Preview: Notts County

The re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager back in March was all about how ready we would be for the start of this season. Getting those few wins towards the back end of last season, and especially that wonderful afternoon at Wembley, was important in re-energising the fan-base, but the hard work of winning promotion back to League One at the first attempt begins now.

It has been an almost complete overhaul of the squad over the summer, with just four of the starting XI at Wembley likely to start this forthcoming game against Notts County – three, depending on whether Lee Burge is fit. Instead of relying on a relatively young squad packed with a number of homegrown talents, Robins has decided to employ a different model leaning towards more experienced and proven performers, with a veteran Michael Doyle being the poster ‘child’ of this new side.

It means that we are starting from square one as a team this season, although, having had the majority of the squad in place for the entirety of pre-season may hasten the gelling process. They key areas of the squad are whether Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis can form an effective central defensive partnership, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly can provide dynamism in addition to their sturdiness in central midfield, and whether Marc McNulty is capable of scoring the goals to get us out of this division.

Possible Line-Up

We already have a strong idea of what team Mark Robins is going to pick for this game, based on his team selections in pre-season. The aforementioned five players will provide the spine of the side, along with the experienced Peter Vincenti on the right wing and Stuart Beavon playing slightly ahead of McNulty in attack. Jack Grimmer at right-back is also almost certain to start and, thanks to an injury picked up by Ryan Haynes, Chris Stokes will make up the back four.

After some reasonable performances in pre-season without being overly tested, Liam O’Brien may get a chance to stake a claim for the starting spot in goal if Lee Burge doesn’t prove his fitness in time. The decision to sign O’Brien over a more experienced keeper was a big call from Mark Robins this summer, and it could seriously hamstring us if both he and Burge don’t cut the mustard.

Finally, Jodi Jones’ performance in the final pre-season friendly against Nuneaton where he scored and provided an assist for Stuart Beavon should win him a start on the left wing ahead of Devon Kelly-Evans. This is a big season for Jones after failing to provide a consistent final product last season, he could prove to be one of those players who really benefits from dropping down a level to become a central player for the club.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Notts County was a drab 0-0 draw at Meadow Lane during Tony Mowbray’s attempts to keep us in League One following his arrival back in 2015. Our attacking threat had been stunted by the recent loss of Dominic Samuel to injury, leaving a toothless strike force of Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson to labour in vain against a Notts County side soon to be doomed to relegation.

Notts County’s last trip to the Ricoh Arena was another drab affair on the face of it, however, it was a game memorable for some of absolutely top notch time-wasting and gamesmanship on the part of a Notts County side then flying in the top six of League One under Shaun Derry. With the Sky Blues in a torpor at the time under Steven Pressley, an error for Andy Webster was ruthlessly punished late in the second-half to hand Shaun Derry, Roy Carroll and the merry men of Notts County all three points.

How Are They Doing?

Notts County are attempting to build something more stable after a soap opera of a past decade which has seen a revolving door of players and managers fail to sustain the occasional promising run of form. Back in January, the club were in a transfer embargo and in danger of dropping into the relegation battle in League Two, however, a takeover by local businessman Alan Hardy and the appointment of Kevin Nolan as manager has seemingly put the club back in right direction.

The January transfer deadline day signings of Shola Ameobi and Jorge Grant – along with left-back Marc Bola who has since joined Bristol Rovers – provided the team with an injection of quality required to make Kevin Nolan’s organisation of the team effective. Ameobi in particular played a crucial role as the figurehead in attack, holding the ball up due to his physical presence and technical skill to bring others into play – he’ll be partnered in attack by the equally experienced Jon Stead, who provides a lot less outside the area for his team.

Possible Line-Up

The aforementioned Grant was a big beneficiary of Ameobi’s hold-up play, coming in off the wing and scoring some excellent goals over the course of the second-half of last season.  Notts County have done well to re-sign the Nottingham Forest youngster on loan, and he’ll be a big danger man for this game. That threat coming in off wide positions has been further bolstered by the arrivals of Lewis Alessandra and Gibraltar international Liam Walker over the summer, who are both potential match-winners at this level on their day.

