Preview: Scunthorpe United

We’ve reached the final game of a season where so much has happened but strangely has felt like it never really got going. From the waiting for quality signings that never came in August, the wait for a replacement for Tony Mowbray, the wait for Russell Slade’s reign to take-off, the wait for Russell Slade to be shown the door, the wait for Wembley, to now, the wait for the start of next season.

In a sense, it will be a relief when it’s all over and Mark Robins can get on with the task of getting us out of League Two. However, given the constant flow of bad news around the club over the past few weeks, there’s the strong feeling that relegation is less an opportunity to rebuild the club and more the opening of another dark chapter in our history. As fans, we can only hope that Mark Robins is the right man to trust at such an important juncture for this football club.

Possible Line-Up

As for this final game of the season, it’s probably the case that Robins has already decided who he wants to keep and who he’s planning to move on. In fact, it would be a tad concerning where he to be swung by one good or bad performance from players in this game. While someone like Vladimir Gadzhev impressed last week, one decent showing in a pressure-free game shouldn’t be considered representative of a player’s level of performance over the course of a long and hard season.

As has been the case since the Checkatrade Trophy final, this is likely to be a team selected on a basis of who is fit rather than managerial preference. Ideally, Robins would not be picking loan players or those whose contracts he will not renew, however, players like Kevin Foley, Marcus Tudgay and Farrend Rawson may have to be used in order to get 11 players on the pitch.

Last Time We Met

Despite losing to Scunthorpe at the Ricoh Arena back in November, the performance looked to have further demonstrated Mark Venus’ ability to pull us further away from danger after a run of four wins in six games. In a fairly close game where both sides had about us much attacking threat as each other, it was Scunthorpe’s star man Josh Morris who ghosted in at the near-post to secure victory for the then-league leaders.

How Are They Doing?

 

In a manner familiar to Sky Blues fans, Scunthorpe have struggled over the second half of the season after starting it in blistering form. Unfamiliar though is that Scunthorpe have managed to reverse that slump over recent weeks, winning their past four games to salvage a play-off spot.

 

While it may have been the case that Scunthorpe over-performed in the first half of the campaign – with Josh Morris scoring some absurd goals at a ridiculous rate – not to have held onto a top six spot would have been criminal given the strength of the starting XI. Manager Graham Alexander seemed to struggle with the pressure of the slump, making unnecessary signings and too many changes to the side, but has regained his composure in recent weeks to scrape out a few wins and restore confidence.

Winger Josh Morris remains the key player for this Scunthorpe side, despite a drop-off in his rate of goalscoring. His delivery from set-pieces and open play have been a regular source of goals over the second half of the campaign, demonstrating Scunthorpe’s meticulous organisation and physicality. His fellow impressive wide-man from the first half of the season, Duane Holmes, however, has struggled to get into the side over the past few months.

Possible Line-Up

Scunthorpe have an incredibly solid spine to the team, largely thanks to Mark Robins’ underwhelming spell at the club. The dominant centre-back Murray Wallace and the energetic midfield tyro Stephen Dawson were both brought to the club by Robins and have probably been the two other key players for Scunthorpe behind Josh Morris. Wallace’s defensive partner, David Mirfin, adds further experience and physicality to the back-line, while Neal Bishop in midfield offers something similar in the centre of the park.

While the changes Graham Alexander made over the second half of the season seemed to disrupt the balance of the side, the loan signings of Ivan Toney in attack and Matt Crooks in midfield have played a large part in this recent run of good form. Toney’s goalscoring form has come at a crucial time where other strikers have struggled for goals. Crooks has also scored some crucial goals, but also offers an important element of control and presence in midfield – although he is now injured of the rest of the season.

Prediction

It’s been an encouraging run recently, but the end-of-season feel to many of the games we’ve played during that run has to be considered an important factor. While Scunthorpe have ensured themselves a top six spot already, so have nothing to win or lose in this game, they’ll be keen to avoid a potentially demoralising defeat to an already-relegated side as they look to head into the play-offs with momentum.

