, but I would have been taking three steps backwards in my development as a professional coach if I had gone.”

“I walked out of that meeting with the club’s board and football director Dave Bassett, and said ‘Wow’.

“It just blew me away. Being one of the bigger lower league clubs, I was expecting a lot more in terms of how they wanted to develop as a club on the field.

“But they just didn’t seem interested when I was talking about playing a short passing game and taking the football another level up. It was about smashing the ball long and working on set pieces. It was prehistoric stuff. That’s not the way to develop a football team.”

 Damning

The comments were a damning indictment of Sheffield United’s take on the beautiful game and a huge embarrassment for the Bramall Lane bigwigs.

Fans have traditionally taken pride in the “Sheffield United way.” This style of football prioritises effort, physicality and a desire to win over skill, elegance and aesthetics. Visitors to Bramall Lane in recent decades have often been left frustrated by their hosts’ old-school style of play and their questionable discipline.

Managers such as Kevin Blackwell and Neil Warnock nurtured teams who were tenacious, hungry and forceful but who also had a choice reading of the laws of the game and a Machiavellian approach to the sport.

The “Battle of Bramall Lane” in 2002 is infamous because it is still the only Football League match to be abandoned because a team did not have enough players to continue. Sheffield United had three players sent off against West Brom, and were lucky not to have a fourth expelled, before Warnock allegedly told two of his players to fake injuries in order to get the match abandoned.

Sheffield United now find themselves in League 1 and although Danny Wilson tried to improve the style of play at the club, it was still brutal on the eyes. It worsened when United legend, and the “Sheffield Way” personified, Chris Morgan took over towards the end of last season.

 Ugly and unsuccessful

Arnold’s comments on Sheffield United were scathing and with the Blades preparing for a third straight season in England’s third tier, there are many fans who believe the club’s board should use his criticism constructively.

The Australian’s opinions have highlighted what many fans already knew; their club’s stubborn refusal to keep up with the times has left them looking backwards, stranded in the dark ages. The people who run United are still thinking the way directors were thinking in the 1970s, and though Stoke City is an obvious anomaly, clubs tend not to see long-term success by adopting long-ball, bully-boy tactics these days.

Sheffield United is a big club with a substantial fanbase but since 1994 they have only had one season in the top flight.

Despite adventurous and entrepreneurial ventures off the field, which include twinning with Chengdu Blades in China, the people running the club have bafflingly stuck with a failing system on the pitch.

Graham Arnold had ideas about playing progressive, passing football at Sheffield United, but Dave Bassett and the Sheffield United board wanted to keep playing the percentages and concentrating on set-pieces. For some reason they wanted somebody who was going to employ the same style of play which had seen Sheffield United fall short in recent years.

The two clubs promoted automatically from League 1 this season, Doncaster and Bournemouth, succeeded by playing aesthetically-pleasing and positive football, despite having far smaller resources than the Blades. This shows the way smaller clubs are excelling in the third tier by playing the ball on the floor.

 Look to the future

Sheffield United will celebrate their 125th birthday next year but unfortunately for the fans, the board and Dave Bassett are looking to the past for inspiration instead of adopting a more positive approach.

Traditionally the supporters have embraced United’s traditional ugly style of play, but times are changing and across the country clubs are looking for managers who play entertaining football. This isn’t because they’re arrogant or because they have illusions of grandeur. It’s because this is the way most successful clubs play their football by now.

Graham Arnold has shamed Sheffield United by putting the club’s backwards approach under a spotlight. The comments were damning but they’re completely justified and those in charge of the club need to use this embarrassing mess as a catalyst for change.

The board must abandon its bizarre and short-sighted stubbornness in favour of a more positive approach, otherwise the club will remain trapped by the myths of its own history.

The Football League Blog End of Season Awards

After 1,644 games, played over eight months the Football League season is very nearly over, and to celebrate this incredible season it’s time for the most prestigious awards in football – the Football League Blog End of Season Awards!

So sit back, relax, have a drink if you like and get ready to disagree vehemently with most of the verdicts (and possibly agree with a tiny minority of the picks).

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League 2 Player of the Year

Winner– Tom Pope (Port Vale) – The league’s top scorer has been sensational all season and to score 31 goals in any league is a magnificent achievement. He has been the driving force behind Port Vale’s promotion, and Pope has on many occasions been the difference between victory and defeat. With his large frame, commanding aerial presence and clinical finishing he is destined to shine in League 1 next season.

Honourable mentions: Adam Barrett (Gillingham), Marlon Pack (Cheltenham), Gary Jones (Bradford)

League 1 Player of the Year

Winner– David Cotterill (Doncaster) – The Welshman has struggled to settle in recent years at various clubs, and has been troubled by a serious loss of confidence. But at the Keepmoat he has managed to remind the football world of his outstanding natural talent. He was made the lynchpin of the team by Dean Saunders and through a series of wonder strikes he has become his club’s top scorer. The midfielder showed he is too good for League 1 and with the belief of a good manager he can flourish in the Championship.

