Preview: Sheffield United

How to put Sunday into words? It was just a beautiful day and 43,000 Sky Blues fans were there to witness it. For a while, it didn’t feel like any other game of football, and by the time that it did, we were a goal up and were then not only playing at Wembley, but were winning at Wembley.

While Oxford were clearly the better team, the difference between the two teams on the day was that it mattered more to us. Seven academy players played for us, two got on the scoresheet and one lifted the cup – it was very much a homegrown triumph. What we witnessed was a group of local lads coming together to win something for their city, that made the win especially sweet.

If ever you needed reminding though how fleeting moments of success in football are, look no further than to this upcoming midweek game against Sheffield United. While Mark Robins and the players are outwardly stating that they still feel survival can be achieved, we would have to break the club’s record league winning streak in order to do so and still have to hope that other results fall in our favour. This game is more about Sheffield United winning a game to potentially secure promotion than it is about winning a game to keep us in this division.

Possible Line-Up

Making things even more difficult for Mark Robins is the current injury situation. Kwame Thomas and Callum Reilly were both out injured for Sunday’s game and it’s unclear whether they’ll be back fit for this game. Jordan Willis limped off injured in the closing stages on Sunday and may not recover in time for this game. Then Robins has got to contend with the fatigue that comes with playing games in such quick succession – especially as so many put everything on the line for Sunday’s triumph.

There is a decision to be made in defence where Farrend Rawson and Nathan Clarke have both done well in the past few league games but Jordan Turnbull and Chris Stokes excelled in central defence against Oxford. With all four players presumably available for this game, Robins may be tempted to keep at least Jordan Turnbull in the side from Sunday given that he not only played so well, but is contracted for next season. Equally though, Sheffield United’s physical threat may see Robins plump for Rawson.

Last Time We Met

If you wanted another reminder of what a terrible season this has been, cast your minds back to December 2016 when we last played Sheffield United. Sky TV cameras were in attendance to capture a sparsely-attended game that was heavily disrupted in the second-half by a pitch invasion led by fans protesting SISU’s ownership of the club. The game looked like somehow playing out into an unlikely 1-1 draw, before Sheffield United won the game in the final minutes to make a depressing evening even worse from a Sky Blues perspective.

How Are They Doing?

As mentioned earlier in this post, Sheffield United are on the verge of a long-awaited promotion back to the Championship, with a win in this game possibly enough to seal it. Having spent the past five seasons with one of the division’s biggest budgets and best attendances, this has been an inevitable moment that has somehow been delayed by a combination of bad managerial appointments, rewarding average players with expensive salaries and bad luck. This season has been different thanks to the appointment of Chris Wilder, cutting the dead wood from the squad and dominating games to the extent that luck has rarely been a factor.

Wilder was ruthless in the summer in releasing and transfer-listing unwanted players, making a few smart additions to the squad and quickly establishing a winning formula. Much like Antonio Conte at Chelsea, some poor performances in the early part of the season led to a change to a three-man defensive system which has turned the team into an irresistible force.

The goals of Billy Sharp have been a huge factor in Sheffield United’s bid for the League One title this season. He has 26 to his name this campaign, with the next highest-scoring striker in the squad being Caolan Lavery with four goals. However, goals have come from all areas of the team with wing-back Kieron Freeman on an impressive 10 goals for the campaign and centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell on five.

Possible Line-Up

Another key player for the Blades has been Mark Duffy, who leads the team with nine assists this season. Duffy played a major role in Burton’s promotion from this level last season as a winger, but has played just behind a front two for Sheffield United for much of the campaign. John Fleck and Paul Coutts in midfield both offer creativity from a deeper-lying position, while the wing-backs Kieron Freeman and Danny Lafferty provide valuable width.

At the back, the signing of Simon Moore in goal has proved to be a pivotal moment of Sheffield United’s campaign. Academy graduate George Long had looked set to be the number one goalkeeper this season after a promising previous campaign, however, some sloppy errors in the opening few games saw Chris Wilder act decisively in bringing Moore in from Cardiff before the end of the summer transfer window and Wilder has never been offered pause for thought on that decision following some solid goalkeeping displays from Simon Moore.

Prediction

It’s a shame that we’ve got to play such a difficult away game just days after the club’s greatest triumph in a generation. It would be easy to take the foot off the gas for this game as we’re not expected to win and the players could easily point to fatigue as an excuse. However, Mark Robins is clearly someone who’s not going to accept taking such a mentality, and he may see this game as an opportunity to assess which players he can trust for next season.

Taking a rational look at how these two teams compare against each other, Sheffield United are clear favourites for this game and should be able to win with ease. I think this will be a 2-0 loss.

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: 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.

Preview: Oldham Athletic

Just when you think you’re done with this football club, a night like Tuesday night happens just at the right time to rekindle your faith in the club. A ramshackle and patched-up side containing a mix of too-young youngsters, too-old veterans and one or two hand-me-downs put their bodies on the line for this football club and now we have a day at Wembley to distract us from this car-crash of a season.

