Preview: Grimsby Town

Any illusions that we might make a game of it against Blackburn on Tuesday night were quickly dispelled when the line-ups revealed Mark Robins had opted for a weakened team. While the performance of Duckens Nazon in attack threatened to things interesting, the sad reality was that we were easily beaten by a (top-drawer) League One side playing in second-gear.

Blackburn are clearly going to be far better than any side we’re going to face in League Two this season, but what was close to a first-choice defence will maybe feel like they could have avoided at least two of Blackburn’s three goals. Whether that was because the midfield struggled to impose themselves on the game is a debate to be had, but I left that game feeling like there was a clear need for a leader in that back four.

The returns of Liam Kelly and Michael Doyle to the midfield should hopefully mitigate for some of those defensive wobbles for this trip to Grimsby. Jordan Willis could well return too, and although it feels like he’s still to show he can be a top-class centre-back in a back four, he would be an improvement on Dominic Hyam who’s done to stake a more regular spot in the side. Additionally, on what could be a difficult away day, Peter Vincenti’s height could prove a useful asset in giving us a reliable out-ball if we’re struggling to keep the ball.

The main selection debate will be which strike partnership to pick from the options of Stuart Beavon, Duckens Nazon, Maxime Biamou, and Marc McNulty (if available for selection after dental surgery). Nazon really should be the first-choice out of those four – not only is he clearly our most skilful player, but he has a drive and awareness to his game which marks him out as something more than just a fancy-Dan. McNulty doesn’t seem a natural partner for Nazon, but could benefit from the space he opens up, Biamou struggled to make an impression against Blackburn, which probably means Beavon is the likeliest strike partner for Le Duck.

The signing this week of goalscoring midfielder Tony Andreu adds something different to the mix, although it’s hard to see him being played with Nazon just ahead of him through the middle, in an away game especially. Unless Robins moves Nazon out wide, as he did later on during Tuesday’s game, where he seems less effective, Andreu may have to start his Coventry City career on the bench.

Last Time We Met

Grimsby will probably be best remembered as an opponent for us in recent-ish times as having handed us a 1-0 defeat at Highfield Road in the first season after relegation from the Premiership in the final days of Gordon Strachan’s reign at the club.

Grimsby hung around in the second-tier for one more season after 2001-02, but were twice beaten by Gary McAllister’s Sky Blues as they suffered a relegation from a level to which they haven’t returned to since.

How Are They Doing?

Grimsby steadily dropped through the divisions and into non-league after 2002-03, before winning promotion back to the Football League two seasons ago via the play-offs. Last season was an odd one for them, where they lost the manager and goalscorer that won them promotion but then sacked their next manager for not picking up results in what was clearly a transitional year, and then appointing Russell Slade.

Slade’s appointment seemed to suggest a degree of ambition at Blundell Park to put together a side capable of challenging for the play-offs, however, the summer transfer activity has only really seen incredibly old veterans and incredibly raw youngsters brought into the club on loans and free transfers. Unless Slade can summon up a strong team-spirit, it’s hard not to conclude that Grimsby have a fairly uninspiring squad that could well see them in danger of the drop.

The main exciting talent at Grimsby this season is winger Siriki Dembele – brother of Celtic wunderkind Karamoko Dembele. Siriki has caught the eye over pre-season having not played professional football until joining Grimsby, and carried that form over into the opening day of the season with a wonderful half-the-length-of-the-pitch assist to help Grimsby to a win over Chesterfield. Dembele’s ability to carry the ball on the counter and deliver a final product makes him a major danger-man.

Possible Line-Up

Sam Jones, brought in by Russell Slade’s predecessor, Marcus Bignot, is another attacking talent to watch. The midfielder scored seven in 18 appearances after signing in January and has been deployed as more of a striker by Slade thus far this season. A bit of a physical presence and an excellent finisher, Jones will have to be well-marshalled.

With a slow and old defence – with Nathan Clarke at 33 years-old likely to partner Danny Collins at 37 in central defence – and a target-man to lump it up to in Scott Vernon, Grimsby are likely to defend deep, play direct and try and hurt us on set-pieces. Knowing what we do about Russell Slade’s tactical approach, they will only sit deeper and deeper should they take the lead, so we’re going to have to ensure we start strongly and try to force them to chase the game.

