Preview: EFL Trophy Final

When we went two goals ahead against Wycombe back in February, it didn’t feel real. When the final whistle blew in that game, it didn’t feel real. When I ran on the pitch afterwards, it didn’t feel real. When the tickets went on sale, it didn’t feel real. It won’t be until I take my seat for this game that it will actually feel real, that Coventry City have made it Wembley.

For so long at this football club, it’s been about this quest to make it to the national stadium. We’ve come close on several occasions – those years getting close to making the play-offs, that game against Crewe – but it’s always felt out of our reach, no matter how close we actually were. This is Coventry City, the club that hasn’t made the top six of any division for 47 years, we just don’t do success.

For many, making it to Wembley is a prize, regardless of the result in this game. As someone who, through other sports, has been to big finals and seen my team lose, I’m telling you that is the most sickening experience you can have as a fan of your team. It’s not only that so much went into getting there and you didn’t win, but you’re made to watch the opposition have that amazing moment that you were expecting to have.

Mark Robins’ arrival as manager has been almost perfectly timed to provide us with the shot in the arm required to stand a chance against a strong Oxford side. He’s taken time to assess the options available to him and has now found a way to make us look like a proper team. Players appear to know their roles in their side and we’re playing with a level of intensity that has been lacking for the majority of the campaign.

Possible Line-Up

However, some of that continuity and momentum from the past couple of performances is going to be lost due to the ineligible players for this competition. Significantly, Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson looked to have formed a robust central defensive partnership but will both be unavailable. On the one hand, that will likely see Jordan Willis and Jordan Turnbull re-form a defensive partnership that was the root of our problems for much of the season, on the other, they’re both mobile defenders who have a degree of comfort on the ball, against a less direct team than our previous two opponents, that could even prove a blessing in disguise.

Elsewhere, Ruben Lameiras’ impact from the bench last week may have made a case for handing him a start in this game to supply genuine creativity in the final third, but I sense that it’s a choice between Kwame Thomas (if fit) and Jodi Jones for that place alongside Beavon in attack. I would imagine that the rest of the midfield four will remain in place given that they are both functioning as a unit and available for selection for this game.

Finally, there is a choice to be made whether to reward Reice Charles-Cook for his performances in this competition with a start in goal in the final, or to stick with the current first-choice of Lee Burge. My inkling is that Lee Burge will start, although it wouldn’t be shocking were Charles-Cook to get the nod.

Last Time We Met

Our two meetings with Oxford this season have curiously been both our best and worst performances of the league campaign. Back at the Ricoh Arena in October, we produced a remarkably composed and controlling performance with Ben Stevenson smashing in a screamer and Marvin Sordell chasing down a weak back-pass to hand us a comfortable win. However, barely a month later, Oxford eviscerated us at the Kassam Stadium in a game that signalled the beginning of the end for Mark Venus as manager.

How Are They Doing?

Nothing can illustrate the feeling towards this game on Oxford United’s end other than they’ve actually required a marketing campaign to sell tickets for this game. They made the final last year, so they’re not as desperate for the day out at Wembley that we are, they also have a realistic prospect of making the play-offs this season, so this game may not even define their season in the same way that it does ours.

A 5-1 win over Bury on Tuesday night emphasised how Oxford have been moving through the gears over the course of the campaign. They looked disjointed for much of the first half of the season, having lost key players from last year’s promotion-winning side from League Two in Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda to Championship clubs and letting go the experience of defenders Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins, as well as striker Danny Hylton. However, the club made some excellent additions in the transfer market both in the summer and then in January, and that quality is really shining through at the moment.

The two key moves in the summer window were firstly securing set-piece maestro and wind-up merchant Chris Maguire on a permanent deal – any free-kick from him closer than 30 yards from goal is almost a penalty – and bringing in winger Marvin Johnson from Motherwell and then converting him into a marauding left-back. Additionally, they managed to bring in Everton youngster Ryan Ledson on a permanent deal and he has been a class apart in the centre of the park for much of the campaign.

