Preview: Charlton Athletic

Last Saturday’s win over Peterborough was perhaps the most enjoyable home game of the season. The game itself was a fairly mediocre one that we slightly edged, however, it was the atmosphere brought on by the good weather, legend’s day, and the chance to congratulate our Wembley heroes that made it such a wonderful afternoon.

Already, that’s feeling like a distant memory following the announcement of the season ticket prices this week. Personally, I don’t feel like they’re as scandalous as it’s being made out, but I also appreciate that people making a decision with their own money may feel differently. Regardless of the actual pricing of the tickets, the announcement has seen the battle lines drawn for what’s inevitably going to be a summer of mud-slinging and what could be a really difficult next season ahead.

Possible Line-Up

While the Peterborough game was an opportunity to bask in the sunshine and forget about the reality of the situation we’re in, this Charlton game where they’ll be protests and relegation could be confirmed looks set to serve as a cold, hard dose of reality. For Mark Robins and the players, it’s about displaying that they can cope in a less advantageous atmosphere, potentially having to deal with disruptions to the game, which could be a truer mark of their ability to produce the goods next year.

After a hectic list of fixtures in recent weeks, Robins should benefit from having a better rested squad than the past few games. Hopefully, the likes of Jordan Willis, Kwame Thomas and others dealing with minor knocks will be fit enough to enter contention for selection, potentially offering the manager some difficult decisions to make.

With Ruben Lameiras in good form over the past few games, it’s hard seeing even a fit Kwame Thomas taking his berth just behind Beavon in the starting line-up. The main selection quandary could well be whether to hand Jodi Jones a rare start ahead of Kyel Reid, even though the latter has been much-improved under Robins.

Last Time We Met

As I tried to locate the away end at The Valley back in October I heard a mysterious cockney voice utter “beware of flying pigs” darkly into the South London air. Thinking nothing of it other than that Londoners are weird, I took my seat for a game of football that I hoped would kick-start a season that hadn’t exactly gone to plan yet.

That cockney wisdom soon came to make sense when the referee blew his whistle to start the game and pigs did indeed fly (well, fall in style). Point made, the game resumed after a lengthy period where rubber pigs were removed from the pitch by the players and we proceeded to lose 3-0 to a team managed by Russell Slade. In fairness, it wasn’t actually a terrible performance, but we were too weak at the back and lacked the ability to convert possession into goals, however, it was a display that screamed relegation.

How Are They Doing?

Charlton have been beguiling this season, at times they have been one of the best teams in the division but they’ve so often been sub-par and appearing to be lacking in motivation that they now find themselves in mid-table with nothing to play for. A high level of squad turnover this season hasn’t helped, first in Russell Slade clearing out the mess of a squad he’d been left after relegation from the Championship, and then Karl Robinson making sweeping changes after replacing Slade in November.

While Karl Robinson has the excuse of not working with a squad entirely of his own choosing, Charlton’s performances under him at times have questioned the concept of him being a good up-and-coming young English manager. He’s got a very strong squad to work with, possibly one of the best at this level, yet he’s only picked up 20 points from the 21 games he’s had in charge – 10 fewer than Slade managed with the same number of games.

The quality in Charlton’s squad comes mainly comes from midfield/attack, where Ricky Holmes has been the star player this season. Remarkably for a player who’s never played as high as this level before, Holmes has looked a cut above in his wing play and end product. Former Swindon winger Nathan Byrne provides further quality out wide, while the attack boasts the physical prowess of Josh Magennis and Lee Novak, as well as the enigmatic former Celtic striker Tony Watt.

Karl Robinson’s big signing Jake Forster-Caskey has been a class act in a deeper midfield position, supplying creativity alongside academy product Joe Aribo who was rather exuberantly likened to Dele Alli early in the season by Robinson. The experienced Andrew Crofts provides a physical platform at the base of midfield to build from, while there’s also club captain and hero Johnnie Jackson to call upon despite his advancing age.