Honourable mentions: Paddy Madden (Yeovil), Alan Judge (Notts County), Harry Maguire (Sheffield United)

Championship Player of the Year

Winner – Mark Hudson (Cardiff) – It’s rare for a defender to get any kind of recognition but Hudson has been by far and away the best defender in the Championship this season, and his consistency and leadership justify his award. The big centre-back is an intelligent reader of the game, a physical presence but also a headstrong authority in the Cardiff back four. Their rock-solid defence was the main reason Cardiff ran away with the league and Hudson, as the leader of the defence deserves recognition as the Championship’s Player of the Year.

Honourable mentions: Matej Vydra (Watford), Glenn Murray (Crystal Palace), Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace)

Young Player of the Year

Winner – Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace) – The big comparison this season has been between Wilfried Zaha and Blackpool’s Tom Ince. Zaha edges the competition, despite arguably being a less complete player than Ince. Zaha can at times be frustrating, at times underwhelming and at times bemusing. But this season he has shown his class on a far more regular basis. He has pace, exquisite control and by now a deadly end product. He is flair personified and he will only get better at Man Utd. Ince is a more rounded player, but he doesn’t have Zaha’s range and capacity for the incredible. Therefore the winner is Wilfried Zaha.

Honourable mentions: Tom Ince (Blackpool), Anthony Knockaert (Leicester), Harry Maguire (Sheffield United)

Goal of the Season:

Winner: Nathaniel Chalobah (Watford) vs Leicester

It’s so difficult choosing a goal of the season from three leagues, but Chalobah’s thunderous wonder goal against Leicester last week triumphs over Anthony Knockaert’s (Leicester) audacious mid-air back-heel against Huddersfield and Simon Cox’s (Nottingham Forest) cultured control and finish against Birmingham.

League 2 Manager of the Year

Winner – Martin Allen (Gillingham) – Mad Dog has had an unstable few years, moving from club to club, but he seems to have found his feet at Gillingham and this season won the first promotion of his managerial career. He has galvanised his ambitious team and led them to a deserved League 2 title. They have been the best side in the fourth tier this season and after a sublime start to their campaign never looked like slipping up. Allen’s determination and passion was personified by his team as they showed class and confidence on their way to success.

Honourable mentions: Mickey Adams (Port Vale), Phil Parkinson (Bradford), John Ward (Bristol Rovers)

League 1 Manager of the Year

Winner – Eddie Howe (Bournemouth) – Who else could it be? He returned to his old club in October with the Cherries battling relegation. He transformed the seaside club into a team of aesthetically pleasing winners, heading on a relentless run of results which saw them shoot up the table. Howe managed to get the best out of his team and the addition of Matt Ritchie was a shrewd bit of business. Bournemouth were unlucky not to win League 1, but that won’t matter one bit. Howe has completed the job he started five years ago and taken Bournemouth to the second tier for only the second time in their history. He may be one of the youngest managers in the division but he is also one of the brightest.

Honourable Mentions: Uwe Rösler (Brentford), Gary Johnson (Yeovil), Dean Smith (Walsall)

Championship Manager of the Year

Winner – Malky Mackay (Cardiff) – In a league where inconsistency has been the recurring motif the Cardiff boss has cultivated an efficient and focused squad, whose reliability has seen them take the Championship title with ease. He has created a winning mentality among his players and a steely stubbornness which will be essential if they are to stay up next season in the Premier League. After years of last ditch failure and disappointments Mackay has found the magic formula which has finally seen Cardiff achieve their long-held goal of promotion to the big time. It’s not always been pretty but it has certainly been successful.

Honourable mentions: Gianfranco Zola (Watford), Dougie Freedman (Bolton), Steve Bruce (Hull)

Shock of the Year

Winners – Yeovil – The little Somerset club have come from nowhere to qualify for the League 1 play-offs. Gary Johnson is back where he feels most comfortable after a few years away from Huish Park and he has got the Glovers punching above their weight in a seriously competitive division. Not even the most positive Yeovil fan could have predicted a fourth place finish but Johnson has led the club to their highest ever league finish. This has been helped massively by the goals of Paddy Madden, with the Irishman proving to be one of the bargains of the season in the Football League. With Brentford emotionally drained after missing out on promotion, Sheffield United not looking convincing this season and Swindon still looking slightly unsure under Kevin MacDonald, who’s to say Yeovil can’t cause an even bigger shock and win promotion?