Oxford also added firepower to their attack in January through bringing in Toni Martinez and Conor McAleny on loan from West Ham and Everton respectively. However, we don’t have to worry about them as they have both already featured in this competition for their parent clubs, which is just as well as Toni Martinez scored against us at the Ricoh Arena for West Ham PL2 and Conor McAleny has eight goals in 13 appearances.

Losing those two is likely to see Kane Hemmings step up into a central attacking role, a player who has played very well in patches this season, with Maguire operating just behind him. However, Oxford will still have Rob Hall to utilise going forwards, he’s a pacey and skilful winger with excellent delivery who has five goals and five assists to his name despite spending the first few months of the season out injured.

Captain John Lundstram will play in midfield alongside Ryan Ledson, another former Everton youngster, Lundstram plays in a deep role and is important in providing a defensive platform as well as playing the ball out of defence. Michael Appleton could also pick either Joe Rothwell – a former Manchester United youngster – or Josh Ruffels – a former Coventry City youngster – should he wish to operate with a three-man midfield.

Possible Line-Up

In defence, the big Chey Dunkley has been an ever-present at centre-back this season but former Plymouth captain Curtis Nelson has looked a class act alongside him having returned to fitness following injury struggles in the first few months of the campaign. The previously mentioned Marvin Johnson is a real force of nature from left-back and is being tracked by Championship clubs, Appleton could decide to pick Joe Skarz at left-back and push Johnson further forward should he be feeling cautious about the big occasion.

In goal, Oxford have Simon Eastwood, who was yet another great summer signing they made. The former Blackburn man is one of those keepers who can really shut up shop if they’re in the mood, and has done so on several occasions at a higher-level before dropping down to League One for more regular football.

Overall, Oxford are a similar club right now to how Barnsley were last season (coincidentally, the team that beat them in this final last year) and have maybe just been held back from being a top six side already by the relative lack of experience in their squad. They are very much the favourites for this game and we’ll likely spend extended spells of the 90 minutes without the ball.

Prediction

I was more fearful for this game a couple of weeks ago when we were playing without confidence than I am now even though Oxford are in good form themselves and are a much better side than we are. The key areas for the game for us will be whether we can adapt to the change in personnel in defence and how consistent a threat we can be on the counter-attack. For Oxford, it’s about converting the dominance they’re likely to have into goals, which could be affected by losing their form striker for this game.

Oxford are favourites for this game and it could be a really humiliating defeat on the big stage for us. I can envision scenarios of this game in which we win, but my instinct is that Oxford will beat us, probably 2-0.

Preview: Bristol Rovers

Not only did we finally score on Tuesday night, but they were two astounding finishes. Not only did we finally win on Tuesday night, but we did so in comfortable fashion.

Alas, it’s the type of result and performance that has arrived over a month too late to reverse our slide into League Two, but it at least provides a brief lift from the doom and gloom around the club at the moment. Additionally, with a Wembley final coming up next Sunday, there’s hope that we might at least make a game of it rather than the mass torture it has looked set to be in recent weeks.

The level of effort and organisation in the performance on Tuesday night demonstrated that Mark Robins has made some positive changes after nearly three weeks in charge. The defence coped ably with the physical threat of Port Vale’s lone forward, the midfield were both energetic and disciplined, the same could be said for the strikers. Importantly, the approach didn’t change when we went ahead, nor was it affected by Port Vale pulling a goal back and throwing men forward in the final 15 minutes. For the first time since the Oxford United home game in October, it was a deserved victory.

Possible Line-Up

It was a performance to build on, but it will be interesting to see how Mark Robins and the players deal with the prospect of Wembley coming up next Sunday. The first issue is whether Robins picks a side from those who will be available next week, which would mean dropping Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson from Tuesday night’s side. The other issue is whether the prospect of Wembley on the horizon either distracts the players or provides motivation to stake a claim for a starting spot.