Possible Line-Up

At the back, Charlton have an array of high-calibre centre-backs who could all really be playing at a higher-level. Patrick Bauer and Jorge Teixeira are domineering presences in central defence and the only random foreign players to last Russell Slade’s summer cull. There’s also Jason Pearce who has excelled in the past at Championship level, while Ezri Konsa has emerged as a big prospect this season after playing in a number of positions in defence and midfield.

There’s also the reliable Chris Solly to call upon at right-back, who has stayed loyal over the years despite previous links to Premier League clubs, and Declan Rudd in goal, who made several appearances last season in goal for Norwich in the top-flight. All in all, this is a time that shouldn’t be languishing in mid-table in League One.

Prediction

There are similarities between this Charlton side and the Peterborough one we faced last week. Both have aspirations of playing pretty, passing football and have a number of dangerous attacking players, but both have appeared to lack a cutting edge to their play and have a soft underbelly that can be exposed with proper organisation and the right mentality.

I would be confident predicting a win in this game, however the potential protests present an unknown factor both in how they may happen and whether it will have any effect on the team. Given that it is an unknown factor, I’m going to stick to my guns and tip us to win this game 2-1.

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

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

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

Rochdale (4th Place)

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

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

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

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

Bradford City (5th Place)

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

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

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

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

Fleetwood Town (6th Place)

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

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

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

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

Southend United (7th Place)

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

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

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

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

Peterborough United (8th Place)

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

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

 

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

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

Millwall (9th Place)

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

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

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

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

Bristol Rovers (10th Place)

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

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

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

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

Charlton Athletic (11th Place)

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

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

Preview: MK ‘Dons’

To adapt a joke from the comedian John Oliver about New Years’ Eve, Sheffield United’s comeback against us last Saturday was like the death of the family pet, no matter how much we knew it was going to happen, we were never truly prepared for how awful it actually was.

Pressley left on Monday.

‘Our pet’ Steven Pressley was put out of his misery on Monday morning.

The ineptitude of surrendering a two-goal to a team with ten men who you were cruising against hasn’t quite been given the analysis it deserved after the sacking of Steven Pressley on Monday morning. Despite his record over the past 15 months being truly indefensible, it was still a surprise to see it happen. Expanding on John Oliver’s joke, it was like an old family pet unexpectedly getting run over by a truck. Or depending on how you feel about Pressley, it was like that moment in Of Mice And Men when Carlson took Candy’s dog out back and shot it.

The attention this week has been on just which manager will get the chance to either leave us at the earliest opportunity or outstay his welcome and get sacked in 18 months time. This forthcoming game against Milton Keynes ‘Dons’ has been an afterthought. In the perilous situation that we find ourselves in, this is dangerous thinking as we need to make every game count. The difficulty of the opposition may lead to some thinking this is essentially a freebie for messrs Hockaday and MacFarlane but we were very close to beating Sheffield United which shows that we definitely have the quality to take something from this upcoming game.

Barring a late emergency loan deal, Lee Burge will have to step up in goal following the return of Jamie Jones to Preston North End. Burge played well overall in his last appearance and has experience of a relegation battle with Nuneaton, those shaky performances a few months ago will nevertheless spread nerves in the defence. With that in mind, a recall for Andy Webster could be in store just to add some experience to a youthful looking defence.

Also, the bean-pole German striker Nick Proschwitz has been signed on loan ahead of this game, swelling our ranks of many, many forwards. There are plenty of attacking options now, it’s about getting the right mix which we have failed to do so far this season.

Without knowing what the atmosphere at training will have been like this week and what approach Hockaday and McFarlane have in mind for this game. There may be a few surprises with players freed from the biases of the Pressley-era. Below though is the team I would pick.

Possible Line-Up: (4-4-2) Burge; Willis, Martin, Webster, Haynes; Odelusi, Thomas, Fleck, O’Brien; Proschwitz, Samuel.

