Book Review: 29 Minutes From Wembley

Picture this, an exciting but inconsistent Coventry City side, puts a cup run together, the whole city gets excited, crushing disappointment, the team gets dismantled soon after.

It’s a narrative that we’ve grown accustomed to in recent times supporting this club, which makes Steve Phelps latest book on the 1980/81 season at Coventry City a reminder that, long before the days of SISU, the Ricoh Arena, and the Premier League, it’s been a common part of the club’s history.

For that Coventry City vintage, the League Cup semi-final defeat to West Ham – in crushing circumstances after clawing back a 2-0 deficit during the first leg – was the zenith of their time at their club. 29 Minutes From Wembley is about is how that team came together, found their feet at first-team level, came so close to delivering the club’s first-ever visit to Wembley, and then moved on before they could achieve more tangible success at Coventry City.

Perhaps overshadowed by the 1987 FA Cup winning side, 29 Minutes From Wembley brings to light the story of arguably a more gifted and exciting set of players. As someone unfamiliar with the 1980/81 vintage, Mark Hateley was the most recognisable name to me. What Steve Phelps’ narrative illustrates though was that this  was a side brimming with talent (many of whom having been handed top-flight debuts as teenagers by the club) such as Garry Thompson and Tommy English alongside Hateley in attack, the enigmatic Peter Bodak out wide, the destroyer/ball-player pairing of Paul Dyson and Gary Gillespie, the exciting Danny Thomas at full-back and the colourful Les Sealey in goal. It was a real conveyor belt of talent with the then-manager Gordon Milne fearless in his faith in young talent.

Through a series of interviews with members of the 1980/81 squad, Steve Phelps provides a pitch-level experience of that season. There’s a clear sense that this was a group of players who enjoyed playing together and made life-long friends while playing for Coventry City, which is refreshing to discover.

It would be easy for the story of 29 Minutes From Wembley to slip into pure nostalgia, but Steve Phelps doesn’t shy away from the difficulties off-the-pitch – both in the boardroom and the rising unemployment in the West Midlands in the early 80’s – that provided the economic imperative behind the eventual disintegration of the 1980/81 side. From the need to generate money via shirt sponsorship and a doomed venture in the North American Soccer League, to the issues of hooliganism and the fickleness of the Highfield Road crowd, this is also the story of English football going through the early stages of modernisation.

While this isn’t the tale of glory, 29 Minutes From Wembley brings to life, warts and all, of the story of an almost-forgotten Coventry City side that was so close to not just one moment of greatness, but an era of success.

’29 Minutes From Wembley: The Inside Story of Coventry City’s 1980/81 Season’ can be bought from Amazon, or wherever else you get your books from.

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Another Manager

There can be no defending of Russell Slade’s record as manager at Coventry City. He was supposed to come in and quickly grind out the results required to keep us in the division, he won one of 13 league games in charge. What’s more, the performances were of a low standard and offered little hope that things could improve to an acceptable enough level to merit entrusting him with rebuilding the club over the summer.

However, we’ve Slade wasn’t really sacked for the results and performances, per se, he was sacked because his replacement had already been sourced. As shambolic as it is to sack a manager after 13 games, having the replacement already lined up at least partially demonstrates the kind of decisiveness behind the scenes that has been lacking over the past 18 months.

It begs the question of why this kind of move couldn’t have been made when there was still a realistic chance of survival? It’s not only looking back in December when Slade was appointed, but also the months beforehand when Mark Venus was in caretaker charge of the club, or even the period at the start of the season where it looked like Tony Mowbray was unable to get results with this team. It was the right decision to sack Slade, but it’s one that had to be made after a series of more meaningful poor decisions.

The upshot of it all is that we’ve appointed a new manager to oversee the rebuilding of the club in a lower division, where there’s the conceivable threat of dropping into non-league. Not only that, but the lack of leadership and a sense of a vision at the club this season has led to acrimony between the club and the fans, which has further put the club’s future in jeopardy. It’s why it’s hard to congratulate the club on bringing back a manager who was statistically our best ever.