Having found a side that worked on Tuesday, I have a feeling that Robins will be loathe to make changes to it. With Bristol Rovers in decent form and with a strong travelling contingent, this could potentially be a really embarassing and demoralising defeat. So while it would be useful to test a central defensive pairing out of those who’ll be available next Sunday, our confidence as a team is fragile at the moment and it’s more important to preserve that at the moment.

Last Time We Met

Confidence was low back on Boxing Day, despite the appointment of Russell Slade as manager a few days before. We travelled to the Memorial Stadium hoping to somehow scrape a clean-sheet with an ugly performance and use that as a platform to begin our push for survival. A dominant and clinical performance from Bristol Rovers emphatically destroyed the first hope, and as we all now know, the second hope was just as misplaced.

A hat-trick from Rovers forward Billy Bodin, representing a third of the league goals he has scored this season, came after centre-back Peter Hartley gave the home side the lead in the 18th minute. Jordan Willis briefly pulled the game back to 2-1 in the 57th minute, but Bristol Rovers were far too good for us all over the pitch to let that set them back.

How Are They Doing?

Bristol Rovers are travelling to the Ricoh Arena in huge numbers (possibly as high as 4,000) to cheer their team on as they look to push into the play-offs over the remaining seven games this season. If Darrell Clarke’s side are successful in making the play-offs, they would be in with a chance of recording a remarkable and unprecedented third successive promotion – even more remarkable given the club’s future was in genuine danger and Clarke was on the pitch in tears three years ago when they were relegated to non-league on the final day of the season.

Clarke has rebuilt Bristol Rovers into a hard-working, street-smart and tactically versatile outfit that is very much greater than the sum of its constituent parts. In their most recent win over Chesterfield last week, five of the starting line-up had played for the club in their non-league days, with much of the rest of team being players who had been unwanted at other clubs.

Despite losing top-scorer Matty Taylor to bitter rivals Bristol City in January, Darrell Clarke’s side have remained consistent. The defensive issues that held them back over the first half of the campaign appear to have been resolved to a degree via the loan signings of QPR youngster Joe Lumley in goal and Stokes’ young centre-back Ryan Sweeney, which has also helped their promising ball-playing centre-back Tom Lockyer improve his form.

Possible Line-Up

Goals have been spread out across the time since Taylor’s departure, our tormentor-in-chief Billy Bodin has chipped in with nine goals from a wide position this season, with Ollie Clarke also chipping in from midfield. The pacey forward Ellis Harrison has seven goals to his name this season, but is currently injured, in his stead, the hard-working duo of Rory Gaffney and Luke James have performed ably in attack, although James has just one League One goal to his name, having played nearly two full seasons as a striker at this level.

Chris Lines’ set-piece deliveries are a key part of Rovers’ attacking threat, and given that we still look fallible from these situations, could be where the game is won for the away side. It’s worth noting that Darrell Clarke is a tactically flexible manager who always looks to change his formation and line-up in accordance to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, which is going to provide a big test of Mark Robins’ tactical credentials.

Prediction

Bristol Rovers’ strong travelling contingent should give the away side real buoyancy heading into this game, and we’re going to have to find a way to match the intensity they’re inevitably going to play at. However, Bristol Rovers have been relatively poor on the road this season, winning just four out of 19 away games thus far. Whether having a travelling hoard behind them negates those away day struggles, remains to be seen.

As a home fan, potentially being matched in numbers by away supporters is not a situation to look forward to. As I mentioned earlier in this preview, this has the possibility of being a really damaging defeat that underlines the parlous state that this club is in. Winning on Tuesday was a boost, but it was against a struggling side that has only won once all season – this is going to be a very different game.

I’m hoping that we can remain competitive throughout this game, but I can see us losing this one 2-0.

Preview: Port Vale

Forget about winning for now, we’ve gone four games without even a goal to celebrate, making the process of shuffling off into League Two that bit more depressing. With confirmation of relegation looming, now is the time to take the shackles off and play without the fear of the consequences of losing.