Last Time We Met

Following the announcement of the big return to Coventry, Sky Blues fans travelled to Milton Keynes back in August hopeful of witnessing the start of a new, positive era for Coventry City. The match fell short of expectations with a limited Coventry City side barely containing the ‘Dons’ with loanee Ryan Allsop having to make some agile saves to keep us in the game. A 0-0 draw was a decent result and preserved an unbeaten run to give the team a sense of momentum heading into the club’s return to the Ricoh Arena.

How Are They Doing?

It’s that dreaded season that many League One fans had been hoping wouldn’t happen. MK ‘Dons’ are right in the promotion mix alongside Swindon Town and Bristol City. They have won their past two games and will be taking around 2,000 fans to the Ricoh Arena, looking to further cement that 2nd place position in the table.

Let's hope that MK 'Dons' follow the same path as another team that thought they could do without Carl Baker.

Let’s hope that MK ‘Dons’ follow the same path as another team that thought they could do without Carl Baker.

Karl Robinson’s team could be without two of their star performers this season with top-scorer Dele Alli injured and Carl Baker (apparently who used to play for us) potentially being rested for this fixture. Regardless of the absences of those two, there is still some incredible midfield quality to call upon. None more so than Keith Andrews, a cut above most League One midfielders and at the start of the season was an important box-to-box midfielder at Watford in the Championship. The gifted Chelsea youngster Lewis Baker was brought in earlier this week and adds further quality to a the MK ‘Dons’ midfield.

The ‘Dons’ are still coping with the loss of Arsenal loanee Benik Afobe to Wolves with several players being experimented with in his vacated position. They can call upon some proven players at this level in Devante ‘Son of Andy/Andrew’ Cole, Dean Bowditch and Will Grigg competing for one striking spot. Grigg has been in form of late and should start in this game, the powerful and quick Devante Cole may be played on the right of midfield too.

There is less strength in depth in defence but the first-choice players are good enough not to require back-ups. Dean Lewington, the only remaining player at the ‘Dons’ to have played for Wimbledon FC, continues to be ever-present at left-back. Kyle McFadzean has been a stand-out dominant centre-back at this level before but can be exposed slightly by the ‘Dons’ open, passing game.

Possible Line-Up: (4-2-3-1) Martin; Spence, Kay, McFadzean, Lewington; Potter, Andrews; Cole, Baker, Reeves; Grigg

Prediction

This isn’t a game that I’m particularly looking forward to. Performances have been better of late and if we do go down this season, we might question whether Pressley might actually have been steering the team towards a slow upwards improvement in form. The worry is that the mental scars of giving up a two-goal lead against Sheffield United will affect the team negatively, the uncertainty over the managerial situation will affect the team negatively and that the what could be toxic atmosphere could affect the team negatively. That doesn’t even factor in the quality of that MK ‘Dons’ offer themselves.

Sometimes crazy things happen when a manager leaves with players given an opportunity to reinvent themselves or show what they’re about. I worry though that the team will view this game as a no-lose situation and MK ‘Dons’ will take this very seriously, ergo a heavy victory for the away team which no-one has to take responsibility for. Optimistically, I can see us exploiting the nerves of our promotion-chasing opposition, perhaps by frustrating them by sitting deep and wiping Karl Robinson’s self-satisfied smirk off his face with some rapid counter-attacking goals.

Can I really see that happening with this Coventry City team? No. 4-0 win for MK ‘Dons’.

If you want to know why I refer to the team from Milton Keynes as MK ‘Dons’, click here.

Preview: Milton Keynes

What a week it has been. 7 days ago we were wondering where our next win was going to come from, whether our manager was about to leave (for Huddersfield, again), whether we wanted him to stay and where the judicial review would leave the club.

Now we’ve take four points from two of the pre-season promotion favourites, our manager seems to be staying around but more importantly we’re back in Coventry!

The coming fixture against Milton Keynes is feeling like something of a side-show prior to the first home game back at the Ricoh Arena. It almost feels akin to when the team is handed a big cup tie, the fixtures prior always feel to be of lesser importance. You would imagine that Steven Pressley will be able to keep concentration up and sustain what appears to be the start of a decent run of form.