It’s also worth considering that we’re not bringing back the Mark Robins who left the club so acrimoniously four years ago. Back in 2013, he was someone who had earned a job at an up-and-coming Championship club on merit. In 2017, after two failed managerial spells at Huddersfield and Scunthorpe, he’s exactly the kind of manager a struggling League One club would appoint.

Not only that, but there were clear signs towards the end of his first spell at the club that a collapse in form was imminent. Robins’ cautious approach tended to work well away from home when we hit teams on the counter-attack, against teams looking to the same against us at the Ricoh Arena, we were starting to run into issues. The sense that Robins is a short-term manager who struggles to maintain consistency over the course of a league season has been backed up by his two previous managerial postings.

That being said, Robins has tended to be a canny operator in the transfer market, having laid the foundations not only for the team that started the season at Sixfields so well but also putting together the team at Scunthorpe that are currently pushing for automatic promotion (save for two or three key players). Given that we’re expecting another big turnover of players over the summer, I have more faith in Robins to build a team than I would any of our previous managers.

In the grander scheme of things, the identity of the manager right now probably counts for very little. It’s not pessimistic to suggest that attendances next season could be around 5,000-6,000, at best, that there’ll be a major exodus of talent over the summer, and that the squad will be strung together via a mixture of raw youngsters, loans and veterans.

At best, Mark Robins may help bring a sense of stability to the club as we head into a really difficult time. However, if we find some form next season, the club is set-up to lose talent without being able to replace it and it feels like any upturn will be short-lived. At worst, if Robins cannot make a reasonable impact at this club, it could really put the club in serious jeopardy.

Being manager of Coventry City is a high stakes game where the rewards are small and the pitfalls of failure are massive. Like in the game of Russian Roulette where you’re reward for surviving not shooting yourself in the head, is another chance to maybe not shoot yourself in the head. As a fan, there’s always a part of you that hopes that the next manager really changes things – maybe winning at Wembley or winning promotion from League Two would achieve that – but at this stage, we really need someone to show us first that they can do that before we believe in them.

What Difference Has Slade Made?

10 league games in to Russell Slade’s reign and we’ve finally managed a league victory, and although survival seems like a long distance away, it seems worth asking the question now whether Slade has actually improved the team and ultimately, whether we can expect further improvements between now and the end of the season.

10 league games is a good point to assess Russell Slade’s reign, as it’s more-or-less, the same amount as Tony Mowbray and Mark Venus had in charge – well, exactly the same amount as Mowbray, Venus had 12 games in charge. It allows us to take a look at how did the best with the squad, and who might be most accountable when relegation happens (aside from the owners, but this article isn’t about that).

The concisest way to look at this is to count how many points we’ve earned under each manager. Mowbray and Slade both took six points from the ten games they had in charge, while Mark Venus’ spell saw us take 13 points from 12 games. In that regard, Venus has been our best manager this season by some distance.

However, that doesn’t take into account underlying performances. There have been several occasions this season where it’s felt like we haven’t taken what we’ve deserved from games, while we’ve also helped ourselves to a few wins that we didn’t really have a right to, such is football. So the question then is which of our managers got performances that deserved to win games.

To calculate this I’ve taken the difference between the shots on target we’ve had in games versus the shots on target we’ve conceded. The games in which we’ve had more than one shot on target compared to our opponents is deemed a game we should have won, any game where it’s been even or one either way is deemed to have been a game we should have drawn.

It’s not a perfect metric to calculate whether a team deserved to win a game, considering that an effort that trickles into a keeper’s arms is considered a shot on target while a sitter smashed onto the post is considered not to have been on target. However, over a period of several games, it goes some way to representing how well a team has played.

Shot Difference Under Each Manager

Shot Difference Under Each Manager

During Mowbray’s ten games in charge, we should have taken eleven points. In particular, the Northampton and Shrewsbury home games both deserved wins, considering we took four and three extra shots on target than our opponents. We over-performed under Mark Venus, taking 13 points when we deserved 11. We’ve also over-performed under Slade, taking six points when we’ve only deserved three.

That stat should be particularly concerning regarding our chances for survival. We’ve consistently been out-shot by our opponents, and, by metric, we haven’t actually deserved to win a game under Slade. If we are to find the eight or nine wins we realistically need to survive under Slade, we’re going to have to improve by a significant amount.