It’s easier said than done with a squad lacking in goal-scorers, as well as that vital component of confidence. However, a more positive and creative line-up against MK Dons led to some promising attacking moves, even if the end result was a loss and just five shots on goal. There were signs though that letting the likes of Ruben Lameiras and Jodi Jones free could not only make games more enjoyable for ourselves but possibly provide a crucial axis for next season – providing that either player is around next season.

Possible Line-Up

This game against Port Vale should be about letting free more of that creative intent, with a view to possibly even scoring a goal. Lameiras and Jones should be given another chance to show what they can do, and the lack of fitness of Saturday’s full-backs, Jordan Willis and Chris Stokes, should further supplement our ability to create chances with the more attacking Ryan Haynes and Dion Kelly-Evans coming back into the side.

The other likely starters for this game should be Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson in central defence, who appear to be Mark Robins’ go-to defensive partnership. The manager also seems to have a preference in midfield for Callum Reilly alongside Ben Stevenson, although both are struggling for confidence and form at this moment in time and may lack the steel to compete against a side still fighting for its life in this game. In attack, Charles Vernam seems the likeliest candidate to start given Marcus Tudgay picking up an injury on Saturday and Stuart Beavon’s continuing fitness problems.

Last Time We Met

With Tony Mowbray having just left the club following a 10-game winless run to start the season, it was left to Mark Venus to pick up the pieces as we pondered our next move. Port Vale had started the season in excellent form, particularly at home, and were expecting to continue that run against a team and club in disarray.

However, we produced one of our best performances of the season as we not only won the game in comfortable fashion thanks to goals from Marvin Sordell and Chris McCann, but we dominated the game thanks to a combination of composure on the ball and pressing the opposition off of it – almost the exact opposite of what we’ve done in every other game this season.

How Are They Doing?

That defeat back in September precipitated an unravelling at Port Vale that they’re still trying to recover from. The club had taken a huge gamble this season in not only appointing a foreign manager with no experience of the Football League but signing a legion of foreign players with no experience of the Football League. Thanks to the performances of English players such as defenders Remie Streete and Nathan Smith, as well as striker Alex Jones, Port Vale looked to making a mockery of pre-season predictions, but performances deteriorated under Bruno Ribeiro before he left in December.

Former Leeds and Sheffield United shin-kicker Michael Brown has stepped into the breach, without having officially being appointed as permanent manager, and has slowly attempted to undo the mistakes made at Vale Park over the summer and during the first half of the season. Barring a few, almost all of the foreign signings have been frozen out and have been replaced by a series of panic loan signings and free transfers. As a result, performances have been disjointed with Vale slipping into relegation danger. However, results have improved as of late and they’ll get out of the bottom four with a win in this game.

As mentioned earlier, Remie Streete and Nathan Smith have been immense in central defence this season despite their relative inexperience. A big issue for Port Vale recently though has been the January deadline day departure of goalkeeper Jak Alnwick to Rangers, and the hasty replacement signing with Celtic youngster Leonardo Fasan, who has cost the team several points. Fasan has been dropped recently in favour of Deniz Mehmet, who spent much of this season on the bench at Falkirk.

Possible Line-Up

Further forward, the set-piece prowess of both Sam Foley and former Newcastle man Ryan Taylor is a major threat. Taylor has recently returned to the club after an impressive spell earlier in the season and the power and placement of his set-pieces can be impossible to defend against. Chris Eagles, who so nearly signed for us last season, has made a decent impact out wide after signing in January and they may even be able to call upon ex-Charlton and West Brom winger Jerome Thomas for this game.

Losing Alex Jones in January was a big blow for Port Vale’s threat in the final third, however, JJ Hooper has been in impressive form over the past few game to help address losing such a reliable goalscorer. Hooper is a real wildcard to deal with as he’s possesses a good mix of skill, pace and power, and is now benefitting from getting a consistent run in the side. Anton Forrester is likely to start alongside him and is more of a target-man type of striker, although Vale may have the giant Curacao forward Rigino Cicilia available for selection to add to their physical threat in attack.