Notts County’s main area of weakness is in defence, where they lack pace and composure on the ball. The agricultural ex-Sky Blues loanees Carl Dickinson and Richard Duffy could well start this game, and it seems like a sensible game plan to try and press high in order to force errors at the back for Notts rather than try and break them down with a slower style of play. Furthermore, goalkeeper Adam Collin had a difficult previous season and we should be looking to keep him as busy as possible.

Prediction

With Notts County an experienced and physical side, this will be early acid test of our League Two credentials. My main area of concern is in defence, where I’m not sure Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis are capable of standing up to a physical battering from both Shola Ameobi and set-piece situations. If we’re slow and ponderous on the ball too, this has all the makings of a classic Ricoh Arena away team smash and grab, only this time it will be in League Two.

Overall, I’m expecting this to be a real ‘welcome to League Two’ experience for us – similar to the game we played against a recently-relegated Wigan side in League One two seasons ago. If we can show we’re capable of controlling games and creating enough chances, that would be the least I want to see from us in this game. If not, it may be an indication that this could be a harder season than anticipated.

I think Notts County will win this game 2-0.

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

After one of the least convincing wins possible over a team in the division below us on Wednesday night, we head into this upcoming league match against Southend not quite in a full nosedive towards oblivion but at a 179-degree angle.

There’s probably not much that can be seriously read into from Wednesday night’s win over Crawley. Mark Venus named a random assortment of players into a rough 4-4-2 shape and we, as a crappy League One team, beat Crawley, a crappy League Two team. If this is the start of another good run of form, it certainly was an inauspicious one.

Marvin Sordell, Jack McBean, Jodi Jones and George Thomas played as a front four against Wednesday and there’s maybe some promise there. Thomas is a very hardworking player who we could probably do with right now, McBean tends to do a decent job bringing others into play, Sordell’s our one proper ‘number 9’ and Jodi Jones is potentially someone who can create something out of nothing. However, a lack of experience and physicality in the front-line will probably see someone like Kyel Reid or Marcus Tudgay come into the team for this game.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Elsewhere, the return of Chris McCann to fitness on Wednesday night is a huge boost for a side lacking presence and experience. There is a conundrum of how you play him in the same midfield as Andy Rose, but with Jamie Sterry currently injured and the alternative at right-back being the energetic but short and defensively-suspect Dion Kelly-Evans, it might be worth sticking with Rose at right-back for his height against a physical Southend side. However, Ben Stevenson’s suspension may make the need for Rose greater in midfield.

Reice Charles-Cook played in goal against Crawley on Wednesday, as he did in the previous EFL Trophy game under Mark Venus. My own opinion is Charles-Cook is the better all-round goalkeeper than Lee Burge, but it seems like the latter is Venus’ number one and I would expect Burge to return in goal for this game.

Last Time We Met

We headed into our last meeting with Southend fresh off the back of a 2-0 loss to Burton, but still hopeful we could overcome a slight speed-bump along our path to promotion. Speed-bump it was not, Southend completely outplayed us at Roots Hall, taking a 2-0 lead before half-time and then mocking us even further by spending much of the rest of the second-half with ten-men but still managing to be the better side and going on to score a third goal. Also, Stephen Hunt played in this game.

How Are They Doing?

When Southend lost their two star players from last season – Jack Payne and Daniel Bentley – in the summer and manager Phil Brown desperately tried to jump ship to Bolton, it looked like the Shrimpers were set for a season of struggle. However, Brown failed to land the job at Bolton and has done an effective job at rebuilding the squad to probably make them a better team this time around.

Brown’s best summer signings were Simon Cox and Nile Ranger in attack, both players presenting different kinds of risks. Cox was on a downwards career trajectory and hadn’t really had a decent season in six or seven years, but had a high enough reputation still to demand a significant salary. Ranger’s off-the-field problems are well-documented and probably obscure the fact that he’s a very good striker at League One level, having proven it with Swindon a few years ago. Neither have been particularly prolific this season but Ranger has been an excellent focal point in attack, while Cox has provided energy and creativity.