Confidence is starting to grow after two decent performances in a week.

Confidence is starting to grow after two decent performances in a week.

Whilst the win over Sheffield United was down to pure hard-work, the point in the final game of exile against Barnsley was as a result of a more convincing display. Whilst our keeper Ryan Allsop dropped us two points on Tuesday night, literally, the team should take the confidence from a more controlling display than the one that had preceded it.

The balance of the team is coming into place with players appearing to have a better understanding of the roles that they are being asked to perform in the new 5-3-2 system. Ryan Haynes’ forward drive from left wing-back has been a major factor, Reda Johnson in defence provides the platform, Danny Swanson creates overloads out wide with the two Jordans on the right defending well as a duo.

In terms of team selection you would imagine that Pressley would stick with the same team again. McQuoid’s first goal should add confidence to his work-rate for the team with Shaun Miller and Simeon Jackson great options to have from the bench. Additionally it would be a risk dropping Ryan Allsop despite his errors on Tuesday and could risk ruining his confidence whilst throwing in the largely untested Lee Burge too soon.

Possible Line-Up (5-3-2): Allsop; Clarke, Willis, Webster, Johnson, Haynes; O’Brien, Fleck, Swanson; Tudgay, McQuoid.

Last Time We Met

When we last played each other it was in our difficult phase towards the end of last season. On okay performance overall but we were second best to a Milton Keynes side still chasing the play-offs.

However most Coventry City fans will not forget the past two times we’ve travelled to Milton Keynes. Our last away game against them memorably featured two carbon-copy free-kicks from loanee Chris Maguire to seal a dramatic win in front of a record travelling crowd. The season before, a depleted team (featuring Roy O’Donovan no less) managed a wonderful Franck Moussa inspired comeback to leave Milton Keynes boss Karl Robinson fuming in a gloriously petty post-match interview (summary: why can’t other teams be worse than mine?).

How Are They Doing?

Milton Keynes are undoubtedly ‘going for it’ this year, having had to cut their budget for the two seasons prior, they have added a number of high calibre players for this level of football. Having started the season strongly with two wins from three league games and a draw with Manchester United in the League Cup, this is a club also enjoying life at the moment.

Karl Robinson, despite some petulant remarks in the media, has a lot to like about him. In particular his team play a very pretty passing style of football, sometimes at the cost of penetration in attack but generally it has garnered good results. Expect Milton Keynes to line-up in a formation somewhere between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. They like to score goals from midfield and will use their wide players as additional strikers, something which generally causes problems for five-man defences.

Dele Alli is a player whose star is on the rise.

Dele Alli is a player whose star is on the rise.

The two men which really make the team sparkle are Dele Alli and Ben Reeves. Alli has progressed remarkably quickly from promising youngster to key player over the course of the past 12 months, not only is he talented as a play-maker but he offers a goal threat with his intelligent late runs into the area. Ben Reeves is another goal-scoring midfielder who is talented with the ball at his feet, he also progressed rapidly over the course of last season. Reeves is shorter and seems to be playing deeper than Alli but both will be fairly interchangeable which could generate confusion within our defensive ranks.

In attack Robinson will be able to pick from Benik Afobe, Tom Hitchcock and Will Grigg. Both Hitchcock and Grigg are fairly standard poachers, although Grigg can do more off-the-ball whilst Hitchcock is slightly quicker. Benik Afobe started and scored on Tuesday night and is a more physical proposition and can hold the ball up but also cause damage with a decent turn of pace. In addition, Daniel Powell who plays from the right has been chipping in with a few goals already and has caused us problems in the past.

Their defensive unit may offer us some joy, the signing of Kyle McFadzean at centre-back adds some important physicality into what has often been a powder-puff Milton Keynes defence. However they are still learning to play together, goalkeeper David Martin was substituted on Tuesday with right-back Lee Hodson struggling so far this season. The recent signing of former West Ham player Jordan Spence just adds yet more physicality to their defence.