Prediction

This is potentially a game where we can look forward to expressing ourselves, however, this is also potentially a game where a side fighting for its life will want it far too much than to let us walk all over them. The onus is on Port Vale to establish themselves physically in this game, and possibly to get an early goal to take the sting out of us. However, Vale have struggled on the road this season so may be caught awkwardly between trying to stay organised like an away side or trying to take the game to us like a home side.

The form book and the gravity of Port Vale’s situation should make this a fairly easy away win. But I wonder whether we’ve entered now into a pressure-free environment that could give us more freedom to play. I still think Port Vale will win this game, but I’m going to be bold in predicting we’ll score, twice, in a 3-2 defeat.

Preview: Milton Keynes Dons

In an awful season, Tuesday night’s performance against Southend did well to stand out as probably the worst performance of them all. It wasn’t just the half-hearted defending that allowed Southend to saunter to a comfortable two-goal lead, it was the complete lack of attacking ambition or anyone even looking like they were playing for pride.

We all know what the situation is, we’re going down and we’ll probably finish bottom too. Mark Robins is here to build for next season, but it’s hard to see right now whether it will actually make any difference that he was appointed last Sunday rather than at the end of this season. Most of this squad won’t be here next season and I’m not sure whether you can lay meaningful foundations when both you and the players know that there’s neither no chance of salvaging the season or of the group staying together come August.

A Combination Of Players That We Have

As a fan though, it still hurts to see us lose as meekly as we did on Tuesday night. The criticism of Russell Slade was that it was boring football that wasn’t working and we were going backwards. Tuesday was probably as bad, if not worse, than some of the tripe we saw under Slade. There’s nothing to lose by throwing caution to the wind now, and it would probably help if Robins attempted to get the fans back onside with some entertaining performances between now and the end of the season.

A big issue contributing to our lack of attacking threat I think has been the exclusion of players who actually create chances, such as Jodi Jones and Ruben Lameiras, and to a lesser extent Kyel Reid. We have too many strikers in the squad, but none of them offer pace, creativity, physical threat, or are a reliable enough threat in front of goal to get away with lacking those qualities. Attempting to shoehorn as many strikers in has made us into a team with no obvious threat. Jones, Lameiras and Reid should at least be given a go to remedy this situation, I also think Devon Kelly-Evans has been harshly overlooked given his performances for the under-23s.

Last Time We Met

Heading into our last meeting with MK Dons, we were looking to get back to winning ways after back-to-back league defeats for the first time under Mark Venus. It was a fairly even contest between two teams looking to build their confidence, however, our achilles heel in preventing and defending crosses into the box allowed MK Dons to take the lead via Ed Upson heading in a centre from Dean Lewington.

Ben Stevenson levelled the game with a typical Ben Stevenson goal, returning a poor clearance from MK Dons’ keeper David Martin into the top corner. However, it was Stevenson’s reckless tackle that earned him a red card that proved the game’s decisive moment, with Ed Upson once again benefiting from poor defending in our penalty area to score the winner just four minutes after Stevenson’s dismissal.

How Are They Doing?

It’s been what might be described as a ‘transitional season’ for Milton Keynes Dons following relegation from the Championship last season. The long-serving Karl Robinson left the club in November after a poor start to the campaign which saw them struggling at the wrong end of the division thanks to a series of poor displays at home. Robinson was eventually replaced in December by ex-Hearts manager Robbie Neilson, who is a friend of Steven Pressley’s and trained with the Sky Blues back in the summer of 2013.

While Neilson has steadied the ship somewhat at MK Dons, it has seemingly been on the assumption that he’ll be able to put together a more concerted bid for promotion next season with more of his own players in place. There have been some decent performances in the four months he’s been in charge, but not on a consistent basis – probably down to a squad rotation policy – and they still need three or four wins to ensure League One status next season, making this game must-win for them.