Honourable mentions: Crystal Palace, Walsall, Port Vale

Biggest Loser of the Year

Winner: Wolves – While unsavoury the violent scenes at the end of Wolves’s home defeat to Burnley were an accurate representation of their fans’ anger. The club retained most of the squad relegated from the Premier League last May, but those players have not shown the necessary fight in the Championship. The Wolves have lacked teeth in the second tier and despite ambitions of an instant return to the Premier League they are now staring League 1 square in the face. The appointments of Ståle Solbakken and Dean Saunders were both poor, with neither manager’s track record getting adequately scrutinised prior to their arrivals at Molineux. Now the lacklustre Wolves look set to become the first team ever to suffer consecutive relegations from the top tier to the third tier twice in their history.

Honourable mentions: Blackburn, Plymouth, Aldershot

Final day drama in Leagues 1 and 2

What a way to end the League 1 and League 2 seasons! There was plenty of action right up to the final seconds with twists and turns, tears and cheers, and that was just what happened at Griffin Park.

There was promotion and relegation to be decided in both leagues, and now that it’s over there are serious questions to be asked.

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1. How do Brentford pick themselves up for the play-offs?

They had promotion within their grasp. A last minute penalty to secure promotion, missed, and then their opponents break quickly and score to secure their passage into the Championship, instead of Brentford. Nobody can really imagine how young Marcelo Trotta must feel today after yesterday’s nightmare.

It was cruel on the Brenford supporters who must have been sure their near 60 year wait for a return to the second tier was about to end. The players were left visibly crushed and demoralised by the sickening kick in the teeth. But now they must prepare themselves for the play-offs knowing they really shouldn’t be there.

Unfortunately their form has slowed in recent weeks and they are without a win in their last three games. They face Swindon, who go into play-offs on the back of a defeat against relegated Scunthorpe.

This is by far the biggest challenge of Uwe Rösler’s short managerial career, and he will have to show all his metal to get the Bees (who have a poor record in play-offs) promoted. But how often do we see the 3rd-placed club struggle in the play-offs after the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion.

2. Is Brian Flynn the man to keep Doncaster up?

Flynn was contracted as manager until the end of the season, after taking over halfway through the season following the departure of fellow Welshman Dean Saunders.

Few people would argue against Flynn being given the reins on a full-time basis.

He may look like a pensioner but Flynn is only 57-years-old and still has so much to offer. His record in charge of Wrexham, Swansea and the Welsh under-21s shows he is a natural motivator, who is adept at nurturing talent. He also has a brilliant understanding of the transfer market, and is excellent at spotting talent.

Can he keep Doncaster in the Championship? It will be a tough task because he will have one of the smallest budgets in the division. But in the topsy-turvy Championship, who’s to say the Yorkshire side can’t replicate the success they had under Sean O’Driscoll? If anybody can keep them up it’s Brian Flynn.

3. Will Bournemouth care that they weren’t crowned champions?

No. When you’ve been waiting 23 years to get back in the second tier, you’ll take it however it comes, especially since they looked like relegation candidates before Eddie Howe returned to the club.

They’re still going up, they’ve still got a heap of momentum behind them and they will still fancy their chances of doing well at a higher level. Missing out on the title is a minor disappointment.

4. Have the worst four teams been relegated from League 1?

It would be tough to argue otherwise.

Portsmouth have at times this season played like a play-off-chasing team. But no club could cope with the instability on or off the field which Pompey have had to endure. Their team has had so many changes, it’s been impossible to establish any kind of run. Even without the 10-point deduction they would have been comfortably relegated. On the plus side Portsmouth enter League 2 with better prospects than when they entered League 1.

Hartlepool’s second half of the season has been surprisingly positive, and John Hughes deserves credit for coming in at a difficult time and turning things around. Unfortunately the damage was done before the Scot took charge. Hartlepool only managed two victories before the new year and despite a plucky fight the squad wasn’t strong enough to stay up. It’s hard to argue a club who achieved just nine points from their first 23 fixtures deserve to stay in the division.

Bury have been punching above their weight in League 1, and in doing so they’ve ran up some worrying debts. Kevin Blackwell had very limited resources and it was always a huge ask for him to keep the Shakers up. The squad never looked good enough to avoid the drop and with a leaky defence and a blunt strike-force it was inevitable they would be relegated. With cost-cutting required next season could be tough for them.

Scunthorpe were the only club relegated on the final day of the season in League 1. They did all they could to stay up, beating Swindon 3-1 but just like the other three teams going down with them to League 2 they were struggling from the beginning, having lost their first four games of the season. Bringing in Brian Laws gave Scunthorpe hope but it was too much to ask but nine years after he got them promoted from League 2, he is now taking them back into the bottom division of the Football League.

So yes, the four worst teams in the division were relegated.

5. Were Rotherham the second best team in League 2 this season?

No they weren’t but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to go up. Port Vale deserve massive credit because they’ve been magnificent and probably should have finished second but they took their foot off the pedal after securing promotion.