With that in mind, I can see this being a 3-0 loss.

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Half-Way Review: The Other 23 – The Promotion Challengers

Top Scorer: Billy Sharp (16) Most Assists: John Fleck & Mark Duffy (6)

Top Scorer: Billy Sharp (16)
Most Assists: John Fleck & Mark Duffy (6)

Sheffield United (1st Place)

Anyone with even a passing interest in League One knows the drill, Sheffield United start the season as promotion favourites and spend the next 46 games finding new ways to fall short despite having the biggest budget and crowds in the division. After a poor first few games, it looked like Chris Wilder’s Blades were going to be like Nigel Adkins’, Nigel Clough’s and Danny Wilson’s Blades in failing to discover that gritty, winning mentality that was once the club’s hallmark. However, three crucial changes to the side towards the end of August now sees this Sheffield United side looking ready to deliver on their perennial promise of a return to the Championship.

The signings of goalkeeper Simon Moore, centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell and a switch to a 3-4-1-2 formation have seen Sheffield United not just shoot up the league but absolutely dominate their opponents in almost every game they’ve played since the start of September. If there has been one criticism of the Blades this season, it’s that they’ve perhaps been overly reliant on Billy Sharp’s form in front of goal, with summer signings Leon Clarke and Caolan Lavery struggling to find form. Nonetheless, they are top of the division and are in a position to further strengthen their squads. The title favourites by some distance.

Top Scorer: Zach Clough (8) Most Assists: Jay Spearing (3)

Top Scorer: Zach Clough (8)
Most Assists: Jay Spearing (3)

Bolton Wanderers (2nd Place)

The appointment of Phil Parkinson as manager in the summer has proven to be just what Bolton needed to avoid a difficult first season in the third-tier. Not famed for playing a particularly progressive style of football, Phil Parkinson’s no-nonsense football has seen Bolton overpower many opponents with brute force from what is a squad mostly made up of experienced and proven Championship-level performers, with Zach Clough and the now-departed Sammy Ameobi providing a small dashing of flair in the final third.

Although Bolton currently occupy a top-two position and have probably the division’s strongest squad, they haven’t been entirely convincing and have produced some pretty poor showings on occasion this season. It feels like Bolton under Parkinson will rely upon taking fewer risks than anyone else and hope that no-one below them find form to secure promotion. In this division this season, it could well be enough.

Top Scorer: Josh Morris (15) Most Assists: Josh Morris (10)

Top Scorer: Josh Morris (15)
Most Assists: Josh Morris (10)

Scunthorpe United (3rd Place)

Having finished last season in excellent form, it wasn’t a massive surprise that Scunthorpe United were this season’s pace-setters. However, the main surprise with Scunthorpe this season is that they’ve much of their success has not been based around the goalscoring exploits of Paddy Madden, who’s played a relatively cameo role in the Iron’s impressive first half of the campaign. Instead, manager Graham Alexander has gotten the best out of forwards Tom Hopper and Kevin van Veen, who were already on the books, while his summer additions of Duane Holmes and particularly Josh Morris have added another dimension to what was already a strong squad.

Scunthorpe have a strong spine in central midfield and defence and have based much of their success this season on working hard and capitalising on mistakes or Josh Morris producing a moment of magic. However, they’ve won just once in their past six games and it’s looking like Graham Alexander is going to have to change things up a little to set them back on their way. The next month is going to be crucial for the Iron in restoring that lost momentum.

Preview: Scunthorpe United

An amazing turnaround against Wycombe on Wednesday night has put a different complexion on what looked to be two rather underwhelming performances in the cup. Not only should the turnaround give us a sense of impetus heading into our toughest league fixture of the season but we look to have a decent level of strength in depth, which is never a bad thing.