Prediction

Although Grimsby should be the kind of team we should be beating as a matter of routine if we have serious aspirations of promotion, we are still gelling as a team and this game could prove an early lesson in how to deal with a robust and physical League Two team keen to claim our scalp. I’m still far from convinced by our defence based on the opening two games of the season and they could be found wanting against a direct side if they continue to show poor positional discipline and aggression in their play.

Since returning to the club, Mark Robins is yet to win an away game for us – although away wins were the main feature of his first spell at the club. Getting that first away win of the season before it comes a thing is important. However, I can see this being a frustrating 1-1 draw.

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: Oldham Athletic

A home win to give hope that there might be a way forward next season without necessarily the radical squad turnover that had seem inevitable for the past few months. Racing two goals ahead early on, the first of which was almost an entire fluke, helped but in terms of chances created, we deserved to win an otherwise fairly tight contest.

These past few home wins have come as a result of Tony Mowbray experimenting with his selection and tactics, something which was absent during our dismal run in the second half of the season. The freedom of knowing there’s pretty much nothing to play for has helped but hopefully Tony Mowbray can take this tactical flexibility into next season which should make us harder to play against.

Possible Line-up

Possible Line-Up

As for the one remaining game of this season, we face an Oldham side who, just like ourselves, have nothing to play for. The difference between defeat and victory here would only be to secure our highest finish in a division since 1989 and our highest points tally since three points for a win was introduced in 1981. That being said, it counts for very little when we can’t achieve anything tangible with it but it’s nice to see a Coventry City side that hasn’t completely packed it in for the final weeks of the season.

It doesn’t make a great deal of difference what kind of team plays in this game. Whether Tony Mowbray goes full strength or only plays those who’ll be around next season, you’d imagine that performances in this game aren’t going to affect who he’s going to keep or let go over the summer. It would be nice for the likes of Jodi Jones or George Thomas to get themselves on the scoresheet to give themselves something to build upon for next season, but it’s really all about what they do next season now.

Last Time We Met

The build-up for the otherwise humdrum game against Oldham back in December was replaced by the emotional outpouring at the news of club icon Jimmy Hill’s death. Unfortunately it wasn’t the best performance from the Sky Blues who laboured into a 1-0 lead just after half-time via Aaron Martin’s header, an early injury to Ben Turner unsettling a makeshift backline. Oldham equalised with the final kick of the game after Reice Charles-Cook flapped tamely at Danny Philliskirk’s near-post header.

How Are They Doing?

Oldham looked dead and buried for much of the first half of the season after two disastrous managerial appointments. The rookie Darren Kelly was brought in at the start of the season and projected no confidence at all from the dug-out, quickly losing the confidence of both fans and players, Kelly has subsequently been sacked by both Halifax and Hyde this season. David Dunn failed to lift the team and made a whole host of temporary loan signings which only exacerbated the crisis of confidence at Oldham.

The board showed decisiveness in removing Dunn from his post in December and bringing back the experienced John Sheridan to the club. Sheridan quickly injected life back into Oldham, making a series of astute signings and offering organisation and leadership in the dug-out. Oldham secured safety with weeks to spare when they had previously looked certain for the drop.

Oldham have become a more robust and organised side under Sheridan, led by a hard-working front two of Curtis Main and Jonathan Forte. Forte hasn’t hit the heights he did last season when he hit 13 goals in his first 18 appearances for the club before injuries curtailed his season, but has been a willing runner in attack. Main has ultimately scored the goals to keep Oldham up – at the expense of Doncaster, the club he is on loan from – and is a more physical front-man who has finally added goals to his work-rate.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

In midfield, the quality mainly comes from captain Liam Kelly, who has rediscovered his best form under Sheridan. Kelly is an expert at breaking up the play in midfield, getting the ball moving forward and getting into scoring positions himself. Kelly is likely to be partnered by Timothee Dieng, formerly a centre-back, to give Oldham a greater physical edge in midfield.

Young goalkeeper Joel Coleman is yet another player who has improved under John Sheridan’s management and is starting to look like one of the brightest goalkeeping prospects in this division. The defence overall has been helped by the signing of the experienced Anthony Gerrard who is not only a dominant presence at the back but a leader as well. Gerrard’s centre-back partner James Wilson has been a bright prospect over the past few years and is looking like he’s come out the other side of a dip in form in recent weeks.