The team is still transitioning away from the possession-based, and sometimes naive, approach under Robinson towards a slightly more robust approach under Neilson. There are still the intricate attacking midfielders in place such as Ben Reeves, as well as ball-playing defenders such as Joe Walsh and Paul Downing, but Neilson has brought in more physical players such as the towering strikers Robbie Muirhead and Maecky Ngombo and the industrious Stuart O’Keefe in midfield, but has made a nod towards the previous era in signing the talented Leicester attacking midfielder Harvey Barnes on loan.

Possible Line-Up

MK Dons are likely to dominate this game with extended spells of possession, but with more of an attacking impetus than before. Neilson has tended to play either a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond formation with more of a physical presence in attack, which means they can move more quickly from defence to attack than they have done before. However, retaining some of those ball-players means they’re capable of holding onto possession and dragging us out of position.

Having quality attacking full-backs also helps MK Dons mix things up, offering support in possession, as well as the ability to put in telling deliveries into the box. At right-back, it’s a choice between George Baldock, who could well play at a higher-level in the next couple of season, and George Williams. At left-back, there’s the reliable Dean Lewington and the promising youngster Ben Tilney to pick from.

If MK Dons play to their potential, they’ll beat us comfortably, however, they’ve struggled in recent weeks due to the loss of the inspirational maverick Chuks Aneke. Yet, they do have Kieran Agard who is a proven striker at this level and has 11 goals to his name this season, so I’m sure they’ll find some way to deal with our robust defensive block.

Prediction

This is a game that MK Dons should win and win with ease. I find it odd that they have struggled to pull away from danger given the strength they have in their squad and that they have a good mix between creative players and physical players. Perhaps it will help us that they’ll look to control the game, which should offer us space on the counter, this is the exact type of games Robins’ previous Coventry City side would have relished.

However, we don’t have David McGoldrick, Franck Moussa and Carl Baker, we don’t even have Steven Jennings or Billy Edge. I’d be surprised if they were taking bets on this win. 4-0 MK Dons win.

Preview: Southend United

Any hope that the feted ‘new manager bounce’ would give us the faintest of hope of beating the drop was extinguished on Saturday. It wasn’t just that we loss to Bradford, it was the manner of it -the baffling team selection, the inability to capitalise on a brief spell of being on top, the sloppy defending, the poor response of the team to salvaging anything from the game – that was concerning, it was exactly like watching a Russell Slade Coventry City team.

After barely a week in charge of the team, it was perhaps to be expected that there was little Robins could change about the side. However, the team selection decisions such as playing Kwame Thomas on the wing, starting the ineffectual Charles Vernam or picking Kevin Foley over Dion Kelly-Evans were bad calls that didn’t have to be made. Additionally, putting on another defender to replace the injured Chris Stokes at 2-0 down was overly negative for someone who is, in theory, here to lead us to promotion next season. Robins needs to demonstrate in these remaining games that he can play a team that not only functions, but can take the game to the opposition.

In the situation we’re in, it probably behoves Robins to assess as many of the options available to him in the squad, than it does to quickly settle on an XI in an attempt to grind out results. The question about the starting line-up for this upcoming game against Southend is not about which players will come into the team, but who did enough on Saturday to merit another start.

Of the starters against Bradford, only really Jordan Turnbull and Ben Stevenson appeared to acquit themselves effectively, although George and Kwame Thomas probably deserve some marks for effort. Dion Kelly-Evans was a real bright spark when he came off the bench, and with Kevin Foley likely to be out long-term, the door has opened up to establish himself as our first-choice right-back heading into next season.

It’s anyone’s guess who’ll come into the side, although Jodi Jones, Gael Bigirimana and possibly Kyel Reid seem the likeliest benefciaries of sweeping changes to the starting line-up.

Last Time We Met

The Southend away game back in December was towards the end of a run of form under Mark Venus that had extinguished any optimism that our start to the season had been an aberration. Southend cruised to a comfortable 3-1 victory at Roots Hall, taking the lead very early on in the game and then scoring twice in five minutes before Dan Agyei mustered a consolation goal. A spiky post-match interview from Mark Venus indicated that we not only had several players who didn’t want to be at the club, but a manager as well, somehow things have gotten worse since that day.