Those stats also show how costly our inability to convert chances into goals under Tony Mowbray have been for our survival prospects. Overall, we should be on 35 points, which isn’t great, but would have meant we would currently be outside the relegation zone.

It’s a philosophical question more than anything. Is it better to be consistently unlucky in football, or is it better to nick points that you don’t deserve?

Over the short-term, it is probably good to be able to scrape results from bad performances, which is maybe a reason to be somewhat encouraged by Slade’s football. However, luck tends to even out over a longer period and you need to make sure you’re putting the odds in your favour.

Some other interesting shots stats to point out in comparing our three managers this season is looking at the individual attacking and defensive performances. Mowbray managed 0.6 goals per game, Venus 1.1 and Slade a round 1 goal per game. Not getting a goalscorer in early in the season seems to have been one of the biggest reasons why we didn’t get the points we deserved under Mowbray and thus, why we’re struggling now.

Attacking and Defensive Performances Under Our Three Managers

Attacking and Defensive Performances Under Our Three Managers

In terms of the amount of shots overall we’ve had per game, Mowbray managed 12.5, Venus 13.5 and Slade sticking out with just 7.2. However, we’ve been far more clinical under Slade than Mowbray or Venus, nearly 40% of the shots we’ve taken under Slade have been on target, which is nearly 10% better than both Mowbray and Venus, and 36% of the shots on target we’ve had under Slade have gone in, more than double what it was under Mowbray. This is probably why we took more points than we’ve deserved under Slade and why we didn’t under Mowbray, by creating better quality chances and then going on to take them.

Defensively though, we’ve gotten worse with each manager. Mowbray’s team conceded 1.2 goals per game, while Slade has us conceding a costly 1.9 per game – which is significant considering we’re only averaging one goal per game. For a defensive manager, that should have been where Slade made a real difference and if he’d been better able to tighten our defence. On the other hand, if we can quickly improve defensively, we have a formula for survival given our clinical nature in front of goal since Slade’s arrival.

Ultimately, Slade’s arrival has seen us become a worse team – we create fewer chances and we’re incredibly leaky defensively. We would do well not to read too much into the win over Gillingham, a game that could easily have lost given the number of chances we conceded. We’ve been a team that’s pretty much deserved to be around the relegation zone all season and we’ve gotten worse.

If we do survive, it would be truly remarkable, and not just because of our position in the division. On the bright side, there is a formula for survival, it just depends on our defence being able to consistently hold firm.

Half-Way Review

Overview

The season felt like it was starting several weeks too early for us with our opening game against Swindon Town feeling more like a pre-season friendly than a competitive fixture, given how many key spots in the starting XI needed to be filled. That lack of preparedness in time for the opening day was compounded by a grueling run of fixtures in August, as well as a series of transfer targets appearing to slip through our fingers.

Tony Mowbray almost seemed content to declare the first month of the season as a false-start, but the problem was that when this supposed actual start to the season came round in September, we still didn’t seem anywhere near ready. It quickly became apparent that we had an inexperienced team lack in a presence in every area of the pitch. Despite some fairly decent performances at times, that determination and nous to ensure the ball went into the opposing net rather than ours was clearly missing.

It was apparent long before Tony Mowbray resigned after the 2-2 draw with AFC Wimbledon that he had no idea how to mould the set of players he had assembled into a winning team. His refrain upon his resignation of ‘you can’t build a club off loans’ felt a dire warning about the state that the club was in, but was, at least partially, also an indictment of his his over-reliance on loan players during his 18-month spell at the club.

With no process seemingly in place to appoint a new manager, Mark Venus shuffled awkwardly into the fray as caretaker manager. His position on the board and lack of prior managerial experience meant that a sizeable number of fans were going to struggle to warm to him, but a convincing win away at Port Vale was a promising early sign.

Despite an improvement in results, it was only the performances away at Port Vale and at home to Oxford that truly merited victories. The home wins against Rochdale and Chesterfield were particularly unconvincing, with the opposition spurning some excellent chances before we managed to snatch a few chances on the break. Nevertheless, Venus’ decision to stick with a settled line-up looked to have allowed the team to build the understanding required to win narrow games.