Pulling their foot off the pedal is one thing Rotherham haven’t done this year. They showed their determination by saving their best run of the season for the final weeks. Their five wins in a row saw Steve Evans’s side clinch 3rd in the league and return to the third tier after a six year absence.

Rotherham have been tough and hard-working all season, but they’ve also played some great attacking football. They’ve scored far more goals than anybody else in the league, and with their new stadium and a wily, Machiavellian manager there’s no reason why they can’t excel in League 1.

6. Were the worst two teams in League 2 relegated?

Aldershot were the worst club in the division this season. They never looked like scoring, they lacked creativity and this put enormous pressure on the defence. They had less wins than any other team and throughout the season they didn’t look good enough to stay up. Aldershot have seen worse days, but having worked so hard to get back in the league they will find it tough to re-group and challenge in the desperately tough Blue Square Premier next season.

Barnet’s season can be split in two – the season before Edgar Davids joined on October 11 and the season after he joined the North Londoners. Looking at League 1 and League 2’s relegated clubs, poor starts are a recurring theme and you can’t get much poorer than Barnet’s start. A winless first 13 games left Barnet playing catch-up from the beginning. Davids came in and galvanised the squad and their form since his arrival has been very impressive. However their loss on the last day of the season, coupled with Wimbledon’s win, mean League 2’s greatest survivors will start life at their new stadium in the Blue Square Premier.

There are several clubs at the bottom of League 2 who have been very lucky to avoid the drop. Torquay and Plymouth didn’t expect to be battling relegation this season and they need to get their houses in order if the two Devon clubs are to avoid a repeat next year. Dagenham and Redbridge have struggled badly and escaped the drop by the skin of their teeth. Next season could be very difficult for them. Wimbledon had a brilliant final day victory to evade relegation, but they too need to improve if they are to stay up next season.

7. Is it time for a third relegation spot to be introduced in League 2?

Once again the standard of teams battling to stay in the Football League was particularly poor. And once again the standard of teams fighting for promotion in the Blue Square Premier was extremely high.

Non-league clubs are desperate for the Blue Square Premier to be given a second automatic promotion spot because they believe there currently exists a glass ceiling preventing many good clubs from competing in the league at the expense of league clubs who possibly aren’t good enough to be there.

The Blue Square Premier clubs make a very convincing argument and their frustrations are understandable. Many of the clubs in the top six of the fifth tier would have performed far better in League 2 this season than the bottom seven sides, had they been given the chance.

But in the interest of stability the status quo should be retained. The difference in funding and coverage between League 2 and non-league is enormous and so many clubs fail to adapt to the drop. This season saw Stockport County relegated to the Blue Square North after failing to acclimatise to life outside the Football League. Numerous clubs have gone bankrupt because of the culture shock. The last thing we want to see is clubs regularly going bust when they leave the league.

Wolves players need to take responsibility for their predicament

There’s no avoiding it, and it has to be discussed; Wolves are in trouble, and Dean Saunders needs to turn things around quickly if they are to stay up this season.

Wolves fans suffered a nightmare season last year as they were relegated from the Premier League with a measly 25 points. But having retained most of their players, and acquired a new, highly commended, intelligent manager in Ståle Solbakken, they were confident of pushing for an instant return to the top flight.

Saunders needs sort things out quickly.

But after a solid start to the season, Wolves have steadily dropped down the league, and after an embarrassing FA Cup defeat away at Blue Square Premier side Luton, Solbakken was shown the door. This was undoubtedly the correct decision as Solbakken clearly wasn’t inspiring the players, and the players found it difficult to adapt to his continental style of play.

Dean Saunders was appointed after a great first half of the season at League 1 Doncaster, but a quick look at Saunders’s CV may have suggested he was not the man for the job.

Saunders was given his first managerial post at Wrexham in 2008 after working as a coach for several years in John Toshack’s Wales set-up. Saunders struggled at first to find a rhythm at Wrexham and there were serious questions asked about his managerial ability. But he slowly turned things around at Wrexham and built a formidable, attacking machine, which looked set to challenge seriously for the Championship, until he was snapped up by Doncaster in September 2011.

He took over a Doncaster team which looked doomed to relegation, but Saunders was well backed with high-profile loan and short-term signings. But even the likes of El-Hadji Diouf couldn’t save Doncaster, and they were relegated at the end of the season, with Saunders’ managerial ability questioned once again.

Saunders revamped the Doncaster squad and got them competing seriously for promotion back to the Championship, this season, before he was snapped up by Wolves, with the aim of resurrecting their fading play-off hopes. Instead, he has not won any of his first six games and their latest defeat against in-form Barnsley has seen them fall into the bottom three.

Saunders is a long-term option for a club who desperately need a short-term solution. The question is, can Saunders change things quickly enough to keep Wolves up?