Possible Line-Up (4-2-3-1): McLoughlin; Spence, Kay, McFadzean, Lewington; Potter, Reeves; Powell, Alli, Bowditch; Afobe.

Prediction

In many ways Milton Keynes present a far different challenge to what we have faced before this season. They know how they want to play, they know that they can win playing that way and they have the confidence of two victories under their belt already. Furthermore their style of play and formation is specifically suited to being effective against a 5-3-2 system. With midfield runners and attacking full-backs, they will really stretch us across the pitch which will test our organisation.

You cannot underplay the importance that the return to the Ricoh has had around the club, if feels like a lot of anxiety and neurosis has been lifted. That should help elevate our potential performance in front of a buoyant and large away following. What impact that really will have on the team is hard to tell at this time and being able to utilise the optimism whilst sticking to a plan which is starting work well will be the challenge for Steven Pressley.

Hard game to call, I’m going to say that this will be a 2-2 draw.

Preview: MK Dons

Quick Preamble

Despite my reservations about acknowledging MK Dons as a football club I feel that it’s far too late now to make a statement about the travesty that brought the ‘club’ into existence. I would like to point out though that I believe that this ‘football club’ should never have existed and are an abomination to English football. I continue to make my choice to not give any money to this club but I respect that many Coventry fans have chosen to treat this game like any other, despite the clear parallels between ours and Wimbledon’s situation. Additionally I hope that one day MK Dons will fold as a business and this shambolic episode in English football’s proud history can be brought to an end.

How We’re Doing

We’ve lost 2 games in a row for the second time this season, but more worryingly produced two poor performances in consecutive games. A number of players played far below the levels they have have shown themselves to be capable of which has made the collective much weaker. The injury to Leon Clarke has brought into sharp focus how dependent we’ve been on a number of strong individual performers this season and the lack of genuine replacements outside of the starting XI.

Fortunately the closure of the loan window has made back-up players from other clubs available and this has been utilised by Pressley to reinforce a creaking squad. Chris Maguire is probably the stand-out player from the 3 signings, he’s regarded as a highly talented player at Sheffield Wednesday unfortunate to not be given chances in the first-team. Danny Seaborne has come in at a time where the defence has clearly needed reinforcing, he provides the option of playing with two ‘natural’ centre-backs as well as allowing Cyrus Christie to be pushed further forward as a replacement for the out-of-form Carl Baker. Chris Dagnall may not be a like-for-like replacement for Leon Clarke but his energy and nous in the penalty area could be crucial in re-establishing our pressing game.

Ultimately the loans have added a number of options to both the starting line-up and the bench, not all will start but the added experience of this players should inject the squad with the game management skills that they have lacked at times this season. The strong away following should also help fire up the players ahead of a crucial encounter against another side with play-off ambitions.

Last Time We Met

It was at he apex of our form under Mark Robins during the festive period last season. Despite losing McGoldrick and James Bailey to suspension and an end of a loan spell respectively, the side played with character and courage to overcome twice going behind to beat MK 3-2. The game was also the high point of the season for Stephen Elliott who replaced McGoldrick in attack and led the line with intelligence and commitment, coming away with two goals. Although finances and injury were likely behind the decision to release him, Elliott is a player who would have been us very useful to us this season, despite the Irishman still being a free agent. Just to highlight how much confidence was going through the squad at the time, Roy O’Donovan played the final 20 minutes and looked decent.

How Are They Doing?

MK are one of the perennial favourites for promotion in League One, yet over the past 2 or 3 seasons they’ve been underwhelming. A large part of that is down to financial cutbacks at the club, due to poor attendances and the scaling back of their ambitions over the past 5 years. This has led to the club increasingly utilising academy players and commendably they’ve maintained top-half status in the league. You would even like them if their manager, Karl Robinson, wasn’t so odious with his pre and post-game comments and general smugness, especially as they attempt to play the closest League One has to ‘tiki-taka’ football, even if it sometimes is an over-exaggerated form of it.

