Tag Archives: League 1

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.

 football league

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.

Bournemouth’s Eddie shows Howe it’s done

The disappointment which accompanied Bournemouth’s draw away at Premier League Wigan on Saturday says a lot about the Cherries’ improvement since the return of Eddie Howe as manager.

Bournemouth were denied a memorable FA Cup victory at the DW Stadium by a 70th minute Jordi Gomez equaliser. Former Torquay man, Eunan O’Kane, put the visitors ahead with a blistering first half effort, but they couldn’t hold on and will now have to face Wigan again on January 15.

But Bournemouth won’t fear Roberto Martinez’s team when they visit Dean Court, after all, they are unbeaten since Eddie Howe rejoined the club in mid-October.

Howe’s arrival after nearly two years at Burnley triggered a turnaround which has lifted the Cherries from the League 1 relegation zone to the edge of the play-off spots. Now fans and players alike are targeting promotion to the second tier for the first time since Harry Redknapp’s era, over two decades ago.

Bournemouth's Eddie Howe feels at home at Dean Court

Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe feels at home at Dean Court

The first time round

Howe shot to prominence during his first spell in charge on the South coast. Then the youngest manager in the Football League at 31 years old, he led unfancied Bournemouth to promotion from League 2 in his first full season.

The following season, despite fierce competition and a miniscule budget, Bournemouth flourished in League 1. However halfway through the season Howe broke Cherries fans’ hearts by moving to Championship Burnley.

Howe was universally adored at Dean Court and fans believed he’d accomplished miracles during his time at the helm. But the events of the second half of the season raised questions about Howe’s ability.

Bournemouth, under the leadership of striker Lee Bradbury, went on to reach the play-offs, agonisingly losing their semi-final against Huddersfield on penalties. Howe on the other hand had an inconsistent and largely unspectacular time at Burnley.

Throughout his tenure at Turf Moor, Howe failed to build momentum and Burnley were stranded in mid-table. People quickly forgot about his feats at Bournemouth and much of the earlier buzz surrounding the young manager evaporated.

Fast-forward to October 2012 and Burnley were once again threatening to push for a play-off spot, but were looking unconvincing. Bournemouth on the other hand had won one of their first 11 games, and appeared to be in deep trouble.

Howe made an extremely brave decision to leave the comfort and safety of Championship Burnley, so that he could drop down a division for a battle against the drop at his old club.

The second coming

His gamble looks to have paid off spectacularly.

Ten wins, four draws and no losses have catapulted Bournemouth from the relegation zone to 7th, level on points with the MK Dons, and outside the top six on goal-difference. In the 14 league games played since Howe’s arrival, the Cherries have scored 31 goals and they’ve now kept four straight clean-sheets in the league.

Howe’s inspired the players and got them playing some stylish and intelligent football. The current Bournemouth team, with its vibrancy, confidence and audacity, seems unrecognisable compared to the stuttering, goal-shy outfit which slipped into the bottom four in October.

One of the main ways Howe’s achieved success is by getting the best out of his big names and big personalities.

Summer signing, Lewis Grabban, has been netting regularly for Bournemouth, and he’s hit the kind of form which got him recognised at Rotherham. Other attack-minded players have also raised their games substantially, including Eunan O’Kane, Marc Pugh and highly-rated Harry Arter.

Other experienced figures such as Simon Francis and Miles Addison have played well, while the presence of veterans Steve Fletcher and David Jamesin the dressing room has benefited the young manager.

Another masterstroke was the decision to bring Brett Pitman back to the club. Pitman was a key player in Howe’s first spell at the Dean Court helm, and in December he was brought in on loan from Bristol City, where he’s struggled for form. He’s since scored three goals and signed a permanent deal with Bournemouth.

Perhaps a promotion?

Howe has reminded the football world why he generated such hype during his first spell in charge at Bournemouth.