This Scunthorpe game though is going to test just how much we can read into the Wycombe turnaround, our impressive home form and the modest improvements made since Tony Mowbray’s departure. The fixture list has been fairly kind to us this season, especially at home where we’ve played three of the current bottom four and just one of the current top six, which is why it still doesn’t quite feel like we’ve justified looking towards the play-offs rather than the relegation zone. Getting something out of this game – points or a really good performance – will provide that validation we’ve been missing thus far.

Possible Line-Up

With only the injuries of Chris Stokes, Chris McCann and Kwame Thomas to contend with, Mark Venus is free to pick what he feels is his strongest side for this game. The performances of Ryan Haynes, Jodi Jones and Jack McBean provide the temptation to deviate away from a formation and team selection that led to our recent improvement, Venus has to decide whether those players have provided a convincing enough case to justify potentially disruptive changes to the side.

Ryan Haynes is probably least likely out of the three to come in, simply because the defence appears to have gelled over the past five or six league games. A lot of our good attacking play against Wycombe involved Jack McBean’s hold-up play, but with Rose back in a three-man midfield, those qualities may not be as important as pace to hit Scunthorpe on the counter. Jodi Jones has a much better shot given that Venus doesn’t seem to have found the best combination in the front three, but could struggle against a physical Scunthorpe defence.

Last Time We Met

Scunthorpe inflicted upon us a 2-1 defeat that was our third in a row and which heralded our collapse from promotion contenders to mid-table also-rans last season. Scunthorpe put in a well-disciplined away performance, blocking the centre of the pitch, countering with intent and taking their chances to hold us at arm’s length for most of the contest. A late Adam Armstrong penalty wasn’t enough to reverse the tide and just days later James Maddison was sold to Norwich to make the unravelling even worse. Also, Stephen Hunt played for us that day.

How Are They Doing?

Scunthorpe showed against us in January that they had a really solid base to build on and since Graham Alexander’s appointment as manager in March, they’ve managed to convert that solid base into a ruthlessly efficient team-unit. While former manager Mark Robins deserves a modicum of credit for putting most of this squad together, Alexander has done incredibly well at making sense of the squad he inherited and making a few additions of his own to make them even better.

Despite being runaway league leaders for much of the campaign, Scunthorpe aren’t a particularly flash side but are physically-imposing, incredibly hard-working and lethal in the final-third. They’ve scored a lot from set-pieces and on the counter, but have also demonstrated the ability to grind teams down through efficient spells of possession too. Even though last season’s top-scorer Paddy Madden is likely not to feature in this game, one of the main attributes of this Scunthorpe side has been how many goals so many different players have scored for them.

Left-winger Josh Morris is the club and the division’s current top-scorer, with most of his goals being incredibly well-hit set-pieces and long-range efforts – this was a player Bradford let go for free this summer. Powerful Dutch striker Kevin van Veen never really lived up to the hype under Mark Robins but has returned from a loan in his native country as a key focal point in attack, scoring some beautiful goals of his own but also providing a physical presence up-front and creating chances for his team-mates. Former Leicester youngster Tom Hopper has also chipped in with his fair share of the goals this season and is another typically hard-working player on Scunthorpe’s books.

Possible Line-Up

The energy from midfield provided by captain Stephen Dawson and the young American winger Duane Holmes has allowed Scunthorpe to over-run teams at times. Holmes looked a big prospect at Huddersfield before struggling to nail down a starting place but has offered Scunthorpe a real outlet on the counter, as well as the ability to track-back and protect his full-back. Dawson, with the burly Neal Bishop alongside him, is part of that solid spine of the team that Graham Alexander inherited at Glanford Park.

The central defensive duo of David Mirfin and Murray Wallace is one of the most solid partnerships in the entire Football League. The veteran Mirfin is a classic physically-imposing brute who’s enjoyed a renaissance at the club under Graham Alexander when Mark Robins had been keen to let him go. Wallace is a more mobile defender who can also bring the ball out from the back but is first and foremost an incredibly competent defender. Alexander is spoilt for choice at full-back with Jordan Clarke and Scott Wiseman at right-back and Conor Townsend and Harry Toffolo at left-back all capable of walking into any other League One back four.