However, that improved form was emphatically proven to be something of a mirage. A narrow loss at home to league leaders Scunthorpe saw Venus begin to tinker unnecessarily with the starting line-up, leading to a heavy defeat away at Oxford, before narrow, but dispiriting, defeats against Bolton and MK ‘Dons’ to end any sense of optimism that we might avoid a relegation battle this season.

An utterly embarrassing 4-0 to Cambridge United in the FA Cup was probably the end of Mark Venus’ prospects of landing the job on a permanent basis and December played out with a series of lacklustre and lifeless performances with the team devoid of confidence and in the knowledge that their manager didn’t want to be there.

The appointment of Russell Slade as Tony Mowbray’s replacement looks to have provided a lift, with the losing streak ended at Peterborough and 2-2 draw against Bolton in our last game that we were unfortunate not to win. Time will tell whether the improved performances will augur to a run to survival, but things are already looking more optimistic than they were a couple of weeks ago.

Who’s Played Well?

The only player who stands out as having played consistently well this season is Ben Stevenson. I remember watching him in in pre-season, the technical ability was clearly there but he struggled to cope with the physical side of the game and I thought he probably wasn’t quite ready for the first-team. Every game he’s played since then has defied that initial impression I had of him. It’s not just that he’s so technically adept, but it’s that he’s been able to screen the defence so well with his reading of the game in a physical division that has been especially remarkable. It’s been apparent that he’s simply a class above, and sadly it seems he’ll almost certainly leave this month with barely 20 first-team appearances to his name.

As for the others, no-one’s been anywhere near as convincing as Stevenson has been. Gael Bigirimana looked like a completely different player to the one he was last season when he came back in August, but he has reverted to type somewhat over the past few months and is now out of the team under Russell Slade. The since-departed Marvin Sordell was better than the modest pre-season expectations most had of him, but not to the degree that his departure is that much of a blow to the team.

Elsewhere, Andy Rose did really well when he returned from injury but hasn’t replicated that impact over the past month or so. He seems to be at his best when given licence to make late runs into the box, but Russell Slade appears to be playing him as the deeper-lying midfielder in a central two, which may limit his effectiveness. Jordan Willis seems to have gotten a lot of praise this season for a few decent performances, but I find it hard to believe many Championship clubs would be as keen on signing him as many seem to believe.

Who’s Been Rubbish?

If we do go down, the single biggest on-field decision to have contributed to it will have been Tony Mowbray’s call to replace Aaron Martin with Jordan Turnbull. He doesn’t dominate physically and he’s nervous on the ball, Turnbull has consistently cost us points with a series of basic errors. Mowbray let a solid and reliable League One centre-back go to bring in someone who, and this is being nice to him, still has a lot to learn.

The three key players that I identified in my season preview as being key for us heading into this season have all disappointed in different ways. Reice Charles-Cook was dropped from the side by Mark Venus having failed to build on some excellent performances towards the end of last season, and appears to be second-choice under Slade too. Jodi Jones looks a threatening player but makes poor decisions in the final third and is going to have to work hard to get back into the side. Then there’s Vladimir Gadzhev, a Bulgarian international who’s played in the Champions League, who just hasn’t looked up to the pace of English football.

What Do We Need To Survive?

It would be dangerous to read too much into a single performance, but the showing against Bolton, just one day after Russell Slade had made his first few moves in the transfer market, was highly encouraging. There seemed to have been an increase in intensity and the work-rate of the team, with Stuart Beavon in particular seeming to demonstrate the qualities Slade wants to bring to the side. That being said, Bolton’s two goals came from sloppy pieces of defending, which signals that there is still plenty of work still to be done by Slade.

With only one point, with a game in hand, separating us from safety, the improvements Slade needs to make shouldn’t have to be too drastic to ensure survival. If Nathan Clarke and Kevin Foley’s experience help tighten up the defence, that will go a long way to making the task ahead for us more straightforward. In attack, Stuart Beavon’s work-rate looks like it’s going to be a major asset, especially if he can sustain 90 minutes on a consistent basis, but we probably need a few reliable players in front of goal to benefit from Beavon’s selflessness.