Attendances are up substantially, and there’s a belief Bournemouth can bypass the play-offs altogether, and finish in the top two. They’re the form team in League 1 and opponents are dreading their visits to Dean Court, where the Cherries have lost just once all season.

Howe’s time at Burnley will be judged a failure because he never managed to ignite excitement at the club, and never looked like getting the Clarets promoted.

Howe seems at home on the South coast, and after his unsuccessful venture in Lancashire, he will probably be less willing to leave Bournemouth this time round. He knows and understands the club having spent a total of 15 years at Bournemouth as a player and manager.

Howe’s affinity with the club is key to his success, and under the former player’s management, Bournemouth could undoubtedly challenge the top two this season. Howe’s returned to the club to finish a job he started in 2008 and the second coming has provoked the question, Howe far can Eddie take Bournemouth?

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.

Can John Hughes save Hartlepool?

If there’s one club in the Football League that needs a lift it’s Hartlepool United.

The beleaguered Monkey Hangers are rock bottom of League 1, six points off 23rd place Shrewsbury and nine points off safety. The club’s only league win this season came on September 1 against Scunthorpe and on October 24 manager Neale Cooper resigned.

Phil Brown, Colin Cooper and even Sven Goran Eriksson were considered by the Pools but in the end they chose Livingston manager John Hughes.

Hughes has been linked with Hartlepool before and with the club in dire straits he’s decided to join. His only previous experience of working in the English league came at Swansea where he spent a short spell as a player in the 90s. He later went on to play for Celtic, Hibs and Falkirk in Scotland.

His managerial career has been mixed. He began as player-manager at Falkirk in 2003, hanging up his boots in 2005 after winning Scottish Division One and the Challenge Cup. In the SPL they overachieved and in the cups they excelled, finishing as Scottish Cup runners-up to Rangers in 2009 and qualifying twice for the Europa League. Hughes’ Falkirk team were highly praised, not just for their comparatively high league finishes, but also for their aesthetically pleasing passing style.

In 2009 Hughes left Falkirk to join his hometown club, Hibernian. The Edinburgh club expected great things from Hughes, and the Scottish media looked forward to seeing Hughes prove himself at a bigger club. His first season ended in Europa League qualification and a 4th place finish, six points ahead of hated rivals Hearts. His second season started poorly and the fans quickly turned on his bungling side when it became apparent Hibs were in a relegation battle.

He’s been at Livingston for less than a year and in that time he’s struggled to motivate the team. Livingstone are thought to have one of the best squads in the division but they’re currently stuck in mid-table.

In truth, although Hartlepool are in huge trouble at the foot of League 1, the manager’s job has become available at a good time for Hughes. Thing had gone stale in Scotland and Livingston fans were ambivalent about his departure. It was now or never if he was going to test himself in England.

What can he do?

So what awaits Hughes at Hartlepool? Probably the biggest challenge of his football career.

Morale is predictably low and Hartlepool have huge problems at both ends of the pitch.

In most games this season the Pools defence has looked decidedly shaky and increasingly nervous. Only Carlisle have conceded more goals and the Hartlepool defence has developed a worrying trend of dropping too deep and panicking whenever their opponents are on the ball.

The defenders’ jobs are made harder by a midfield that struggles to hold onto the ball and lacks any sort of creativity.

When midfielders aren’t creating chances, life is difficult for the strikers. Life is particularly difficult for Hartlepool’s mishmash strike-force. Youngsters Franks and Poole have seriously struggled for confidence in a losing team and veteran Steve Howard, back at his first club, has looked way past his sell-by date.

Will he be able to save Hartlepool from relegation?

Hughes is a manager that’s often spoken about long-term aims and building success over several seasons. This was how he flourished at Falkirk, and it may explain why he didn’t last at Hibernian or Livingston. But Hartlepool don’t need a long-term project, they need a quick fix. They need results to change drastically before they lose sight of the other 23 teams in the division.

I don’t give Hartlepool much hope for the rest of the season. They have one of the worst squads in the division and their league position is a fair reflection of their performances. More than anything I don’t see any individual in the squad that can raise their game and lead the charge towards safety.