Wolves’s squad isn’t the most exciting, but there are good players in there who are underperforming badly. The likes of Roger Johnson, Kevin Doyle, Sylvain Ebanks-Blake and Adam Hammill are proven players at Championship level, but they’re simply not contributing enough, and haven’t done so for a while.

The team still haven’t recovered from the loss of confidence last season, and in hindsight, the board probably missed a golden opportunity to revamp the squad in the summer. At the time, keeping the majority of the squad together looked to be a big achievement for the board, but after such a poor season it would probably have been better to get rid of some of their biggest underperformers.

Some football pundits have said sacking Mick McCarthy was Wolves’s biggest error, but they have conveniently forgotten the team’s abysmal form at the time of his departure.

McCarthy had enjoyed some wonderful times at Wolves, guiding them to promotion and keeping the Black Country club in the Premier League for three seasons. But the time had come for McCarthy to leave. Wolves were playing poorly, with deteriorating confidence, and their performance in the embarrassing 5-1 home defeat to local rivals, West Brom, was possibly among the worst ever seen in the Premier League.

Those who claim the Wolves board was wrong to get rid of McCarthy are looking through rose-tinted glasses, and conveniently forgetting the state of the team when he left. McCarthy will always be loved at Molineux, but keeping McCarthy certainly wouldn’t have kept them up, and they probably would have reacted similarly to relegation under the former Irish international.

Wolves have 13 games left to save themselves from returning to the third tier for the first time since 1989, starting with Sunday’s clash with table-toppers, Cardiff.

They desperately need to get their house in order, and halt what has become a deeply distressing malaise.

Now isn’t the time for players to feel sorry for themselves, and Dean Saunders has to step up to the mark to prove he is capable of being a Championship manager.

With matches against fellow relegation candidates, Birmingham, Millwall, Bristol City, Huddersfield and Bolton, there’s no reason why Wolves can’t drag themselves out of their current predicament. But for this to happen the players need to stop the pouting and take responsibility for their terrible performances.

League 1 half-term report

Halfway through the season and League 1’s seen a bit of everything; sackings, scandals and financial troubles, and that’s just what’s gone on off the field.

Here’s how each club has fared in the first 23 games of the season:

Sheffield United top the table at the halfway stage

Sheffield United top the table at the halfway stage

 

Sheffield UnitedA- – Recovering from last season’s agonising play-off final penalty defeat was always going to be tough. United will be content with the way their season has gone so far. Danny Wilson’s team are extremely difficult to beat, with only two league defeats so far. Man City are the only club in the top four tiers of English football with fewer losses. But United’s lack of firepower has held them back; before this weekend they were the lowest scorers in the top 10 and seven of their eleven victories have been by a single goal, which is very unusual for a team top of the league. Nick Blackman has nine goals in the league, but United’s second highest scorer is centre-back, Neil Collins, with four goals. The Blades have been great at grinding out results, but they don’t look as strong as the team which narrowly missed out on promotion last term.

TranmereA+ – Tranmere’s form this season has surprised everybody, including manager, Ronnie Moore. Whenever Moore gets interviewed these days he keeps emphasising how stunned he is to be top of the league. The Merseysiders didn’t lose any of their first twelve games, and looked to be racing away with the league. They are the league’s top-scorers with 38 goals, and the goals have been shared with Jake Cassidy, Andy Robinson and Jean-Louis Akpa-Akpro all netting regularly. But they’re currently suffering their first blip of the season, which includes Friday’s shocking 5-0 defeat against Swindon. How they react will go a long way to determining where they’ll finish this season.

BrentfordA – Uwe Rösler’s side are the form team in League 1 going into the second half of the season. After a steady but unspectacular start to the season, the Bees burst into life in late October as they embarked on a nine match unbeaten run, which includes seven wins. In recent weeks they’ve recorded extremely impressive victories against Sheffield United and the MK Dons. Strategically and organisationally, Brentford have been the best team in the division this season, but their success has been helped by the goals of Clayton Donaldson. The big striker, nicknamed Donaldinho, is the league’s second highest scorer. The Londoners are on a roll and are aiming for promotion to the second tier for the first time in over two decades.

DoncasterB – Dean Saunders has rebuilt the team after relegation, and the Yorkshiremen continue to play an aesthetically pleasing style of football. The star of the show has been David Cotterill, who’s been banging in the goals from midfield, and looks to have regained his confidence after some tumultuous times. Doncaster have more wins than any other team in League 1 and they have been very exciting to watch. However there’s still room for improvement. They remain on the lookout for a goal-poaching striker to take some of the pressure off Cotterill, and there have been some very unconvincing performances in the midst of all the great football. Automatic promotion is the aim, but a play-off spot would be a fine achievement.