With Ben Stevenson and Cian Harries looking likely to be sold, as well as the loan players returning to their parent clubs, we’re witnessing a very quick transformation in the identity of this team. We’re going from a very young team that, had Mowbray got his summer transfer business right, would have attacked this division with style and panache, to a more experienced and cautious set-up. Mowbray’s set-up had a thinner margin between success and failure, while Slade’s should at least ensure survival for a year or two, but not much better.

Slade’s appointment and machinations in the transfer market thus far seems to be an acceptance that we’re going to, hopefully, be a League One team for several years to come. It’s encouraging in the short-term of this survival battle and depressing for the longer-term that we’re selling our most talented youngsters at the earliest possible opportunity to bring in older players who’ll be of use for a season or two.

The focus right now at this football club is clearly not on the long-term, there is no plan to get out of this division, we don’t know where we’ll be playing after next season, and there’s a realistic prospect that there won’t be a club to support in a few years’ time. We should survive, and hopefully there’ll be some memories of good performances to be made along the way, but there’s this feeling in the pit of most Sky Blues fans’ stomachs that this might be some kind of last hurrah.

Half-Way Review: The Other 23 – The Relegation Scrap

Top Scorer: Jonathan Obika (3) Most Assists: Michael Doughty & Sean Murray (5)

Top Scorer: Jonathan Obika (3)
Most Assists: Michael Doughty & Sean Murray (5)

Swindon Town (19th Place)

It seems a long time ago that Swindon were playing the best football in division with the most exciting talent at their disposal. Following a tempestuous previous season featuring four different managers and numerous disciplinary issues, the aim at Swindon in the summer was to re-set and stabilise. Things have certainly stabilised this season, but only in maintaining a disappointing and precarious position above the bottom four in the division.

Having sold Nicky Ajose in the summer, Swindon have badly missed a decisive player in the final third. They’ve played tepid football for much of the campaign, seemingly in the hope that they’ll suddenly stumble into a return to the dominant, passing game of two seasons ago. With confusion over the managerial situation – Tim Sherwood is seemingly in charge of transfers and selecting the team and tactics but isn’t apparently the manager – Swindon just seem like an utterly rudderless side at the moment. They don’t seem like a team with the ability to games when the pressure’s on, Swindon are relying on others to keep them in this division.

Top Scorer: James Vaughan (10) Most Assists: Tom Pope (3)

Top Scorer: James Vaughan (10)
Most Assists: Tom Pope (3)

Bury (20th Place)

An amazing run in the first few months of the campaign had made the predictions that Bury would struggle this season seem somewhat foolish. Despite the summer departures of key players such as Leon Clarke and Chris Hussey, Bury manager David Flitcroft saw some of last season’s more disappointing performers like Danny Mayor and Hallam Hope step up to the mark, while the summer signings of winger Zeli Ismail and striker James Vaughan looked to have been an inspired way to make the best out of a smaller budget.

As ever with David Flitcroft sides, the good run was counter-attacked by a longer run of poor form, and eventually Flitcroft paid for his team’s bi-polar nature with his job. Caretaker manager Chris Brass was given the job until the end of the season despite the team being in the midst of a 12-game losing streak, seemingly indicating that the once incredibly ambitious owner Stewart Day had accepted relegation. Thanks to a spate of injuries, Bury’s team is currently being stitched together by a number of incredibly inexperienced youngsters, which doesn’t seem like a great formula for survival. Despite currently sitting outside the bottom four, they look a team set for League Two.

Top Scorer: Jay O'Shea (6) Most Assists: Jay O'Shea & Gboly Ariyibi (3)

Top Scorer: Jay O’Shea (6)
Most Assists: Jay O’Shea & Gboly Ariyibi (3)

Chesterfield (21st Place)

It’s been a crazy season for Chesterfield thus far, having entered the campaign amid the controversy of signing Ched Evans and a disastrous summer tour of Hungary, the Spireites, and Ched Evans in particular, started the season in red-hot form. Things quickly went downhill from September onwards with Evans rendered unavailable due to his court appearance and a nightmare injury list leading to an extended winless run. In November, the club’s board of directors resigned and manager Danny Wilson has had to muddle on since then, to mixed results.