Stephen McLaughlin is Southend’s current top-scorer, although he plays as a winger. McLaughlin is an inconsistent performer but has scored some absolute screamers this season and can be a great player on his day. Anthony Wordsworth has also been a strong contributor of goals this season from midfield, he offers drive and excellent set-piece delivery. Finally, Will Atkinson is of a similar ilk to McLaughlin in that he can be anonymous at times but then all-of-a-sudden pop up with a goal or an assist.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Southend probably possess the best full-back pairing in the division in the form of Jason Demetriou and Ben Coker. Both are very attacking full-backs with great delivery, Demetriou also has a great long-range shot on him and should really have gotten a move to a bigger club than Southend after his exploits for Walsall last season.

With Phil Brown in charge, Southend are a difficult team to predict just who they’re going to play and in what formation with their manager preferring to chop and change depending on the opposition. Just like last season though, Southend are going to be a very physical, tenacious and hard-working team and thus well set-up to punish us if we’re not up for the challenge.

Prediction

Southend are in great form, we are not. Southend have experience and physicality in their side, we do not. Throw our awful away form into the mix and it’s a no-contest really. Southend to win 3-0.

Preview: Chesterfield

A point at Walsall on Saturday was one of those ‘you would have taken it before the game had started’ points that makes it hard to fully express a level of frustration at not holding out for all three points. With some tough fixtures coming up over the next couple of months, playing well but not winning on Saturday could be costlier than simply the two points that we dropped on the day.

Getting three points here against Chesterfield would go a long way to making Saturday’s result more forgivable. For the first time since Tony Mowbray left the club, we head into the game as favourites which presents a different kind of challenge for Mark Venus. Chesterfield are on a rotten run of form but will be desperate to hold onto anything they can get here, if we can’t find a similar level of intensity, it could be a very tough night for our young side.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Venus chose to maintain tactical continuity against Walsall by restoring Andy Rose to the side in place of the injured Chris McCann and was rewarded by the former scoring the opening goal. Rose didn’t last the full 90 minutes on his return from injury but the word is that he’ll be fit enough to start this game. Rose’s aerial ability and the timing of his runs into the box gives this side another attacking dimension, which takes some of the burden off a not fully-convincing strike force.

There aren’t really any other clear and present issues with the side because it’s so settled at the moment. In goal, Lee Burge still looks he’s got errors in his game but is yet to really let the team down since returning to the side, so it makes little sense to change things in goal. Likewise, Jordan Turnbull looks constantly on the verge of a big mistake, but it seems to have aided his concentration levels in recent weeks. Chesterfield are likely to target those two, who’ll need to continue to not make the mistakes they look capable of making.

Last Time We Met

We travelled to Chesterfield’s Proact Stadium on the 28th of December last year, having been boosted after a sloppy run of form thanks to the return of James Maddison from injury. Hot off scoring a nonchalant 25-yard wonder-goal on Boxing Day against Port Vale, Maddison added a further million to his final transfer fee by scoring an excellent free-kick in the final minutes of the game to secure a point after we had conceded a sloppy headed goal from a set-piece early in the game.

Chesterfield’s visit to the Ricoh Arena earlier that season came when we were still discovering our own strength as one of the division’s best sides. Ryan Kent, Adam Armstrong and Jacob Murphy ran rings around Dean Saunders Chesterfield before finally deciding to take one off a litany of chances via Armstrong just after half-time. A routine 1-0 home win was livened up by Chesterfield’s Mani Dieseruvwe deciding to randomly punch the ball in the closing stages of the contest.

How Are They Doing?

Chesterfield started the season like a train, with the risk taken to sign Ched Evans ahead of his retrial paying off big-time for a side that had battled against relegation last season. A nightmare injury list and Evans’ court appearance has coincided with a complete loss of form over the past month or so and the Spireites have now lost their past six games in all competitions, sinking to second-bottom of the division.

For much of the season, Chesterfield boss Danny Wilson has struggled to name a full-strength team due to injuries. The most notable absences in recent weeks have been stalwart keeper Tommy Lee, who’s missed the entirety of the season, and beanpole striker Conor Wilkinson, who had taken some of the burden off Ched Evans before picking up an injury a few weeks ago. In particular, the back-line has been a hodge-podge of youngsters and players being played out of position, which is hardly conducive to arresting a downturn in form.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Although Ched Evans is yet to score since returning to the side a few weeks ago, he is clearly the main threat. Strangely enough, Evans started the season playing like a man with a point to prove, scoring goals seemingly through sheer willpower, making you feel sorry for the poor ball unlucky enough to find its way to his feet. A natural goalscorer who closes players down well and is something of a physical presence, he’s going to start scoring soon and tonight could well be when.