The MK Dons are on something of a poor run of form at the moment, having lost the last 2 league games in less of an implosive manner than we have. The seeds of doubt are starting to grow in the minds of some ‘fans’ of the ‘club’ as to whether they can challenge for the play-offs and the blame is being directed in the generally smirking face of Robinson. They haven’t been helped in recent weeks by the injuries to keeper Dave Martin, winger Luke Chadwick, striker and last season’s top-scorer Dean Bowditch and centre-back Antony Kay who are all regular starters for the ‘club’. Additionally youth prospect Dele Alli could be missing for tomorrow afternoon’s fixture.

That is not to say that MK Dons will be without a threat for the encounter. One of their key players this season has been centre-back Shaun Williams who in addition to being their strongest player in defence is also their set-piece and penalty taker and is their second top-scorer this season with a ridiculous 7 goals. Their central midfield duo of former Wolves players Darren Potter and Stephen Gleeson is pretty formidable for this level of football, Gleeson having a penchant for long-range goals. Finally, up-front is the Chelsea loanee Patrick Bamford who is their top scorer this season with 12 and is a player to watch out for over the next few years, most likely on loan at a Championship side, he’s quick but mostly a very good finisher.

Prediction

Irrespective of the large travelling contingent of Coventry fans for this upcoming fixture, this has become an important match. Losing 2 games in a row is bad, losing 3 and we’re on a bona fide slide, with the improving fortunes of Bristol City and Sheffield United we cannot afford to lose so much momentum as that will go punished. On the bright side this is an important match as it’s against another side with play-off ambitions, if we can go and win here then our season’s back on track and we’re starting to repair the lost confidence.

MK Dons as a team who like to play out from the back may be more accomodating for our style of football. They’re not going to focus on defensive shape as much as Rotherham and Tranmere did, which will allow more space for our attackers to utilise. MK Dons are still a very good team for this level of football so they’re not going to be soft touch but they’ll definitely be less negatively orientated than our previous two opponents (not that I’m criticising any team for beating us).

It’s going to be an interesting one tomorrow but I anticipate something of a goal-fest, Coventry 3 MK Dons 2.

The Season In Review: Part 3 – December & January

Where We Were

After a mixed October it looked like this season would be at its very best a mid-table affair. November was important in finally putting distance between us and the relegation battle but there was still work to be done to allay any fears. The win over Hartlepool showed us that Robins had got us to a level above the relegation contenders and that we shouldn’t really be comparing ourselves to them. So far however we’d struggled to assert ourselves on the best teams in the division, defeats to Notts County and Brentford coupled with unconvincing draws against Swindon and MK Dons showed that we were close but still a little bit behind the very best in the division. The next two months were going to be about proving how far Robins had taken us in his now 2 month spell in charge.

December

Before we could get back to league action following that frustrating home draw against Portsmouth it was time for the small matter of the FA Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. First up it was a home game in the FA Cup against lower league Morecambe (One of Carl Baker’s former clubs). The 2-1 scoreline belied the comfortability that Coventry showed against their lower league opponents, the comfort perhaps the reason for the low scoreline. In the JPT it was another home game against Sheffield United. The two teams looked fairly well-matched and it duly headed to penalties where Coventry advanced 4-1. Suddenly the JPT campaign was building momentum and fans were feeling optimistic of a chance to see their team at Wembley.

Back in the league it was time for a local ‘derby’ match against a horrendously out-of-form Walsall team. For Coventry the game came at the perfect time, confidence and form rising with their opponents experiencing the absolute opposite. However years of supporting Coventry has told us to reign in our expectations and confidence in these situations. Despite this history of underwhelming Coventry won the game 5-1 and after falling behind. Something seemed to be changing in the very culture of the club, consistent performances (albeit over a period of a month) and being comfortable in being favourites going into matches.