There is a decent team somewhere from Chesterfield’s current squad, Ched Evans, for all his faults as a human being, is a top-drawer striker at this level, Jay O’Shea is a reliable source of goals and assists from midfield, and winger Gboly Ariyibi is someone of great promise. With the experience of Gary Liddle, Sam Hird and Ian Evatt at the back, Chesterfield probably should be doing better than they are right now, which probably indicates that the manager is the problem. The uncertainty off-the-pitch can’t be helping, and it seems unlikely that Danny Wilson will be able to strengthen the squad in January as a result, but they have the tools to survive, it’s all about whether Wilson can harness them.

Top Scorer: Ivan Toney (6) Most Assists: Ivan Toney (3)

Top Scorer: Ivan Toney (6)
Most Assists: Ivan Toney (3)

Shrewsbury Town (23rd Place)

Shrewsbury looked to have set themselves up poorly for this season by mistaking early summer signings for good summer signings. Micky Mellon had assembled a squad of grafters and journeymen who lacked the spark, and probably quality too, to avoid a relegation battle at this level. As expected, Shrewsbury have been near the bottom of the league table for much of the campaign, and, with hatchet-men such as Gary Deegan and Adam El-Abd in their ranks, have had the worst disciplinary record to boot.

The departure of Micky Mellon to National League Tranmere has provided Shrewsbury with their biggest hope for survival. Grimsby manager Paul Hurst has arrived and brought a no-nonsense, safety-first mentality to the club, and it seems to have given Shrewsbury a real lift. Forward Louis Dodds has particularly benefitted from Hurst’s arrival and has found some excellent goalscoring form. Some disappointing results in recent weeks, as well as some frankly League Two standard signings in the first days of the transfer window, have tempered the sense of quiet optimism around the New Meadow, but Shrewsbury look like making a decent fist of it in the relegation battle.

 

Top Scorer: 3 Players (2) Most Assists: Paul Green (2)

Top Scorer: 3 Players (2)
Most Assists: Paul Green (2)

Oldham Athletic (24th Place)

Having entered pre-season with just four players on the books and no manager, Oldham are doing just about as well as most expected them to this season. Stephen Robinson was appointed in early July and had to quickly throw a team together from players that most other clubs at this level had already looked over. Unsurprisingly, it took Oldham some time to gel together in the opening months of the season, but looks like it’s going to take another overhaul of the squad to give them any hope of avoiding the drop.

Oldham have produced some promising performances at times, notably beating Scunthorpe back in October, but have generally looked like a team destined for a lower level. The signings of strikers Lee Erwin and Billy McKay, who arrived with decent reputations, have been particularly disappointing, with the duo mustering just two goals between them this season. It’s hard to tell whether the manager, Stephen Robinson, is doing a terrible job or is doing about as well as could be expected in the circumstances. With a transfer embargo to contend with, Oldham look set to finish bottom of the division by some distance.

Half-Way Review: The Other 23 – Mid-Table Mediocrity

Top Scorer: Chris Maguire (9) Most Assists: Chris Maguire (6)

Top Scorer: Chris Maguire (9)
Most Assists: Chris Maguire (6)

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.

Top Scorer: Tom Elliott (8) Most Assists: Dean Parrett (7)

Top Scorer: Tom Elliott (8)
Most Assists: Dean Parrett (7)

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.

Top Scorer: Erhun Oztumer (8) Most Assists: Erhun Oztumer (5)

Top Scorer: Erhun Oztumer (8)
Most Assists: Erhun Oztumer (5)

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.

Top Scorer: Alex Jones (9) Most Assists: Sam Foley (5)

Top Scorer: Alex Jones (9)
Most Assists: Sam Foley (5)

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.

Top Scorer: Alex Revell (7) Most Assists: Matthew Taylor (6)

Top Scorer: Alex Revell (7)
Most Assists: Matthew Taylor (6)

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.

Top Scorer: Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (8) Most Assists: Bradley Dack & Ryan Jackson (4)

Top Scorer: Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (8)
Most Assists: Bradley Dack & Ryan Jackson (4)

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.

Top Scorer: Kieran Agard (6) Most Assists: Three Players (3)

Top Scorer: Kieran Agard (6)
Most Assists: Three Players (3)

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.