SwindonA- – Last year’s League 2 champions were expected to have a huge impact on League 1, and though they’ve been inconsistent, they’ve proved they have the quality to challenge at the top end of the table. With Paolo Di Canio as manager things were never going to be boring, and there’s been plenty of excitement at Swindon games. They’ve scored 37 goals and conceded just 18, but when they concede first they tend to lose; they’ve picked up just two points from losing positions this season. Matt Richie has continued his brilliant form from last term and he’s already netted nine goals this season. The magnificent 5-0 victory against Tranmere suggests Swindon could still challenge for an automatic spot if they develop a bit more consistency, although if they get a play-off spot nobody will want to face Di Canio’s side and their beautiful football.

MK DonsB – It’s been a strange season for MK Dons fans. They’ve been used to seeing their side score freely and concede regularly in recent years, but this season the Dons have tightened things at the back at the expense of their attacking fervour. The Dons have been wasteful in front of goal at times, but perhaps that’s changing as we enter 2013. Along with every other club currently in the play-off spots, the Dons lack a top goal-scorer, and this is keeping them outside the top two. Karl Robinson’s team play some of the most beautiful football in the league, but in recent years they’ve lacked the killer instinct required to take them up. It remains to be seen if that’s changed this year, and although the Dons look a good bet for a play-off spot once again in May, they must be aiming for a top two finish.

StevenageB – After a blistering start to the season, Gary Smith’s side have lost their way slightly and have won just one game (against lowly Hartlepool) in their last six. They began the season with an incredible 11 match unbeaten run and it appeared as though the Boro were going to seriously challenge for an automatic promotion spot. Stevenage were unable to challenge healthily in last season’s play-offs because the squad was too small and tiredness had taken over, and this season the small squad once again looks to be having an adverse effect on their promotion push. Stevenage could do with a potent goal-scorer; Robin Shroot is an amiable, impactful forward, who will score a fair few goals over the course of the season, but a natural goal-scorer would go a long way towards securing another play-off for Stevenage. The aim for the season is to get back in the play-offs, but competition is fierce.

Notts CountyC+ – After narrowly missing out on 6th place last season, County were expected to make a strong push for promotion this year. But after a positive start to the season the Magpies have found wins hard to come by, with only four league victories since September. County, like so many clubs in League 1, are in need of a goal-scorer who can turn draws into wins. Keith Curle’s team are resilient and difficult to beat, but four draws in their last six games highlights County’s frustrations this season. Notts County have the makings of a good side, and at times’s they’ve looked like genuine play-off contenders, but a lack of cutting edge could cost them a place in the top 6.

BournemouthC+ – Bournemouth’s turnaround from relegation battlers to play-off challengers has been astounding to say the least, and it’s down to one man: Eddie Howe. When he returned to Bournemouth for his second stint as manager in October, the Cherries were in the bottom four having won just once in their first eleven league games. However since Howe’s arrival Bournemouth haven’t lost a game and they’ve shot up the league with 27 points from a possible 33. Howe never settled at Burnley, and it’s clear he belongs on the south coast. He understands the club and knows how to succeed at Dean Court. Former Rotherham striker Lewis Grabban has flourished under Howe, and Bournemouth look like very good candidates for the play-offs, now that the club’s regained its confidence.

CrawleyB- – It’s fair to say Crawley expected more from this season. They won promotion convincingly last season, but a transitional summer was poor preparation and they’re now suffering as a result. The promising start to the season under Richie Barker now seems a long time ago; the Red Devils have won once in the last nine games, and they’ve steadily drifted down the table. If they are to mount a serious play-off push, they need to start winning again quickly, before their downward slide goes too far. Crawley will have no problem staying up, which is every promoted club’s first priority, but sights were set a little higher. Crawley’s best player so far this season has been Hope Akpan, whose physical performances in midfield have been highly impressive. Unfortunately his indiscipline has resulted in several suspensions, which doesn’t help the Crawley cause.

YeovilC+ – The Glovers began the campaign spectacularly; winning three and drawing one of their first four games. Then they lost six games in a row, sparking fears of another season fighting relegation. Since then they’ve been on a run of inconsistency, struggling to build any kind of momentum. They have no problems scoring goals, but at the other end they’ve been porous; they have the worst defensive record in the top 16. Yeovil will be happy if they avoid getting dragged into the relegation dogfight this season, and a mid-table finish would represent progress for one of the smallest clubs in the division. They’re far too inconsistent to challenge for a play-off spot this season.