To focus solely on Ched Evans though, would be a foolhardy approach with Chesterfield boasting several other attacking players who can be dangerous on their day. The pacey and skilfull Gboly Ariyibi out wide is the biggest threat of Chesterfield’s supporting cast, the American is a real livewire out wide and can be absolutely unplayable on his day. The oft-frustrating Jay O’Shea can be a match-winner on his day in either a wide position or just behind the striker. While the likes of Dan Gardner, Jon Nolan and Kristian Dennis have the ability to cause us danger in differing ways.

Prediction

Chesterfield’s current run of form is so bad that there has to be some kind of reaction. Not many teams lose seven games in a row and with Ched Evans likely to return to goalscoring form any time soon, Chesterfield are going to be dangerous in a hurt animal kind of way. Although they probably need to win this game to give their season a lift, they’re likely to be content with at least keeping a clean sheet and will look to prey upon our errors. With a lethal centre-forward and pace out wide, a counter-attacking approach could well be a fruitful formula for the Spireites.

We’ve shown in recent weeks that we can be a very good team but we struggle to create high quality chances and there’s a real danger that a team set up to hold us out defensively and exploit us on the counter could do a real number on us. Maybe I’m just a pessimistic person but I really think this game could be a banana peel for us. I think this will be a frustrating 1-1 draw.

Preview: Rochdale

Last Saturday was the first time this season that I genuinely thought we were going down. We might have played fairly well against Charlton, but there was such a lack of defensive and attacking effectiveness, that I thought we simply weren’t capable of winning games at this level of football.

Not only did we win on Tuesday night, but to do it in such a confident and assured manner offers hope that not only can we pull ourselves away from the relegation zone, we might just be able to become a genuinely good team. Everyone raised their game, but the midfield three of McCann, Stevenson and Bigirimana were superlative – energetic in their pressing, composed and ambitious in possession, driving the team forward while also providing sufficient protection of the defence.

As good as we were on Tuesday night – I place that performance up there with some of the better showing under Mowbray – it’s worth pointing out that the two goals we scored both had an element of fortune to them. We weren’t that much better than we were in a 3-0 defeat against Charlton, we just managed to avoid making too many mistakes at the back and saw a 30-yard effort fly into the top corner and an opposing defender completely gift us a second goal.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

It’s a shame that a planned boycott coincides with an opportunity to build some momentum after a statement win but I suppose, those involved in organising it weren’t to know that. Whether an emptier stadium will impact the team’s performance is hard to tell – on the one hand, it relieves the pressure on the players, on the other, it provides less motivation to raise their games – a lot rests on Mark Venus’ ability to motivate the players.

Venus has suggested that he’ll stick with the same XI from Tuesday’s game, there is no reason not to really. Particularly because Lee Burge justified his place in goal with not only for some excellent saves and a command of his penalty area (barring one notable early error) but also demonstrating improvements in his kicking and distribution of the ball – possibly as a result of having watched Reice Charles-Cook from the sidelines for the best part of a year. It remains to be seen whether Burge can sustain this level of performance, but it makes sense to keep the defence settled while we look to launch ourselves away from the relegation places.

Last Time We Met

I was fortunate enough not to have attended our last game against Rochdale, which was possibly the worst kind of defeat you can experience as a football fan. What was reportedly a dreadfully dull game back in March was only enlivened in the final minutes of the game when John Fleck conceded an avoidable penalty and Ian Henderson stepped up to secure Rochdale the victory. It was our third defeat in a run that pretty much extinguished any hope of salvaging a play-off spot last season.

How Are They Doing?

Rochdale started the season in poor form, failing to win their first seven league games, before winning their next six to take them from below us in the table to fifth place. That excellent recent run of form was curtailed on Tuesday night in a 3-0 away defeat to Swindon that manager Keith Hill blamed on the long travel to the game.