How Are They Doing?

Phil Brown has done a remarkable job at Southend this season in getting them around the play-off places, mainly down to some excellent work in the transfer window. After losing key players in the summer and starting the season fairly slowly, Southend mustered a remarkable run of form over the winter to put them into play-off contention, but have failed to win their past three games and will be looking to kick-start a flagging top six bid with a win over the division’s bottom club.

The star of this season has been former Reading and West Brom striker Simon Cox, who has scored 11 and assisted eight goals thus far, picked up on a free in the summer after several lean years. The controversial Nile Ranger, free transfer after over a year out of the game, had provided an effective foil up front for Southend before getting suspended by the club. In Ranger’s stead, Marc-Antoine Fortuné, free transfer after an underwhelming spell at the Ricoh Arena, has stepped up to the mark with four goals and five assists in 26 appearances this season.

Southend have goals from midfield in the form of Anthony Wordsworth, Stephen McLaughlin, Ryan Leonard and Will Atkinson. However, it’s the energy and competitiveness of the midfield that’s been the real hall-mark of Southend’s success under Phil Brown in recent years. The former Hull manager likes to rotate the squad and formation, but whoever plays and in whatever shape, they always look to press, physically intimidate and frustrate opponents in the centre of the park.

Possible Line-Up

In Jason Demetriou and Ben Coker, Southend have two of the division’s best attacking full-backs. Both have excellent delivery and are capable of taking set-pieces, Coker is a more orthodox attacking full-back in that he’ll run in straight lines and cross from deep, Demetriou is more marauding and can get to the by-line or into the box and cause all-round confusion if not properly dealt with.

It’s generally been Adam Thompson and Anton Ferdinand at the back this season for Southend, with young goalkeeper Ted Smith making his breakthrough into the first-team this campaign following Daniel Bentley’s departure for Brentford over the summer. Phil Brown is capable of switching between a back four and a back three, which makes the job of predicting their line-up very difficult. but in general, Southend are physical and no-nonsense in defence, so will eat up crosses for breakfast.

Prediction

Like most of the games at this level of football, we’re up against a team with experience and physicality all over the pitch who have the potential to really bully us. In particular, I’m worried that we’ll allow time and space on the ball for Southend’s attacking full-backs, which will lead to crosses, and we struggle to defend crosses. However, attacking full-backs should mean space in behind if we can counter quickly, particularly as Southend appear to lack pace in their squad. A good game-plan could win us this game, it’s just whether the players can be motivated to follow it in the knowledge that relegation is all but certain.

It’s hard not to be pessimistic about our hopes at the moment, and I can’t see much reason to deviate from that feeling. 2-1 loss.

Preview: Bradford City

It’s March and we’re nearly already relegated to League Two, however, the re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager has us heading into back-to-back home games against play-off contenders with something approaching optimism. And who knows? Maybe if we won both of these games the situation wouldn’t like quite as hopeless as it currently does.

With that the remote possibility of survival in mind, it will be interesting to see how Robins approaches his first few games in charge. Does he persist with those on loan and short-term contracts order to get results? Will he use these games to lay the foundations for League Two football next season? There is no pressure on Robins to keep us up, but equally, he must be aware that there need to be signs of improvement as a result of his return as manager.

As with any change of manager, predicting the starting line-up for their first game in charge is a difficult task as they are looking at the squad with fresh eyes and a different approach. However, we do have the benefit of knowing Robins’ approach more intimately than we would a normal new manager, so I think there are certain things we can expect to see from a Robins Coventry City side.

In general, the approach during Robins’ first spell in charge was either to defend well and hurt teams on the counter-attack, or to work the ball out wide and create overlaps leading to crosses into the box. The former will favour pacey players like Jodi Jones and Kyel Reid, while the latter should be good news for our attacking full-backs Ryan Haynes and Dion Kelly-Evans. Given that this is a tough game to start with, it’s likely that we’ll look pack the midfield and play a counter-attacking game.

Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether Robins makes a break from the brief Slade-era in utilising both Ben Stevenson and Gael Bigirimana in midfield. Stevenson is the kind of intelligent and tactically aware player I think Robins will get a tune out of, Bigirimana is less of a disciplined player who will either make improvements under Robins or struggle to get into the team.

In defence, almost all of the places are up for grabs, with the possible exception of Ryan Haynes at left-back due to lack of competition. I would imagine that Robins will initially place trust Nathan Clarke, so it will be a competition between Jordan Willis, Farrend Rawson and Jordan Turnbull for the remaining spot in central defence. I’ll be intrigued to see whether trusts Dion Kelly-Evans at right-back over Kevin Foley or Jordan Willis.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Bradford almost injected life into our woeful start to the season. Dan Agyei had been signed a few days before as our number nine for the season and he displayed plenty of promise in opening the scoring early in the game and being a general menace in disrupting Bradford from playing out from the back on their home turf. However, we struggled to maintain that level of performance into the second-half and Jordan Turnbull conceded a penalty and got himself sent off in the game’s decisive moment.

Tony McMahon, a player Tony Mowbray had tried to sign for us the year before, emphatically converted the penalty. Almost straight from the kick-off, Mark Marshall (a former player of course) scored a worldie from 25-yards out. McMahon then had another chance to score from the spot to seal the win, which he took and then rubbed salt into the wound by becoming the world’s oldest and most northern player to dab by way of celebration.

How Are They Doing?

In general, it’s been a good season for Bradford. Stuart McCall, something of a club legend from his time at the club as a player before a less successful spell as manager, returned to the club for a second bite of the managerial cherry and had helped the team evolve from the fairly route one stuff of the Phil Parkinson-era into a more entertaining, aesthetically pleasing team to watch. However, they have failed to really threaten the automatic promotion spots due to a number of drawn games and there is a sense at times that they haven’t quite been playing to their potential.

Probably the biggest issue has been the lack of a prolific goalscorer in attack for the Bantams. Huddersfield loanee Jordy Hiwula is blessed with plenty of pace but seems to lack a truly killer instinct to make the most of the good positions his speed lets him get into. The January signings of former Port Vale man (and former Coventry City trialist) Alex Jones and ex-Carlisle striker Charlie Wyke have looked to address this, with some success thus far. Wyke is a real presence in attack, not only being someone capable of getting on the end of crosses, but also linking play very well. Jones is a fairly typical goal poacher in that he doesn’t offer a great deal outside of the box.

In midfield, the creativity of Nicky Law and Mark Marshall out wide has been a major success story of the season for Bradford. Law had been signed over the summer following a fairly unsuccessful spell at Rangers in the Scottish lower divisions but he has offered real drive and energy to Bradford’s midfield. Marshall was overlooked last season by Phil Parkinson in favour of Kyel Reid, but has been involved in more goals than any other Bradford player this season, with four goals and six assists to his name.

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, Josh Cullen in the centre of the pitch is another key player to look out for. The West Ham loanee had a successful loan spell last season and has picked up where he left off this season, another player who carries the ball forward from midfield really effectively. It would be remiss of me not to mention Romain Vincelot, one of the heroes for us last season, who is the captain of this Bradford side and has been key when played in either central defence of midfield.

At full-back, Tony McMahon and James Meredith are great attacking outlets to have, further heightening Bradford’s all-round threat. While, Nathaniel Knight-Percival is a composed presence in central defence, operating in front of the experienced and reliable Colin Doyle in goal.

Prediction

The optimism that comes with the arrival of not only a new manager, but the statistically best manager we’ve ever had, has to be tempered by our poor form and the quality of the opposition that we’re up against. A win in this game would be the perfect way to mark the beginning of a new era at the club, but these remaining games of the season could well be about making gradual improvements and figuring out who to keep next year rather than going out to get those seven or eight wins that could keep us up.

I can see us losing this game 1-0.

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.