Half-Way Review: The Other 23 – The Play-Off Race

Top Scorer: Ian Henderson (8) Most Assists: Joe Bunney (7)

Top Scorer: Ian Henderson (8)
Most Assists: Joe Bunney (7)

Rochdale (4th Place)

I felt prior to the start of the season that Rochdale were a decent bet to at least challenge for the top six and, despite a seven-game winless run at the start of the season, Keith Hill’s side have justified my faith in them. Rochdale’s ability to mix-up smart possession football with telling diagonal passes towards Ian Henderson and Calvin Andrew up-front, along with a zealous pressing game has always made them a real nightmare team to play against for many and they’ve been added a level of consistency that was missing last season.

Keith Hill’s ability to shuffle his pack on a miniscule budget has also given Rochdale an edge over most of the other play-off contenders. An example of which comes from when left-back Scott Tanser picked up an injury and striker Joe Bunney was moved to left-back – he the joint-third leading provider of assists this season. They should be feeling confident of at least securing top six place, and are potential dark horses for an automatic promotion spot if they can find another level over the next few months.

Top Scorer: Billy Clarke (6) Most Assists: Nicky Law & Mark Marshall (3)

Top Scorer: Billy Clarke (6)
Most Assists: Nicky Law & Mark Marshall (3)

Bradford City (5th Place)

There were some significant doubts surrounding Bradford City heading into the start of this season, Phil Parkinson had left after a long and mostly successful era at the club and in his place had come Stuart McCall, who was arriving with a mixed reputation as a manager. By-and-large though, Stuart McCall has managed to maintain a sense of momentum and identity at Valley Parade, despite being forced to make some big changes to the squad over the summer.

A new-look defence featuring Romain Vincelot and Nathaniel Knight-Percival in central defence has largely been solid, while Mark Marshall and Nicky Law have impressed out wide for the Bantams. A lack of a reliable goalscoring centre-forward, and Stuart McCall’s tendency to constantly tweak his starting line-up, has held Bradford back from being in the automatic promotion race. If Bradford can find some additional quality in the January transfer window, they should be in a good position to at least secure a top six place, but they’ve maybe left themselves too much to do to make significant ground on the top two.

Top Scorer: David Ball (9) Most Assists: Three Players (4)

Top Scorer: David Ball (9)
Most Assists: Three Players (4)

Fleetwood Town (6th Place)

Having been appointed with around a week to go before the start of the season, Uwe Rosler could have been forgiven for pleading for patience at Fleetwood as he settled into the job without any time to stamp his mark on the squad. Instead, Fleetwood started the season in excellent form thanks to Rosler discovering a devastating attacking trident of David Ball, Ashley Hunter and Chris Long, while his one major signing of midfielder Kyle Dempsey added further potency to a Fleetwood squad that had lacked a cutting edge for much of last season.

After some underwhelming form over the autumn, Uwe Rosler has re-jigged the formation to a back three and it seems to have Fleetwood playing with a level of consistency to see them move into the top six. They haven’t been entirely convincing in many of their games but have developed a habit of nicking the odd goal in tight games, whether that is enough to mount a play-off push remains to be seen.

Top Scorer: Simon Cox (7) Most Assists: Simon Cox (6)

Top Scorer: Simon Cox (7)
Most Assists: Simon Cox (6)

Southend United (7th Place)

A lot of Southend’s success this season can be put down to the gambles that Phil Brown took on signing strikers Simon Cox and Nile Ranger in the summer. Although neither are particularly prolific goalscorers, Cox’s creativity and Ranger’s hold-up play have given Southend a real presence and threat in the final third that they lacked last season, with former Coventry City man Marc-Antoine Fortuné playing an effective role as back-up. The form of the often inconsistent Stephen McLaughlin out wide and the return to full fitness of midfielder Anthony Wordsworth have been real boons for Southend too as they’ve defied most pre-season predictions that they would struggle.

It’s worth noting that Southend were in a similarly close position to the top six around this time last season before falling apart in the final months, which makes it hard not to feel that they’re currently on a good run of form that must end at some point. They have shown touches of genuine quality over the past month or so which could make this season different to last. How they cope with their next loss could provide a better indication of how they’re going to do than their current good form.