Prediction

Overall, I’m just not convinced that this recent upturn in form is enough to go out and beat the league leaders. We seem to have developed a habit of starting games lackadaisically and against a team with quality in the final third and a rock-solid defence, we would struggle to get anything out of this game if we fall behind.

I’ve got a feeling this will be the game that shows just how far away we are from being a genuinely good side again. Scunthorpe to win 3-1.

Preview: Fleetwood Town

One of these days supporting Coventry City will provide some sort of cardiac failure for me. For about three minutes after Frank Nouble put us 3-1 up against Chesterfield that cloud of anxiety that usually comes with supporting this club had assuaged. Yet as soon as I remembered that it was Coventry City that I supported and nothing is ever safe, Chesterfield pulled a goal back and it was back to usual, familiar, anxiety that we are all so accustomed to.

The job was eventually seen through and it proved to be a valuable win after Leyton Orient smashed Yeovil Town to threaten us with the bottom four. Orient look set to vacate the relegation zone in an upwards fashion in the next few weeks, that win on Saturday goes a long way to ensuring that their resurgence won’t be at the expense of our League One status.

A no from Tony to setting points targets.

A no from Tony to setting points targets.

I sincerely doubt that Tony Mowbray is someone who looks at points targets, but if we are to assume that 52 points will keep us up, we ideally need four wins from the final 10 games. Not winning on Saturday would have meant that we could have needed to win exactly half of our remaining games to stay up. Still, a win against Fleetwood in this forthcoming game will reduce that minimum target of wins to just three in nine. As bad as our situation has looked for the past month or so, putting together a couple of wins will make a massive difference.

The Wolves captain Sam Ricketts seems set to sign at the time of writing but this game may come too soon for him to be involved despite reports that he travelled with the squad to Saturday’s game. His signing on loan makes Chris Stokes position at left-back seem precarious although Ricketts can play anywhere across the back and it seems likely that we could turn Stokes into a permanent signing should Mowbray so wish.

The return of Jim O’Brien presents Mowbray’s biggest selection headache after Spurs loanee Grant Ward put in a solid debut as a holding midfielder which freed up John Fleck to get forward more and after Adam Barton impressed as a right-sided midfielder. Captain O’Brien has been in really mixed form over the past few months and at times his performances have seemed detrimental to the team as a whole. O’Brien definitely has a role to play for the rest of the season, it would just be harsh to drop anyone from midfield after Saturday’s win.

Possible Line-Up: (4-2-3-1) Burge; Willis, Pennington, Martin, Stokes;Ward, Fleck; Barton, Tudgay, Odelusi, Nouble

Last Time We Met

One of the strangest moments of the season came during our last, and only previous, meeting against Fleetwood Town. It was a fairly drab game in which Fleetwood took the lead slightly against the run of play. Only, you wouldn’t have known that Fleetwood had actually scored judging from the decibel level at the Ricoh Arena, I can’t have been the only one who thought that the goal had either hit the side-netting or been disallowed.

The Sky Blues blustered through the rest of the game, trying mainly to play long balls towards Gary Madine and seeing what happened after that. Just as it looked like we were going to lose another dismal game at the Ricoh Arena without really putting pressure on the opposition, James Maddison’s introduction actually led to us threatening our opponents. Although Maddison was not directly involved in the goal, yet another long ball towards Madine from which Simeon Jackson pounced on the flick-on, the youngster gave us some much-needed impetus in the final third to earn us the point.

How Are They Doing?

Fleetwood have managed to stick around the top half of this division for most of the season, based on having a remarkably stingy defence and some strong form at home. Graham Alexander’s side are not necessarily defensive in their approach but are set up in a way that’s hard for opponents to break down. The main thing that’s been holding Fleetwood back has been the lack of an out-and-out goalscoring centre-forward, although sitting just two points off the play-offs shows that it’s not hurting them that badly.