The decision to convert the hard-working but ineffective striker Joe Bunney into an attacking left-back has coincided with Rochdale’s winning streak. Bunney’s excellent delivery from open play and set-pieces has seen him register five assists, although he is still learning his positioning as a left-back and was culpable for Swindon’s second goal on Tuesday night by playing Nathan Delfouneso onside from a Conor Thomas through ball.

However, thanks to Keith Hill’s ability to get the best out of his limited resources at Rochdale, they still have plenty of players that can hurt us. Given our defence’s inability to deal with physicality, target-man Calvin Andrew has to be considered Dale’s biggest threat. From looking like one of the more useless players in the Football League, Andrew has become one of the most effective target-men under Keith Hill’s management and should have no problems dominating either Jordan Willis or Jordan Turnbull in the air.

Talisman Ian Henderson is also looking likely to be a thorn in our side, the forward is not only capable of offering a physical threat but also has the technical ability to unlock defences. With the pacey Nathaniel Mendez-Laing to call upon – another previously written-off player Keith Hill has gotten a tune out of – Rochdale could be in for a field day if everything goes to plan.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

The homegrown duo of Jamie Allen and Callum Camps in midfield has consistently provided Rochdale with quality and composure on the ball over the past few years. It’s going to be an interesting test of our newly discovered quality and industry in midfield provided by Rochdale, if we can prevent Allen and Camps getting on the ball, we may be able to ease the physical pressure that Dale will look to inflict upon our defence.

Although Rochdale have conceded as many league goals as we have this season, that strangely means they have one of the better defensive records this season. The signing of Conrad Logan in goal this summer has pushed incumbent keeper Josh Lillis to new heights, Lillis once memorably shut us down while he was at Scunthorpe very early on in his career and is a talented shot-stopper on his day.

Prediction

The boycott (to whatever extent it happens) adds an unknown element to this game, but this game is a massive test of our credentials regardless of that factor. Rochdale are a really well-organised and hard-working side who know how to blend physicality, cynicism with some neat, possession-based football. How our defence stands up to the physical test is going to be crucial here.

The way we’re playing at the moment, the first goal is likely to be decisive in the final result. I’m not sure this team has the ability to come from behind to win a game as we don’t create enough high-quality chances for the possession we have. My optimism from Tuesday night is starting to wear off and I can see this game finishing in a 2-1 defeat.

Preview: Northampton Town

An important first league win of the season on Saturday which not only offered something to cheer about after a difficult few weeks to be a Coventry City fan but takes a degree of pressure and haste off the search for a new manager. We’re off the bottom of the table and just three points off 17th place, the focus doesn’t have to be so much on getting someone who can get instant results and maybe more on someone who offers more continuity from Tony Mowbray.

That continuity could even come in the form of Mark Venus if he can replicate the type of performance we saw on Saturday. It’s interesting that both goals came from midfielders getting into the penalty area, which was a rare sight during Mowbray’s time at the club It perhaps suggests that Venus may be looking to stamp his mark on the team, rather than simply keep things ticking over before a new manager can be appointed.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Mark Venus has applied for manager’s jobs in the past, coming close to getting the Hibs job before Alan Stubbs was appointed, and could have a diminished role at the club should a new manager decide they want more control over transfers. If he can get some performances out of this side over the next few weeks, he may well feel that this is finally his chance to become a manager in his own right. This otherwise fairly unimportant EFL Trophy game against Northampton Town may take on a little bit more importance for our caretaker manager.

There are options to change the line-up a little bit for this game, although the postponement of the Chesterfield game on Saturday should encourage Venus to name as strong a team as possible. Jodi Jones and Ruben Lameiras could come into the side to offer more guile on the wings than Andre Wright and Marvin Sordell. The main decision could well be in goal after Lee Burge’s clean sheet on Saturday following an injury to Reice Charles-Cook, which came a year after the roles were reversed to hand the latter his opportunity to assert himself as first-choice.

Last Time We Met?

For those of you with particularly short memories, our last game against Northampton Town came at the Ricoh Arena back in August when we were still hopeful that Tony Mowbray could make those final few signings to give this team the lift it so desperately needed. After a positive start to the game, a sloppy goal was conceded to the visitors involving a poor pass from Vladimir Gadzhev, Chris McCann completely missing a tackle and two defenders missing an interception to allow Harry Beautyman to score.