It’s official, we’ve won more games and scored more goals in cup competitions than we have in the league, the exact reason for such a situation feels almost inscrutable. You could point to there being less pressure, or the fact that only two of ten teams we’ve played in the cups have not been from a lower level, or youth teams. However, there’s also been a greater level of identity, work-rate and commitment from the team, that seems to have come from resting senior players to play academy players on the fringes of the first-team.

In that regard, this run in the Checkatrade Trophy hasn’t been as pointless as you would assume from the competition’s diminshed status. Not only have the likes of Ryan Haynes, Dion Kelly-Evans and George Thomas been given valuable minutes on the pitch against, albeit lower-league, first-teams, but they’ve had the experience of winning increasingly high pressure games that helps form groups together.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

It’s why it makes more sense to stick with Tuesday night’s thrown-together line-up for this big game against Oldham than it does to revert to a team closer to the one used against Millwall. It’s a case of sticking with a winning team, but it’s also sticking with a team with a sense of identity versus one that is, at best, still learning how to function. Although, given the paucity of options in midfield and attack, the main decisions for Slade to make our sticking or twisting in defence.

Personally, I think Reice Charles-Cook and Dion Kelly-Evans deserve to start this game having demonstrated to me that they’re our best options in their respective positions. I wouldn’t be entirely convinced by a centre-back pairing of Harries and Turnbull, despite Tuesday night’s performances, so would be able to sympathise with Slade for sticking with the respective physicality and experience of Rawson and Clarke. My overall instinct though is that the team will be closer to last Saturday’s against Millwall than Tuesday night’s against Wycombe.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting against Oldham was one of the duller 0-0 draws in recent Ricoh Arena history, and that’s up against some competition. An otherwise forgettable game in the final days of Tony Mowbray’s reign that was only enlivened by our former manager’s decision to play a 4-1-5 formation for the start of the second-half, that would have cost us the game if Oldham had been able to take advantage of the momentum Mowbray handed to them.

How Are They Doing?

Oldham not only looked dead and buried for much of the first-half of the season, they actively seemed to be embracing the drop into League Two. Stephen Robinson had effectively been given a hospital pass in his first managerial role this summer and had to scramble a squad together from cast-offs, and the Latics unsurprisingly failed to start the season with any momentum and were quickly moored to the bottom of the division.

Robinson was eventually sacked last month, at the very instant that John Sheridan had been sacked for sweary antics at struggling Notts County in the division below. It had been a shock when Sheridan left Boundary Park in the summer for perennial crisis club Notts County, but he seems not to have lost any of the goodwill he’d built up during two previous stints as manager and Oldham seem to have discovered a sense of identity and momentum over the past few weeks.

John Sheridan also brought two key players from last season’s survival push, Aaron Holloway and Anthony Gerrard, which seems to have given a rudderless side a presence in both boxes. Gerrard is an archetypal dominant, leader centre-back that you need when battling at the wrong end of the division, he forms a grizzled defensive pairing with the equally experienced and dominant Peter Clarke. Holloway is at the other end of his career and had struggled to assert himself anywhere before an impressive loan spell at Oldham last season. A move to Fleetwood didn’t work out, but Holloway has shown signs of being the hard-working and mobile target-man that he was this time last year.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Connor Ripley in goal has emerged as a real star player at this level this season, the Middlesbrough loanee has earned a reputation as one of the best shot-stoppers in the league whose heroics have kept the club within striking distance of safety for much of the campaign. While former Liverpool youngster Ryan McLaughlin has been converted from a right-back into a forward player in recent weeks under Sheridan, with his pace and energy making him a real threat to opposing defences.

Two other Sheridan signings in January could prove decisive in the relegation scrap. Winger Chris Taylor has returned the club where he made his name on loan from Bolton and his experience and work-rate out wide could be a real asset. Burnley youngster Aiden O’Neill could also prove to be an inspired addition, the young Australian midfielder carries the ball really well from midfield and has a great eye for a pass, having assisted Peter Clarke on his debut for a final minute winner last weekend.

Prediction

After the high of Tuesday night, we face what is an even bigger game in this away trip to Oldham. While the prize on offer is nowhere near as big as a trip to Wembley, the pressure in this game is that failing to win makes a difficult situation to survive nigh-on impossible.  This isn’t a game we can use as the first step on a journey towards survival, this is a game where everything has to go our way and any error could be season-ending.

I’m not sure how the thoughts of a trip to Wembley will affect the players, but surely they must understand just how dire our situation is right now, we probably need to win more than half our remaining games. My pessimistic side is calling to me and I can see this being an annoying 0-0 draw.