CreweA- – Crewe were a joy to watch last season as their late surge took them up via the play-offs. But their joy was short-lived as they lost two of their top performers, Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood, to Man Utd and Aston Villa respectively. Unsurprisingly they were hot favourites for relegation, but they’ve defied the odds and look set to stay up comfortably. The signing of striker Mathias Pogba (brother of Juventus’ Paul Pogba) from Wrexham has been a good one and the team play an attractive, but sturdy style of football. There’s a brilliant team ethic at Crewe and manager Steve Davis deserves a huge amount of credit for the job he’s done. It’s doubtful they’ll be able to challenge for a play-off spot, having said that they enter the second half of the season in great form with just one defeat in their last seven games. They’ve done brilliantly.

CoventryC- – Coventry fans must have thought things couldn’t get worse after their relegation from the Championship last season. But this is Coventry, and for the Sky Blues trouble always seems to be around the corner. Andy Thorne was sacked as manager just three games into the season, and Coventry went on a run of five consecutive losses before their first win of the season against Oldham on September 29. However since then, new manager Mark Robins has slowly but surely turned things around, and Coventry have now only lost once in their last nine games. With the team hitting form, and League 1 top scorer David McGoldrick (15 goals so far) continuing to impress, Coventry could compete for a play-off spot. Unfortunately off-field problems continue to cast a shadow over any on-field success. The club’s owners aren’t able to pay the hefty rent for the Ricoh Arena, and they could be forced to look elsewhere for a home ground, with non-league Hinckley United’s 4,329-capacity Greene King Stadium seen as a genuine possibility.

Leyton OrientC – An up and down season for Orient so far, where losing runs have quickly turned into winning runs, and feast has quickly turned to famine. Orient fans really have no idea whether they’re in a relegation fight or whether they have an outside chance of getting a play-off spot. Amazingly, Leyton Orient have only drawn one game this season, against Crewe in September. The Londoners have 10 wins and 11 losses so far, making them one of the league’s most unpredictable (and exciting) sides. Kevin Lisbie continues to roll back the years, but his team-mates aren’t contributing enough goals. Orient have only netted 25 goals so far this season, although in recent games they’ve been scoring far more regularly. The tendency this season is that when Orient score, they win. They’ve only lost twice when they’ve scored this term.

PrestonD+ – Graham Westley still hasn’t settled at Preston and the play-offs look an unlikely proposition by now. Westley made wholesale changes to the playing staff in the summer, but that’s resulted in the team looking dysfunctional and awkward. The style of football has been criticised by fans who want to see less of a long-ball game from their team. The Lilywhites lack a potent goalscorer, and they struggle to win games. Preston are winless in their last six games and only Sheffield United have drawn more games than the Lancashire club this season. It’s tough to see Preston go down this season, but it’s even tougher imagining them snatching a spot in the top 6. Things aren’t clicking at Deepdale and fans are frustrated. Attendances are regularly less than 10,000 and there’s an air of negativity surrounding the club.

OldhamC- – It’s another frustratingly low-scoring season for Oldham as they’ve averaged just a goal a game in their first 23 games. Paul Dickov was a tenacious striker in his playing days, but the Scot just can’t get his strikers to score, and were it not for the brilliant José Baxter, Oldham would be in severe trouble. The former Everton youngster has excelled in the Latics midfield, and he’s shown Premier League class on a regular basis, netting eight goals in the process. But Baxter’s only one player and Oldham sit just five points above the relegation zone. They’re once again scrapping for safety and with little money to spend in January, Dickov may have to make do with what he’s got. It’s going to be a long second half of the season for Oldham fans, who’ll be praying Baxter stays fit.

WalsallC – The Saddlers started the season brightly and they were 4th as recently as October. But a dramatic collapse in their form has seen them plummet down the table. Their win against Colchester on Saturday was their first in 13 games, and a vital three points for the Midlanders. Manager Dean Smith has tried to get his team playing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football, but unfortunately the players at his disposal probably aren’t good enough to play the style he demands. Apart from Carlisle, Walsall have conceded more than any other team outside the relegation zone, and with goals in short supply, it’s a worrying statistic. Walsall have defied the odds and miraculously stayed up for the past few seasons, and they’re hoping the win against Colchester can inspire them to do likewise in May.

ShrewsburyC- – I expected more from Shrewsbury this season and I didn’t expect to see them so close to the bottom four. The Shrews were promoted last season thanks mostly to their brilliant home form, and it’s their results at New Meadow which keep them outside the drop zone this season. All 5 wins have come at home, while they’re yet to win on their travels. The team has changed little since last season, and perhaps Graham Turner should have bought more players who had experience of League 1 football. Marvin Morgan can be a real handful on his day, but he’s not consistent enough for Town. If he can get on a good scoring run, it would make a huge difference to where they finish. Safety would represent a good season for Shrewsbury after spending 15 years outside League 1. Turner has a united dressing room, with some good footballers, and I expect them to dodge the drop.