The Sky Blues spent the rest of the game working crossing situations which Northampton deal with fairly comfortably. That was until Jodi Jones produced a sublime piece of skill to wrong-foot his full-back and send in a swinging delivery that grazed Marcus Tudgay’s forehead to level the scores. Jones then had a great chance to win the game after being sent through one-on-one with the keeper but lacked the composure to finish.

How Are They Doing?

Northampton were in the midst of a long unbeaten run that stretched back to the start of the year and across the management of Chris Wilder and his replacement Robert Page. Although that unbeaten finally ended at 31 games after a 3-1 defeat to Chesterfield three weeks ago. Page though has managed to maintain some sense of momentum from that unbeaten run to ensure they remain in the play-offs.

As we learned back in August, Northampton’s main attacking threats are the deliveries of former Portsmouth and West Ham man Matthew Taylor and the aerial prowess of striker Alex Revell. Taylor has three goals and four assists to his name this season, while Revell is League One’s second top-scorer with six. Swansea loanee Kenji Gorre offers pace and trickery in wide areas, although has lacked an end product at times. While Northampton’s threat from crosses and set-pieces has been further supplemented via the signing of former Bradford winger Paul Anderson, who has scored twice and grabbed one assist since arriving on transfer deadline day.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Page has looked to keep things tight in the centre of the park with Jak McCourt and John-Joe O’Toole in the team for their work-rate rather than guile, although O’Toole has popped up with a few goals in recent weeks. Northampton’s scorer at the Ricoh five weeks ago, Harry Beautyman, is another energetic presence in the middle of the park who has found some form this season after struggling to carve himself a niche at Peterborough.

Northampton’s defence is made up of experienced, competitive pros with Brendan Moloney and David Buchanan offering energy and bite at full-back. However, it’s worth pointing out that Northampton have conceded as many goals as we have this season in the league with Robert Page struggling to find a consistent partner for Zander Diamond in the centre of defence. Although Northampton are at their best on the counter, there should be rewards for taking a pro-active approach in looking to force errors.

Prediction

It’s hard to read too much into the Port Vale result, especially as they are one of the few teams at this level who don’t really look to physically intimidate their opponents. Northampton very much will and it would offer more hope that we can turn our season around if we can win this kind of game, particularly if we can also keep another clean sheet.

The nature of this competition though makes this game hard to predict, Northampton lost 3-0 at home to a Wycombe side who brought their 43 year-old manager on as a substitute in the first game of this group phase, so they may decide not to approach this game too seriously. It either improves our chances of winning to come up against half-hearted opponents or it makes it harder because we’re playing against a team who aren’t feeling any pressure. My feeling though is that we’ll get the win here, 2-1.

Preview: Fleetwood Town

Mostly, I find football at all levels fascinating. However, I must admit that a week featuring away trips to Yeovil and Fleetwood didn’t exactly provide the most engaging content with which to fill two separate articles. Had it not been for a certain managerial appointment on the Fylde coast, a post 0-0 JPT elimination Fleetwood preview would have made for brief reading.

Before I take a look at our upcoming opponents, it has to be remarked that Tuesday night’s showing against a team struggling in League Two was poor considering our ambitions for this season. There is a real streak of profligacy in this side, even with Adam Armstrong in the team,which will see us struggle in the tighter games if it cannot be stamped out.

The likely return of Marc-Antoine Fortuné to the starting line-up should help matters somewhat but as impressive as the forward was against Shrewsbury, he’s a player who is only as effective as the players he is bringing into play. If we are to win this game, Jacob Murphy, Jim O’Brien and Marcus Tudgay have to provide more conviction to their game in front of goal. Aside from Armstrong, this team appears to be happy to simply get a shot off rather than aim at a specific area of the goal.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Whilst the focus for the pre-game preparation has to be the finishing, Tony Mowbray has a big decision now to make over who to start in goal. Aside from hairy moment early on against Shrewsbury, Reice Charles-Cook has barely put a foot out of place in the past two games. To keep a now fully-fit Lee Burge on the bench though puts our current number one’s development curve at risk.