A side-note was the retirement of Kevin Kilbane who despite being captain played only 6 league games and was clearly not in favour. He has subsequently had a successful media career in the past few months and has completed the London marathon.

The next fixture was against the league leaders and eventual champions Doncaster. In terms of the league this was the first time we were up against a strong team during our now 4 game unbeaten run, or going further back, a streak of 1 defeat in 7. It was time now to test the idea that Robins had installed a winning and competitive mentality in the club. From Franck Moussa’s third minute opener onwards it was one of the most spectacular performances and results that the team produced in years. In a largely counter-attacking 4-4-1-1 formation headed by a confident and in-form David McGoldrick we proved that we were now one of the better teams in this division. The game was won 4-1 and we had now scored 9 goals in two matches and were in our highest league position since the opening day and were tantalisingly close to both the top-half and the play-off places.

However dark clouds were hanging above us. The next home game against Preston was supposedly going to be the last at the Ricoh. ACL had issued a winding-up order against the club for unpaid rent and had set a Boxing Day deadline for the club to stump up the cash.

The combination of the good form and prospect of saying goodbye to the Ricoh meant that the match saw the highest attendance since the Sheffield United game back in August. Many were feeling confident that they would be cheering on a confident Coventry side who were going to put a stuttering Preston side to the sword in the manner of their previous few performances. A side story to this game though was the Preston manager Graham Westley who had been the subject of much ridicule ever since taking the Preston job and was also being maligned for his long-ball tactics.

The game itself saw Coventry start well, with Barton playing in behind McGoldrick this time and using his height to some effect early on. When Coventry took the lead through James Bailey it seemed like a regulation win was on its way. However Preston came back strongly, countering through their pacey wingers and putting in some strong challenges up front. Coventry were lucky to go into the break still in the lead but were increasingly looking out of ideas in attack. The second half continued in a similar manner and when Preston eventually equalised in the 77th minute it seemed a familiar story for so many Coventry fans was taking place. In the end Preston could count themselves as unlucky not to win, Coventry though could also say the same. The Preston manager Westley though became the subject of ire from Coventry fans for his supposed long-ball style and abrasive touch-line antics, another of those managerial spats that dotted this season.

Boxing Day came and there was no word on what was happening vis-a-vis the Ricoh dispute with both sides staying schtum. It was also seeming likely at this point that McGoldrick wasn’t going to stay beyond his current loan spell due to expire after the New Year’s Day Shrewsbury match. The bully-boy from the Scunthorpe match, Leon Clarke, had been training with the club and seemed set to take up McGoldrick’s mantel, seeming a decent choice.

On the pitch the team headed into the Stevenage match on a 6 match unbeaten league run and having only lost 1 league game in 2 months. The game was also the start of the second half of the season and it seemed like we could mount a charge to an increasingly realistic looking play-off places. Stevenage were no slouches themselves and had looked like a top-half side in the first-half of the season. It was nonetheless disappointing when they took the lead through a first-half penalty. Things were looking slightly desperate and the momentum from the Walsall and Doncaster games seemed to be petering out. Richard Wood, as so often he was under Robins, scored a header from a corner to level things with just over 10 minutes left. Against tough opposition I think most fans would have accepted a point at this juncture in the match but Coventry and in particular Carl Baker and David McGoldrick had different ideas. Baker put Coventry ahead just past 90 minutes and then in stoppage time McGoldrick scored what many would describe as a ‘wonderful lob’ from around 30 yards out.

Ecstasy. We were in the top half of the table for the first time since the opening day. However there was no time to rest upon any laurels as we had to travel to Milton Keynes but without James Bailey and David McGoldrick, Bailey because his loan was over and McGoldrick because he’d been suspended for 5 bookings. So when MK took the lead I think many were fearing that we’d run out of steam and were perhaps regressing to the mean of our pre-December performances. Franck Moussa though thought differently and scored probably the goal of the season, a pitch-long dribble, which put us level. Stephen Elliott who we hadn’t seen much of since the Sheffield United league match stepped up to the plate and scored twice in 2 minutes to put us in the lead after MK had re-taken it just before half-time. Even O’Donovan got in on the action and had a decent impact, you know it’s going well when that happens.