Remarkably for a team chasing the play-offs, their top-scorer is a midfielder with only seven goals.

Remarkably for a team chasing the play-offs, their top-scorer is a midfielder with only seven goals.

Their current top-scorer is Blackburn loanee midfielder Josh Morris who has seven goals this season. A tidy box-to-box midfielder, the left-footed Morris’ work-rate makes him an important player in Graham Alexander’s side. The manager’s style of play seems to suit hard-working players with the more creative Antoni Sarcevic and Stephen Dobbie having struggled for form over the course of the season.

Marshalling the defence is former Stevenage captain Mark Roberts who has been ever-present since joining at the start of last season, playing a major role in their promotion from League Two and now in their push for the play-offs. A commanding centre-back, who may not be the quickest on the ground but the way Fleetwood pack the midfield has meant that he has been rarely exposed in that manner. Also in defence, right-back Conor McLaughlin has impressed over the past few years, drawing glances from the richer League One clubs and a few Championship sides.

Goalkeeper Chris Maxwell has also been an important player in keeping Fleetwood’s defensive record so tight. The former Wrexham stopper has made the position his own since returning from a loan spell in the Conference 12 months ago and is now developing a reputation as one of the better keepers in the division.

Possible Line-Up: (4-4-1-1) Maxwell; McLaughlin, Roberts, Pond, Chicksen; Evans, Schumacher, Murdoch, Morris; Sarcevic; Proctor.

Prediction

As vital as Saturday’s win was, it would be all for nought if we were unable to get any kind of result here with Orient starting to pick up form. If we are going to save ourselves, we will need to pick up some momentum and these Saturday-Tuesday weeks can transform the short-term outlook of your season very quickly. Fleetwood is a tough place to go and get a result, they are one of those teams that can be hard to break-down once they take the lead. They will also be looking at this game as a chance to go into the play-off spots and their recent experiences of promotion will mean that they are used to grinding out results at this time of the season.

The goals are starting to come again under Tony Mowbray, so I would back us to score in this game. Given that Fleetwood can struggle in front of goal at times, I can see this finishing as a 1-1 draw.

Preview: Fleetwood

It’s that dreaded weekend of the arrival of Wasps. The ostentatious branding of the Ricoh Arena is nearing completion with not one but two Wasps crests installed on the stadium exterior. As if to emphasise Coventry City’s status as the number two act in the stadium that was once built for us, we play the role of opening act ahead of Sunday’s main event.

They all count. Madine's expert finish for our second last Saturday.

They all count. Madine’s ‘expert’ finish for our second last Saturday.

Whisper it quietly though, Coventry City are on something of a run now. Just one league defeat in our last seven games has taken us from the edge of the relegation zone to just six points from the play-offs. The cup defeat to Worcester City still looms large over our season as has the two most recent home performances where the team scored an aggregate total of 0 and gathered just one point. Perhaps it has been those recent home performances which have made our rise up the table feel like an act of stealth compared to the statement of intention that our immediate post-Ricoh Arena return form was.

Or maybe it has been that the team has taken advantage of two poor teams during our last two away victories. In performances lacking in fluency with players regularly misplacing passes or picking the wrong option, wins against Colchester and Port Vale seem to have resulted from the law of averages dictating that sometimes you get lucky when you play badly.

Steven Pressley has spoken about the impact that the Ricoh Arena pitch has had on his strategy over the past two months, preferring a more direct and narrow style of football. The introduction of a new pitch changes matters and Pressley will have to prove that his gripes over the state of the pitch were genuine rather than an excuse for just flat out poor performances.

We could see a slight change up in style with a more proactive strategy. Gary Madine complained in the week about his frustrations at playing as a lone striker and has talked up his partnership with Frank Nouble. With the onus on the team to attack what will surely be a defensively-focused Fleetwood Town team, a switch back to 4-4-2 may be the best way to assert ourselves on the game.