As little confidence as a section of our fans have regarding Burge, he has more first-team experience. That means that inevitably he’s made more errors but he’s demonstrated his ability to learn from errors with some solid performances thus far. Charles-Cook appears to transmit more of an aura of confidence around him, how much that is simply down to the quality of opposition he has faced is hard to tell at this point. It’s tempting to give Charles-Cook another game just to see whether that aura is actually based on goalkeeping ability but I would imagine that Lee Burge is still seen as the number one and will be back in the team.

Last Time We Met

Our first ever league meeting with Fleetwood Town came last season at the Ricoh Arena during the ‘dark period’ before Steven Pressley’s eventual sacking. Fleetwood didn’t offer a great deal against a poor Coventry City side but took the lead after a shot took an unfortunate deflection off cult hero Andy Webster. Simeon Jackson scored a late equaliser from a Gary Madine knock-down, offering the feint hope that the duo could provide a strike parnership to rival Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson (they didn’t).

Our first trip to the other Highbury came on St Patrick’s Day this year as goals from Dominic ‘Sideways’ Samuel and Frank Nouble secured back-to-back wins that threatened to catapult us into mid-table obscurity under Tony Mowbray. Of course, the team took every opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot until they finally got their act together in time for the final day of the season against Crawley.

How Are They Doing?

Steven Pressley arrives at a Fleetwood Town side that are in a state of transition and disarray. Despite their reputation as one of the lower league’s big spenders, Fleetwood have been more wary of financial fair play restrictions, due to their low attendances, since rising into League One. Whereas in days past, Fleetwood would acquire a bunch of expensive mercenaries and lay siege to each new division, the focus is now on developing younger talent from the local non-league scene and surrounding academies.

Last season, Graham Alexander calmly managed Fleetwood into a comfortable 10th placed finish by finding a decent balance between some remaining experienced mercenaries and promising young players. The football was not of the highest quality, but the team were well aware of their limitations and maintained a level of consistency throughout the season.

The feeling is that it fell apart this season due to the balance being tipped too far in the direction of young, raw talent. Fleetwood have been more entertaining this season but it has been at the cost of the complete erosion of their once formidable defence. Steven Pressley’s job at Fleetwood is to raise confidence in the short-term and to oversee the club’s transition towards being a home for young, exciting talents.

The core of experienced players for Pressley to work with is small with midfielder Jimmy Ryan looking key. The former Chesterfield man was the club’s one lavish signing this summer and provides dynamism to Fleetwood’s midfield area. There are creative talents in midfield in the form of Antoni Sarcevic and Bobby Grant too but both can be rather inconsistent and frustrating.

Fleetwood’s strong defence of last season has been largely taken apart with only the experienced Stephen Jordan still around but appearing to be out of favour. Former Sky Blues defender Richard Wood is currently at the club on a short-term loan deal and he’s likely to be partnered at the back by a fellow loanee, Stoke’s Brazilian-Slovakian Dionatan Teixeira, who is getting his first taste of English first-team football.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Of the raw young talents that Fleetwood are looking to develop, Nick Haughton (box-to-box midfielder), Ashley Hunter (pacey striker) and Tyler Hornby-Forbes (quick winger/full-back) are the most promising. The challenge for Pressley is to ensure that these players see enough game-time to flourish whilst also protecting them from the pressures of a relegation battle.

It’s not a preferable situation for Pressley to be walking into and he perhaps could have been more patient in selecting his next job. There isn’t a great deal of leeway to bring in new additions to bolster a squad very thin on quality, particularly in attack. Where it went wrong for Pressley here was when the team was low on morale and he needed to get the team on a consistent run of results. That’s exactly what he needs to do now at Fleetwood, getting off to a good start will be crucial for him.

Prediction

Whilst we would ordinarily be feeling confident about getting a result against a Fleetwood team currently second bottom of the division, there is perhaps a perfect storm brewing against us. Not only will the opposition by looking to enjoy the ‘new manager bounce’ but they have the immutable of the ex on their side, especially so as Pressley’s assistant Neil MacFarlane only left the club in the summer and will thus have some compelling insider knowledge of our team. We’ve also got to factor in our poor recent run of form on the road, our profligacy in front of goal and the lack of Adam Armstrong to call upon.

Still though, you would have to peg us as favourites to win this game but we have to assert ourselves on the game and actually capitalise on the opportunities we create. All things considered, I’m predicting a 1-1 draw.