Oxford United (12th Place)
It’s been a frustratingly inconsistent season for Oxford United thus far. There have been signs that the squad assembled by Michael Appleton has the ability to push on into the play-off hunt, but not on a consistent enough basis to escape the moorings of mid-table. Inconsistencies in tactics, team selections, as well as the form of several individual players had made it hard for Oxford to build that all-important launch pad towards the top six.
This is a fairly strong squad with Chris Maguire orchestrating things in attack, the pace of Rob Hall and Marvin Johnson (currently playing at left-back) out wide, the powerful Kane Hemmings in attack and John Lundstram sitting deep in midfield screening the defence and helping build attacks. However, some defensive lapses and a lack of cohesion at times up front has held the U’s back. They are by no means outside of the play-off hunt, but they require a big improvement over the next few months to make up the ground.
AFC Wimbledon (13th Place)
A month or so ago, AFC Wimbledon looked like dark horses for a top six finish, however some poor form over the festive period has seen them drop back into mid-table. With the impressive Neal Ardley in charge, Wimbledon have managed to maintain the core of a promotion-winning squad from last season while adding that extra touch of quality to establish themselves at a higher level. Aggressive and physical, but with the ability to mix things up from time-to-time, AFC Wimbledon will always give any team in this division a tough game.
The summer signings of forward Dominic Poleon and midfielder Dean Parrett have proven to be revelations. Poleon looks like he’s added that all-important final product to the searing pace that he possesses, while Dean Parrett’s set-pieces have been a valuable source of goals for Neal Ardley’s side. In addition, the ungainly target-man Tom Elliott has discovered a rich vein of scoring form this season, having played a fairly minor role last time out. With the spirit and quality in the squad, it’s hard to see them being overly affected by some disappointing recent results.
Walsall (14th Place)
Are Walsall a poor side over-performing? Or a good side under-performing? That’s the question that many Saddlers fans will have been asking themselves for much of this season. Despite losing the core of a team that finished in third last season, the summer signings of Erhun Oztumer, Franck Moussa and record transfer Andreas Makris signalled that Walsall were looking to quickly rebuild. There is the feeling around the club that the manager, Jon Whitney, is not getting the best out of the squad at his disposal.
Whether that’s a fair criticism or not is up for debate, it was always going to be difficult to deal with such a large turnover of players, however, Whitney has named some very odd teams at times this season. Unless Walsall drop into the relegation battle, Whitney probably won’t be under serious pressure to save his job. With Erhun Oztumer producing moments of inspiration in the final third, and keeper Neil Etheridge bailing the team out at times, there’s enough about them to keep Whitney in the job, for now.
Port Vale (15th Place)
For much of this season, Port Vale looked to have been defying the pre-season expectation that signing a load of foreign players with no experience of English football would prove to be a disastrous idea. Although their excellent start to the season was fueled by young, English talent in the centre-back pairing of Nathan Smith and Remie Streete, with Alex Jones banging the goals in up front, Port Vale’s grand experiment looked to be working.
However, the manager, Bruno Ribeiro, struggled to find a formula for away wins and as soon as teams started beating them at home, Vale dropped like a stone. Ribeiro resigned on Boxing Day, with chairman Norman Smurthwaite essentially accusing him of lying about his ability to bring in loan players from his friends at Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United, and Michael Brown has stepped into the breach on a caretaker basis. Brown appears to have steadied the ship for now and is likely to get the job until the end of the season, there should be able to avoid slipping into a relegation battle, but it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
Northampton Town (16th Place)
Northampton looked to have overcome the potential hammer-blow of losing manager Chris Wilder in the summer, along with key midfielders Ricky Holmes and Danny Rose. Rob Page did an excellent job in the first few of months of the season in maintaining an element of solidity that they had last season in League Two while making a few smart additions to the squad in the form of wingers Matthew Taylor and Paul Anderson, and with big Alex Revell in attack.
Yet, things seem to have come unstuck over the past couple of months for the Cobblers as they have struggled to rediscover the consistency that they’d had at the start of the campaign. Rob Page’s cautious approach has meant they’ve struggled at home this season, which could become problematic if things don’t improve over the next month. They’re in danger of dropping into the relegation battle and Page may not last the season.
Gillingham (17th Place)
Having looked to have strengthened a squad over the summer that had narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season, Gillingham looked like a decent tip for promotion heading into the campaign. Not only that, but they had a smart, up-and-coming young manager in Justin Edinburgh who had shown that he could produce top-drawer performances from a relatively unheralded group of players.
Perhaps that is why things went wrong for Gillingham and Edinburgh over the first half of the season, the big egos of Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Paul Konchesky and the quickly-departed Jamie O’Hara went against the policy of attempting to polish rough diamonds that the club had pursued in the seasons before. Edinburgh has paid for this failure with his job and has quickly been replaced by former Forest Green manager Ady Pennock, which seems an odd move given the other names linked to the job. If the gamble on Pennock doesn’t work out, Gillingham are in relegation danger.
MK ‘Dons’ (18th Place)
For many, MK ‘Dons’ entered the season as one of the promotion favourites thanks to the stability and style of play offered by the then-long-incumbent manager Karl Robinson. However, that promotion from this level two years ago is starting to look like something of an outlier from several seasons of mediocrity the club had been through in the years prior. A poor start to the campaign, especially at home, where the team lacked a presence both in attack and defence saw Robinson pay the price with his job with MK ‘Dons’ in a relegation battle.
Robbie Neilson was surprisingly tempted away from his job at Hearts but it yet to make much of an impact thus far. Although his Hearts side were accused of being overly physical and cynical in Scotland, Neilson appears to have kept to the template of fast, passing football in his first weeks in charge. The next month could be where Neilson begins to attempt to assert his own blue print on the club. With players like Kieran Agard, Chuks Aneke and Ben Reeves in attack, they should push on into a comfortable mid-table spot come the season’s end.