I wish John Hughes all the best because as a football purist that encourages passing football, he’s the kind of man we need to see working in the Football League. Unfortunately I don’t think he’ll have enough time to turn things around at Hartlepool and save them from relegation.

FA Cup 1st round special

League 1 and 2 is off this weekend due to the 1st round of the FA Cup and we’re all waiting patiently for some giant-killings!

Every year a host of league clubs make uncomfortable journeys to cramped, rusty old non-league grounds, hoping they can overcome the bumpy pitches and excitable fans in order to book their spot in the next round.

But it just wouldn’t be the FA Cup without the odd upset. Therefore I’ve trawled the fixture list, looking through the league vs non-league fixtures for some quirky stories and possible upsets.

 And please feel comment on any of these previews and whether or not you agree with my upset ratings.

Cambridge City vs MK Dons                         Upset Rating: 4/10

The Friday night game will be televised on ESPN, proving the media smell a possible upset in this game. The Dons are desperate to get promoted this season and the Cup’s unlikely to be a priority for manager Karl Robinson. Unusually for the aesthetically pleasing MK Dons, they’ve struggled for goals this season. However, Cambridge City (not to be confused with former league outfit United) are also struggling at the moment. Languishing 16th in the Southern League, they’ll need all the help they can get in this one. Home advantage might just be enough to get them the replay, but I think the Dons will have too much for City on this occasion.     

Hereford vs Shrewsbury                               Upset Rating: 5/10

Despite the two local rivals exiting League 2 in differing directions last season, the derby’s back. Neither club’s set the world alight in their new leagues and the Cup will be a chance to get a confidence boost. Expect a highly-charged, competitive derby, but I see Shrewsbury’s superior skill winning it for them. Expect drama!                       

Aldershot vs Hendon                     Upset Rating: 5/10

Aldershot have had a dreadful start to the season and Hendon will be boosted by the fact the Shots have only won once at home this season. However a light has recently appeared at the end of the Aldershot tunnel with a win and a draw ending their run of seven straight losses. Hendon aren’t doing too well either, 20th in the Isthmian League. They need to travel with confidence and determination. A few tasty tackles early on could unnerve Dean Holdsworth’s low-scoring side and make things interesting. Don’t rule out a replay in this one.                        

Carlisle vs Ebbsfleet                        Upset Rating: 5/10

Carlisle have struggled for consistency this season and manager Gregg Abbott’s emphasised the on and off-field importance of the Cup. Carlisle have hit poor form recently, but Ebbsfleet have only won three games all season. They’re capable of scoring against the Cumbrians, but the seriousness with which Abbott views this contest suggests Carlisle will want to get the job done.                           

Chelmsford vs Colchester            Upset Rating: 6/10

A meeting between two of the competition’s form teams, and this could also be classed as a derby with just 23 miles separating the two clubs. Chelmsford are 2nd in the Blue Square South and they have FA Cup pedigree; they’re aiming to reach the second round for the third season in a row. The confident Claret Army will be out in force and will be buzzing with confidence. On the other hand Colchester have suffered just one loss in seven games and are charging up the League  1 table. Despite Colchester’s hot form, this is the kind of opponent that causes problems for league clubs.             

Cheltenham vs Yate                        Upset Rating: 3/10

Yate are the lowest ranked side left in the competition, but don’t be fooled by the fact they’re bottom of the Evostik Southern League Division One South and West. In the last round they incredibly beat Blue Square Premier leaders Newport County in a replay. They’re plucky, they’re brave and they’re ready to take advantage of any Cheltenham complacency. Cheltenham should have too much for the beautifully nicknamed Bluebells. But everything we know about the Cup says that this is one to watch.                                                             

Coventry vs Arlesey                        Upset Rating: 4/10

When the first round draw was being made many non-league clubs would have hoped for an away tie at Coventry and it was Arlesey that got it. The Southern League side will travel to the impressive Ricoh Arena in high spirits and whatever the result, it’s likely to be an unforgettable day out for everybody connected with the club. But don’t rule out a replay in this tie. Coventry have only won once at home this season and though Mark Robins looks to be slowly turning things around at the Ricoh, there are still signs of fragility.                             