Reda Johnson will be missing from this game which will break up the ‘land of the giants’ at the back with Ryan Haynes most likely to take his left-back spot with Danny Pugh still short of fitness. If the team do line up with a 4-4-2 and with Nouble pairing Madine in attack, Josh McQuoid will miss the game due to the maximum of five loan players ruling. It will also give Danny Swanson a chance to impress when he may have dropped out of the team had Johnson been fit. Aaron Martin is another doubt but the fit-again Seb Hines is a more than adequate replacement should Martin not make the game.

Possible Line-Up: (4-4-2) Allsop; Pennington, Martin, Webster, Haynes; O’Brien, Barton, Fleck, Swanson; Nouble, Madine.

Last Time We Met

Aside from a pre-season friendly in 2013, Coventry City and Fleetwood Town have never met in a competitive game. The closest connections between the two teams are Adam Barton and Fleetwood manager Graham Alexander.

Barton ended last season on loan with the Cod Army but struggled to even make the bench as manager Graham Alexander found a settled line-up which squeezed the Fylde Coast side into League One via the play-offs.

Graham Alexander was born in Coventry and was a trainee at Coventry City before being released at a young age. He proved the staff at our academy wrong by amassing over 800 league appearances, mainly during spells with Burnley and Preston, winning international caps with Scotland and developing a reputation as one of English football’s best ever penalty takers.

How Are They Doing?

It was a rather attritional promotion winning season for Fleetwood as they struggled to play the kind of football that their heavy financial backing should have dictated. But in League One that financial advantage is lessened as they compete with more storied clubs with much bigger fan-bases. Still, it doesn’t matter how you get there but what you do when are there, and Fleetwood are sitting rather pretty in 11th place despite some mediocre recent form.

Sarcevic dragged Fleetwood into League One but has been slow to adapt to third-tier football.

Sarcevic dragged Fleetwood into League One but has been slow to adapt to third-tier football.

Last season’s star was Antoni Sarcevic who excelled as Graham Alexander built the team around his talents. However the story this season has been about the hard-work of the collective. Fleetwood’s defence ranks joint-second-best in the division and it’s been a lack of firepower that has held them back from making a more concerted promotion push. Despite the presence of proven goal-scorers such as Stephen Dobbie and Tom Hitchcock in their ranks, it has been an uphill task for Fleetwood in the creating and taking of chances.

The leader of Fleetwood’s defence is Mark Roberts who captained and for a time even managed Stevenage during their run from the Conference to the League One play-offs a few seasons ago. It’s been no coincidence that since joining Graham Alexander’s side in 2013, Fleetwood have been so miserly at the back. In addition they have Stephen Jordan who can play at left-back or centre-back and was recently nominated for League One player of the month. Ex-Preston youth-teamer Conor McLaughlin is a threat from right-back and was linked with more illustrious clubs before extending his contract last summer.

Sarcevic remains a threat in midfield but Josh Morris and Jeff Hughes are more important players in the middle of the park. Jeff Hughes was a star at Notts County two seasons ago before Fleetwood’s money took him to the Fylde Coast, a threat from long range and with his set-pieces, Hughes can dominate the midfield area. Josh Morris, on loan from Blackburn, can crop up at left-back, left-midfield and centrally, can put in a good cross but is first and foremost a hard-worker which makes him key in Graham Alexander’s eyes.

Possible Line Up: (4-4-2 Diamond) Maxwell; McLaughlin, Roberts, Jordan, Andrew; Sarcevic, J Hughes, Morris, Evans; Proctor, M Hughes.

Prediction

Do we dare to be optimistic as Coventry City fans? Do we dare to dream that perhaps this season still has something in it for us? Can we win back-to-back league games for just the second time this season?

But we are up against a Fleetwood side in quite poor form, especially away from home, and we are in a reasonable run ourselves. If we can take this opportunity then we may enter the Christmas period just three points off the play-offs and stand a good chance of making the top six by the time January comes round, that would be some turnaround from that Worcester defeat. I’m going with the power of optimism and backing the boys in Sky Blue to the tune of a 2-0 win.