Preview: Northampton Town

At least Tuesday night’s exploits in the Checkatrade Trophy provided some small amount of salve to the open wound that is our football club at this moment in time. It’s not just that we’re bottom of the division and not even a win in this upcoming game will change that, it’s that the game-plan last week against Fleetwood was so dire that it’s hard to see us putting together the requisite run of wins to mount a bid for survival. Oh, and also that horrible feeling lurking underneath that staying up this season will only delay the inevitable.

Maybe that shoot-out win on Tuesday night will boost the confidence of this team, maybe Slade won’t tell the team to hoof the ball aimlessly again, maybe Charles Vernam will be the new Adam Armstrong, maybe we will survive this season, and maybe that will be the start of something special. But it’s hard to see how.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Last week’s 5-3-2 formation against Fleetwood (that looked more like a 5-0-2) was purportedly Slade’s tactical masterplan to match-up against one of the division’s in-form sides, which may mean that it will be discarded for what is now a must-win game against Northampton Town. A switch to a back-four is probably on the cards, with Jordan Turnbull likely to drop-out of the side, although Slade may be tempted to stick with the five due to Ryan Haynes’ defensive deficiencies.

Stuart Beavon being fit and available to last long enough to make an impact on this game is crucial for us to even look like scoring. We could really do with George Thomas, Andy Rose or Kyel Reid looking like more of a goal-threat than they currently do, but maybe this is where Charles Vernam comes in to save the day. Whoever it is, someone needs to score some goals for us, or those goals we keep on leaking are going to send us into League Two without a whimper.

Last Time We Met

We’ve already played Northampton twice this season, both times at the Ricoh Arena. The first encounter looked to be a typical match for us this season, we played some okay football, but got bullied by Northampton’s physical prowess and organisation and fell behind. However, Jodi Jones did something he hasn’t done enough this season, produced an end product, in jinking on the edge of the area and putting in a delightful cross for Marcus Tudgay to divert in with the faintest of touches.

The second game came in the early days of our glorious run in the Checkatrade Trophy, just after Tony Mowbray had resigned as manager. Mark Venus oversaw a performance brimming with attacking flair as Dan Agyei scored an amazing individual effort in the first seconds of the game, Northampton pegged us back almost immediately, before Jodi Jones once again produced an end product in putting us quickly back ahead. A wonderfully incisive 35-yard pass from Chris McCann sent Ruben Lameiras through in the second-half to seal the victory. There was some hope then that maybe we could haul ourselves away from the relegation battle.

How Are They Doing?

Northampton Town looked to have settled fairly comfortably into life in League One following Rob Page’s appointment as manager in the summer. They were well-organised and carried a threat on the counter, as well as via Matthew Taylor’s set-pieces and Alex Revell’s aerial threat in attack. However, things unravelled incredibly fast for Page as the autumn leaves turned to brown, and he was sacked just over two weeks ago and quickly replaced by Justin Edinburgh with the team in danger of falling into the relegation scrap.

For Justin Edinburgh, it’s been an almost equally swift fall from grace, having been seen as one of the brightest young managers outside the Championship at the start of the season following his exploits at Gillingham last year, he was sacked early this calendar year with his own team dropping like a stone down the division. It was surprising that he chose to get back into management so quickly, rather than reflect and learn from where things went wrong for him at Gillingham.

The recent change of manager at Sixfields gives them an air of unpredictability about them, although Edinburgh hasn’t really made many changes to the squad at the moment. Fortunately, target-man Alex Revell is ruled out of this game through injury. However, former Portsmouth and West Ham midfielder Matthew Taylor will be a big threat via his pin-point left-foot from both open play and dead ball situations.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Northampton have a fairly hard-working group of players, who perhaps lack that element of explosiveness to be more of a threat. Millwall loanee winger Gregg Wylde offers something different with his pace down the left-wing, however, he is a fairly similar type of winger to Kyel Reid in that he’ll run in straight lines and regularly makes poor decisions with his final ball.

The Cobblers have one of the poor defensive records in the division, although it’s probably been inflated by conceding twelve goals in their past three games, and we should be looking to force them into errors, like we did so well against Bolton at the start of the month. Their defence is filled with experienced, but slow, lower league defenders, they’ll lap up long balls and crosses into the box and Slade would be foolish to replicate last week’s tactics against Fleetwood in this game.

Prediction

Our main hopes going into this game are that as bad as we’ve been recently, Northampton have only been slightly better. Interestingly, Northampton have taken fewer points at home this season than we have, which is remarkable but also goes to show that it has been our away form that has dragged us to the bottom of the division.

You’d hope that eventually this terrible run of form will come to an end, even if only because of the law of averages. Failing to win this game would be as disastrous a result as a league game in January could possibly be. I don’t even want to imagine the meltdown that losing such an important game, at Sixfields, at this moment in time would trigger. I don’t and I won’t. A 2-1 win for the Sky Blues, please, oh footballing gods.

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.