Doncaster vs Bradford Park Avenue        Upset Rating: 4/10

It’s a Yorkshire derby at the Keepmoat on Saturday as Rovers welcome Bradford PA. Bradford Park Avenue were once a league club until financial problems led to their expulsion from the league and eventual liquidation. They reformed but unlike clubs like AFC Wimbledon, FC United, and even Chester FC their climb back up the leagues has been slow and arduous. Nevertheless they hope to gain promotion to the Blue Square Premier this season. They’ll face a Doncaster team in great form, and it’ll take a monumental effort to beat them.                 

Forest Green vs Port Vale                            Upset Rating: 7/10

Forest Green Rovers aren’t your typical football club. They’re striving to become the world’s first organic football club. The stadium food’s completely vegetarian, the lawnmower’s solar-powered and the Chairman’s an eco-activist. However the formula seems to be working pretty well as Forest Green currently occupy a play-off spot in the Blue Square Premier. They’re playing well this season and targeting promotion to League 2. Port Vale on the other hand are looking to leave League 2 and return to League 1 under Mickey Adams. Vale look like a good bet for promotion, but away against tough opposition, this could be very interesting.                           

Fleetwood vs Bromley                   Upset Rating: 3/10

This is the first ever meeting between these two sides. Fleetwood have taken to life in League 2 like a cod to water (see what I did there). Last season they reached the third round where they were knocked out by local rivals Blackpool. They enjoy the Cup, but will know from personal experience that it’s unwise to underestimate lower league opponents. Bromley are adapting steadily to life in the Blue Square Premier and currently sit 16th in the table. Fleetwood’s confidence and superior skill, combined with home advantage should see them through.                   

Kidderminster vs Oldham             Upset Rating: 4/10

If you want proof of how tough the transition from league to non-league can be, take a look at Kidderminster Harriers. Since their relegation from League 2 in 2005 the Worcestershire club have struggled financially and now find themselves depressingly 21st in the Blue Square Premier. Oldham’s results have been inconsistent this season and just like last term goals are in short supply. This could be a tight one, and who knows, if Kidderminster approach the game in the right frame of mind they might get a valuable replay.                            

Lincoln vs Walsall                              Upset Rating: 3/10

Much like Kidderminster, Lincoln haven’t adapted to life outside the Football League. They’re currently 19th in the Blue Square Premier and battling against relegation. The Cup could provide some much-needed relief for the Imps but their record in the FA Cup hasn’t been good of late. Walsall are having their best season in years, playing entertaining, passing football on a limited budget. Lincoln will do very well to get a replay from this game.                      

Met Police vs Crawley                    Upset Rating: 2/10

It’ll be a very unusual feeling for the Met Police to have the neutrals on their side for a change. This is the first time the Met have reached the first round since 1993 and they’ve never gone beyond this stage of the competition.  They’re one of the lowest ranked teams left in the Cup and they’ll be facing a team that has its sights set on the Championship. Crawley know what it takes to succeed in the Cup as underdogs. Two years ago they narrowly lost at Old Trafford against Man Utd as a non-league team. Crawley’s rise has been phenomenal and they ooze professionalism and organisation. I can’t see the Met Police causing Crawley too many problems.                              

Southend vs Stockport                  Upset Rating: 7/10

Times have been tough for Stockport. They’ve had numerous brushes with bankruptcy and are lucky to remain in existence. But for the first time in years the club could be on the up. They’ve ended their ground-share agreement with Sale Sharks, meaning the rugby team no longer play at Edgeley Park and on the field they’re starting to play some good football. Their unflattering 11th place standing in the Blue Square Premier masks the good football they’ve been playing recently. Southend have been inconsistent this season and if they’re not careful they’ll be spending this season trapped in mid-table. Stockport could spring a surprise here.                           