Top Scorer: Gwion Edwards (7) Most Assists: Marcus Maddison (9)

Top Scorer: Gwion Edwards (7)
Most Assists: Marcus Maddison (9)

Peterborough United (8th Place)

Peterborough have flattered to deceive over the past few seasons but Grant McCann looks to have garnered a semblance of consistency from the Posh thus far this season. Strangely, Peterborough have been rather good defensively this season, but despite currently boasted an array of impressive attacking talent, they’ve struggled to push on into the top six. Attackers Marcus Maddison, Gwion Edwards, Leo da Silva Lopes, Tom Nichols and Paul Taylor have all shown intermittently thus far, but not yet on a consistent basis.

With last season’s top-scorer, Lee Angol, returning to full fitness and the impressive West Ham loanee Martin Samuelsen arriving in the early days of the January transfer window, it won’t be a lack of attacking potential that will let Peterborough down this season. The concern is that manager Grant McCann has overloaded his squad with attacking options and will waste precious time searching for the right combination. A position just outside the play-offs looks to be where Peterborough will spend much of the rest of the season.

 

Top Scorer: Lee Gregory (10) Most Assists: Steve Morison (4)

Top Scorer: Lee Gregory (10)
Most Assists: Steve Morison (4)

Millwall (9th Place)

Seen by many, myself included, as one of the teams best-set to challenge for automatic promotion this season, Millwall have struggled to live up to expectations, finding themselves in the bottom half for much of the campaign. That identity of physical, aggressive football that Neil Harris brought roaring back to Millwall last season hasn’t been quite as effective this time around, with Harris appearing to lack the tactical acumen at times to change things up.

However, Millwall have improved a lot over recent weeks and find themselves surging up the table, not unlike last season’s run to the play-off final. Striker/winger Aiden O’Brien has been in excellent goal-scoring form, and the returns to form and fitness of last season’s brutally effective strike pairing of Steve Morison and Lee Gregory has effectively guaranteed Millwall a steady source of goals throughout the rest of the season. They’re getting closer to striking distance of the play-offs and appear to be rising up through the gears as the season enters its crucial phase.

Top Scorer: Matty Taylor (15) Most Assists: Chris Lines (5)

Top Scorer: Matty Taylor (15)
Most Assists: Chris Lines (5)

Bristol Rovers (10th Place)

Bristol Rovers have looked at times this season like they could challenge for the top six but have been let down by a lack of consistency – both in form and team selection. For Bristol Rovers manager Darrell Clarke, the inconsistent team selections haven’t merely been down to not knowing his best eleven, it has been down to a desire to calculate how he can get the best out of his squad against every specific opponent. It has regularly proved an effective formula with what is a fairly similar squad to one that played in the National League two seasons ago.

The January transfer window could be the difference between a season of adjusting to League One and a top six place. Darrell Clarke has stated a desire to re-jig his squad after admitting that some of his players are not up to League One standard. With the backing of a rich Jordanian owner, Bristol Rovers should be able to add quality to the squad to supplement the goalscoring brilliance of Matty Taylor.

Top Scorer: Josh Magennis (8) Most Assists: 5 Players (4)

Top Scorer: Josh Magennis (8)
Most Assists: 5 Players (4)

Charlton Athletic (11th Place)

In retrospect, the appointment of Russell Slade as Charlton manager in the summer was a case of picking the wrong manager for the task of assembling a promotion-winning side. Slade does not have a promotion on his CV and tends to build solid, rather than spectacular sides. Charlton found that out after a series of obdurate performances in the first few months which cost Slade his job. The Addicks have since gone for a manager who builds spectacular, rather than solid, sides in Karl Robinson.

It’s taken time for Robinson to stamp his mark at Charlton but the past few performances have suggested it might not be too late for a play-off tilt. Bulldozer centre-forward Josh Magennis recently scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Bristol Rovers, but it was the performance of young winger Joe Aribo that really caught the eye, and he now has four assists in four league appearances. With the January transfer window to re-shape the squad to his liking, Robinson should be able to make a further impact at the Valley, it may be slightly too late though to salvage a top six spot.