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Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final preview: Crewe vs Southend

Southend and Crewe both go into Sunday’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final looking to win the competition for the first time.

Crewe and Southend fans are looking forward to walking down Wembley Way on Sunday.

Crewe and Southend fans are looking forward to walking down Wembley Way on Sunday.

Both go into the game knowing where they’re likely to be playing next season. Crewe are by now 17 points clear of the League 1 relegation zone, and loving life in the top half of the table, while Southend’s draw at home against Fleetwood on Easter Monday further damaged their League 2 play-off hopes.

The Essex club were runners-up in this competition for two seasons in a row, losing both finals the Millennium Stadium in 2004 and 2005, but Sunday will be their first ever appearance in a Wembley final. Southend have already sold over 30,000 tickets for the final, meaning they look set to break the record for the most number of Southend fans at a game, which was set in a 1979 match against Liverpool.

Crewe fans are visiting Wembley for the second time in less than a year, and they return with very happy memories from their last visit. Last May the Railwaymen beat Cheltenham 2-0 in the League 2 play-off final, and despite losing big names in the summer they have succeeded in League 1 thanks to some shrewd signings and their traditional, passing and attacking style of play.

In order to qualify for Wembley in 2012 the Alex beat Southend on aggregate in the semi-finals. Now the Shrimpers are looking for revenge.

Sturrock

The biggest story in the build-up to Sunday’s final has been Southend’s maddening managerial situation. Paul Sturrock has had to struggle with financial troubles and on-field heartaches in his three years at Southend, but having led the team to Wembley he was dismissed by the club.

Bizarrely, despite being sacked he was offered the chance to lead the team out at the national stadium but Sturrock kept his dignity and showed self-respect by refusing the offer.

He will be sat in the stands on Sunday among the fans while the new boss, former Hull and Preston manager Phil Brown takes charge of the team. It’s a strange situation to say the least but just like his Crewe counterpart Steve Davis, the tanned Geordie knows what it takes to win at Wembley, having managed Hull to a Championship play-off final win in 2008.

Teams

Crewe are undoubtedly pre-match favourites. They are one of the form teams in League 1 with just one loss in their last six games, and they have been playing entertaining football throughout the season. They have a technical midfield and strikers who can grab a goal, not least Mathias Pogba, who is a contender for signing of the season in League 1. Mathias, who is the brother of Juventus’s Paul Pogba, joined the club from Wrexham in the summer, where he had impressed the previous season, and has taken to League 1 like a duck to water.

Crewe are favourites but their defence will give Southend hope. They have only kept two clean sheets in their last 15 games and although they’re not leaking hundreds of goals, they struggle to last 90 minutes without conceding.

Southend are off form going into the final, with just two wins in their last 12 games. But in Congolese striker Britt Assombalonga they have a player who can change a game in the blink of an eye. The youngster is on loan from Watford and has impressed massively while at the Shrimpers. His strike partner Gavin Tomlin is also one to keep an eye on for the Crewe defence.

Central midfielder Bilel Mohsni is vital for Southend. The temperamental Tunisian has a reputation as an unreliable player, capable of breath-taking brilliance as well as baffling stupidity. He is as likely to put in a mesmerising performance on Sunday as he is to get sent off. His partner Tamika Mkandawire needs to be forceful in the midfield battle if Southend are to get a foothold in Wembley’s wide open spaces. Paul Smith in goal is as dependable as any keeper in League 2.

Prediction

The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final tends to guarantee goals and excitement. The 2013 final should be no different.

It is likely to be a tight game, with chances for both sides. But Steve Davis’s team will relish playing on the Wembley turf, and the large pitch should favour their expansive style of play. I expect the League 1 team to triumph on Sunday and win the trophy for the first time in the club’s history.

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.