Swindon vs Macclesfield               Upset Rating: 4/10

Last season this was a League 2 fixture. But this weekend’s fixture will see 7th place in League 1 taking on 7th place in the Blue Square Premier. Macclesfield have reacted admirably to relegation and haven’t been overwhelmed by the culture shock. Swindon under Paolo Di Canio have excelled in Cup competitions and last year they eliminated Wigan Athletic. Di Canio takes this competition very seriously. Although they may still be slightly tired physically and emotionally from their last gasp defeat to Premier League Villa on Tuesday, Swindon will in my opinion beat Macclesfield.         

Torquay vs Harrogate                     Upset Rating: 1/10

Harrogate’s preparations for this game can’t be ideal. After all they only qualified for the 1st Round on Wednesday night after winning a replay against Hyde in Extra Time. This means player-manager Simon Weaver will have just two whole days to prepare for his team’s game against Torquay. Add to that the fact that Harrogate now have one of the longest journeys in this round, plus the inevitable fatigue following the extra-time victory against Hyde and the Blue Square North side clearly have a mountain to climb. Torquay, currently 7th in league 2 and unbeaten at home, probably can’t believe their luck. I can’t see any hope for the Yorkshiremen. This should be Torquay’s most comfortable victory of the season.                                    

Braintree vs Tranmere                   Upset Rating: 4/10

Shamefully this is the only game being shown on terrestrial TV this weekend. Sunday’s clash sees League 1 table-toppers Tranmere travel to Blue Square Premier strugglers Braintree. Nobody on Earth expected Tranmere to be where they are in the league, but the team deserve to be where they are. However the last few games have been more difficult for Ronnie Moore’s men and Braintree, in front of the ITV cameras, will look to take advantage. They’ll raise their game for the cameras and this game will be difficult for Tranmere. It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on events at Cressing Road.                                     

Burton vs Altrincham                      Upset Rating: 3/10

Burton will have to keep an eye out for Damian Reeves against Altrincham. The striker’s in red hot form at the moment and already has 16 league goals to his name this season. On the other hand Burton have been formidable at home this season with only one loss so far. They’re a tough nut to crack and Altrincham will have to come up with something pretty special to beat Burton on Sunday. The quality gap should see Burton win this one comfortably but with a player like Reeves on the loose don’t rule out a shock.                      

Gloucester vs Leyton Orient       Upset Rating: 6/10

The Orient bus driver will undoubtedly be questioning his directions this weekend because Orient’s away game against Blue Square North side Gloucester is being played in Cheltenham’s Whaddon Road. Gloucester haven’t played at their home ground, Meadow Park, since it was submerged in 8 feet of water in 2007. The flooded stadium’s insurance skyrocketed and City had to look elsewhere and they now groundshare with Cheltenham. This is the first time in the club’s 129 year history that they’ve made it to the 1st round of the FA Cup and everybody connected with the club is ecstatic. Orient will be nervous before travelling to Cheltenham. They currently hover just above the League 1 relegation zone and probably won’t view the cup as a great priority. This one could possibly end in an upset.               

Dorchester vs Plymouth               Upset Rating: 4/10

Cornwall isn’t known for its football. It’s the only English county that’s never been represented in the Football League and the only footballer of note to come from the Celtic outpost in recent times is former England goalie, Nigel Martyn. But Dorchester of the Blue Square South are hoping to put Cornwall on the football map with a derby win over League 2 Devonians, Plymouth. One man in particular will be looking forward to the game. Sam Malsom was let go by Plymouth as a teenager but instead of dropping into non-league, he pursued his dreams abroad and played in the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Sweden before returning to the West Country. Aged just 24 he’s already played for clubs in four different countries. He’ll be looking to show Plymouth what they missed out on. It would really be befitting of the cup’s romance if cute Dorchester can pull off a win in this one.