Cue yet more ecstasy. Also cue the bitterest manager comment I’ve ever heard from MK manager, Karl Robinson, who described Coventry as moaning about having no money. What a tit.

January

The start of a new year seemed set to herald our push towards and into the play-offs. There was a slight hitch though that our top scorer was no longer going to be with us. McGoldrick’s final game was the New Year’s Day home match against Shrewsbury, which was played at the Ricoh after all. The game was also the highest league attendance of the season at over 15,000.

I cite this game though as the start of 2013’s precedent of home performances. We played decently and really should have scored but the opposition sucker-punched us on the counter and we had no response. Our first defeat in 8 games and given who we had played it was shocking that it was to lowly Shrewsbury, who had now ‘done the double’ over us.

Next up was another cup match in North London where we had no prospect of winning. We looked star-struck by Tottenham and lost 3-0 without them leaving first gear.

With Clarke drafted in the next match was at home to Preston in the JPT. The game was pretty even looking in the first-half but Jennings gave us the lead from an Edjenguele flick-on from a set-piece. The second-half was well-matched but Preston’s two goals had more than a hint of fortune about them in the shape of lucky deflections. All of a sudden the optimism that we began the year with was sapping away, worst of all we were giving fan enemy number 1, Graham Westley, the chance of going to Wembley. Despite not really putting Preston under much pressure Carl Baker levelled the score in the second minute of injury time.

Pandemonium. But more was to come as Preston keeper Steve Simonsen fumbled a shot and three Coventry players had read it perfectly. It fell to Leon Clarke who had a tap-in but in the fifth minute of injury time in a cup match it didn’t matter. It seemed like destiny, Coventry were surely heading to Wembley.

The away game to Carlisle though felt like a damp squib despite the very real matter of league points being played for. It felt that perhaps the prospect of Wembley in the JPT was exceeding the prospect of playing for something in the league. Carlisle scored early and Coventry barely threatened to take something back from the game.

We had now lost 2 in a row and were back in the bottom half of the table. Very much a case of 2 steps forward and one step back. The next match seemed vital in re-establishing league momentum. Fortunately we were able to beat Tranmere in a game low on quality and chances. We next played an Oldham side who weren’t in great form and seemed a great opportunity to re-ignite our charge towards the play-offs. Another win, despite giving up the lead in the 89th minute and it seemed like we were winning games that the best teams should with a genuine belief around the squad that we were good enough.

Back in a bit of confidence and now in 7th, a place behind the play-offs. It was what had now turned into a grudge match against an ambling Preston side under Graham Westley’s loosening charge. Whether it was the animosity clear to see between the two teams or a lack of assertiveness from Coventry, we couldn’t really dominate in the same way we had against other teams recently. Preston took the lead, Coventry equalised (Clarke again), Coventry took the lead, Preston equalised. Probably a fair result but it’s always frustrating not to win when you take the lead.

By the end of January we were in our highest league position all season, 7th. The transfer window saw limited activity Leon Clarke and Blair Adams both signed their expected transfers and Bailey extended his loan. Out of the door were the deadwood of the squad in Chris Hussey and Roy O’Donovan. The squad was solidifying and we had our strongest line-up in that 4-4-1-1 shape which was: Murphy – Christie, Wood, Edjenguele, Adams – Baker, Jennings, Bailey, McSheffrey – Moussa – Leon Clarke.

Robins appeared contented despite murmurings of other clubs’ pursuits. Despite the rent situation not being sorted the failure of the past deadline suggested that neither side had a particularly strong negotiating position and it could rumble on and be sorted soonish. It all seemed geared to a successful final push in the league and JPT.

Well, we’ll look at the final bit in Part 4 sometime soon then.