ColchesterD- – It’s been a bitterly disappointing first half of the season at Cuckoo Farm. John Ward was dismissed after failing to win any of the first eight games of the season. His assistant Joe Dunne has been in charge since then, and initially the appointment appeared to have galvanised the squad, with Colchester winning five out of their next six games to climb into the top half. But The Us have only won once since October and they’ve lost the other seven games, including a 5-1 hammering at Stadium MK. Their morale-crushing defeat against Walsall in the last game emphasised the extent of Colchester’s woes. They sit just two points and two places above 22nd placed Portsmouth. Their main problem is up front, where the strikers have found scoring difficult. Jabo Ibehre has four goals so far and Ian Henderson has three, and Colchester average just a goal a game, which is always cause for concern. Colchester are in a bad way, and if things don’t improve they could very well be heading back to League 2 after eight years away.

CarlisleD- – Greg Abbott’s side are in deep trouble, and they could easily go down this year. Last season Carlisle finished a very respectable 8th, but the sale of star player Francois Zoko to Notts County meant a repeat this time round was unlikely. But there’s no way they could have predicted such a difficult season. It was the Cumbrians’ dreadful defence which cost them a play-off spot last season, but this year Carlisle have been chronic at the back. They have the worst defensive record in the league and have kept just one clean sheet in their first 22 games. United’s back four have been truly diabolical, but they’ve received little protection from the midfield. The defensive catastrophe puts a lot of pressure on forwards to counterbalance. 28 goals is a decent return for a team fighting relegation, but when the defence is so poor, there’s only so much the forwards can do. Carlisle will go down if Abbott can’t solve the defensive crisis.

PortsmouthE- – It’s never dull at Fratton Park, and this season possibly been the craziest so far in Portsmouth’s fight for stability. After relegation from the Championship the entire professional playing staff was forced out of the club in order to keep Portsmouth FC in business. Since then Pompey have relied on academy products, short term contracts and loans from other clubs. At first the team struggled to adapt, but towards the end of September Michael Appleton got his team to function. But Appleton, fatigued by off-field matters interfering with his coaching, left Portsmouth in November to take over at Championship Blackpool. Caretaker boss, Guy Wittingham, is still waiting for a first win in charge, but the club seems doomed to another relegation. They remain in administration and a 10 point deduction seems inevitable at some point in the season. Though good players such as Scott Allen, Ákos Buzsáky, Gyepes Gábor and Luke Rodgers have represented the club this season, and Izale McLeod has netted 10 times in the league already, the team doesn’t look unified. Portsmouth’s fans are taking control of the club’s finances, and it’s the club’s existence which matters most to them at the moment. On the field, relegation appears to be unavoidable.

BuryD- – Losing manager, Richie Barker, to Crawley shortly before the first game of the season was a bitter blow and it momentarily sent the Gigg Lane club into turmoil. Former Leeds and Sheffield United manager, Kevin Blackwell, took over from caretaker manager, Peter Shirtliff, eight winless games into the season. It wasn’t until October 23 that the Shakers recorded their first victory, with goals from Tom Hooper and David Worrall enough to defeat Hartlepool. They followed up this result with three wins in five games. They haven’t won yet in December but hope has been restored after a dreadful start. Steven Schumacher is still the leader of the team and an important influence as Bury try to drag themselves out of the mire. There are some very poor sides at the foot of the table, and Bury are by no means doomed.

ScunthorpeE – After a disappointing season last year, the Iron were hoping for a much stronger campaign from Alan Knill’s boys. What they got was a dreadful set of results and a managerial change. Four straight defeats at the start of the season set alarm bells ringing and although Scunthorpe recorded two wins and two draws in their next four games, the poor form soon returned and Alan Knill was sacked with the club third from bottom. Former manager, Brian Laws, took over and when he won his first two games, it appeared as though everything would better from then on. But since then, Scunthorpe have lost three games, including a damaging defeat against relegation rivals Bury. The 1-3 victory at Leyton Orient on December 15 gives Scunthorpe slight cause for optimism, but it still looks like being a very tough season. They’ve only taken six points at Glanford Park this season, and only Carlisle have conceded more goals in the division. Brian Laws has a tough job on his hands.

HartlepoolF- – Nightmares don’t get any worse than the one Hartlepool are suffering at the moment. With just one win and nine points in their first 22 games, the Monkey Hangers must already be preparing for life in League 2. Neale Cooper lost his job towards the end of October with the club rooted to the foot of the table. His replacement was John Hughes, who has improved the style of play at Hartlepool, but if anything the results have worsened. Hughes has picked up a solitary point since his arrival; a 1-1 away at Walsall. Hartlepool have by far the worst squad in the division, with a porous defence and strikers who can’t seem to score. 15 goals in 22 games is an appalling record by anybody’s standards, and they’ve only kept two clean sheets all season. As things stand the Pools don’t look confident or spirited enough to win games. They’re almost guaranteed to go down, and they’re doing it embarrassingly.