Prediction

With neither of the teams here playing for anything in particular, it’s hard to tell what the approach is going to be here from either side. Although we’ve shown in recent weeks that the players are still motivated, we also saw at Doncaster that if the game gets a bit tricky for us, we can wilt. Oldham lost 3-0 to Millwall last week having already secured survival so they’ll either be on their holidays already or keen to finish the season on a high in front of their own fans.

I don’t know, 2-2 draw perhaps.

Preview: Oldham Athletic

Sunday confirmed my deep-seated anxiety about travelling to Bramall Lane with anything resembling confidence in a win. The football gods (a.k.a. the referee) were against us that afternoon with a dour Sheffield United side triumphing via evading two red cards, two penalty appeals and the ball going over their own line, scoring the winner from one of their few shots on target.

Having calmed down from the tumult of last Sunday, there’s a strain inside me that wonders whether we might actually have deserved what we got. As poor as Sheffield United were, they registered more shots on target than we did. There was something either lethargic or complacent about our performance, with little urgency on show, aside from a spell early in the second-half.

The message that Tony Mowbray should be getting across to his players this week has to be to produce these intense spells for longer in games and take absolute advantage of them, such as we did against Gillingham. We remain in a strong position in the division and with some eminently winnable games coming up over the festive period; there is a massive opportunity here to re-assert ourselves in the title race.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

For this upcoming game against Oldham, there are a plethora of attacking options, boosted by James Maddison completing 90 minutes for the under-21s and George Thomas returning from his loan spell with Yeovil. The three who lined up behind Armstrong against Sheffield United though have a credible case for starting again. Ruben Lameiras in particular, who was a surprise starter over Ryan Kent, stood out and appears to be another example of a player improving under the tutelage of Tony Mowbray.

Sam Ricketts’ red card on Sunday though leaves us light in numbers at the back. Ricketts hasn’t been in the best form of late but it will be the first time that we play without him this season and regardless of his form, he is a key leadership presence in this team. It will be interesting to see what the effect his absence from the team will have. With Martin Lorentzson some distance from match fitness, Aaron Phillips makes a timely return from a hamstring strain and has an opportunity here to prove his various doubters wrong.

Last Time We Met

This game will provide something of a progress report on Tony Mowbray’s leadership of the club considering the nature of our last meeting against Oldham. Back in April, Tony Mowbray’s side were unable to capitalise for all three points despite a strong showing against a side with nothing to play for.

The Sky Blues knocked the ball around confidently for much of the 90 minutes and with the intent of creating chances. A lack of concentration from a set-piece allowed Oldham to score a goal from one of their few attacks that night. After much huffing and puffing, Reda Johnson headed in a late winner to salvage something from the evening when really all three points should have been easily got.

How Are They Doing?

As often proves the case with sides that coast towards the end of the season, Oldham have struggled this time out. That sense of inertia has been made worse by financial difficulties which have led to players being paid late over recent months and a misguided managerial appointment made over the summer.

Darren Kelly had led the club at the start of the season after a lengthy recruitment process but lost the confidence of the fans from very early on in his reign. Kelly was sacked in September, and has since been hired and fired by Halifax in the Conference, replaced by David Dunn, who arrived at the club as a player/coach in the summer.

Dunn’s leadership has been characterised by two things, draws and loans. He has drawn 7 of the games he has been in charge of and the squad now features 7 loan players of differing quality. He has already made it clear that he is unsatisfied with the quality he has at his disposal but with the club in a perilous position both financially and in the division, there appears little wiggle room aside from making changes for change’s sake.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

There is some quality in this Oldham squad though and they do have a strangely decent away record, losing just once on the road all season. Liam Kelly in the centre of the park is one to watch out for; his passing range clearly belongs to a much higher quality of football than this Oldham side are producing. Carl Winchester and Mike Jones are both mobile and industrious midfielders capable of either playing out wide or centrally.

Ex-Sky Blue Danny Philliskirk currently leads Oldham’s scoring charts this season with a respectable six goals. The attack also boasts Michael Higdon and Dominic Poleon on five goals apiece. All three though are inconsistent performers but will all be competent to take advantage of the kind of opportunities we have been giving away to teams of late.

Prediction

Oldham’s weirdly strong away form makes this a potentially tougher fixture than we might otherwise be anticipating. Much like in our last meeting, Oldham will be fairly content to play the underdogs role which puts the onus on us to not only control proceedings but put the Latics to the sword. As we have seen in recent games, we have been on top without looking all too troubled only for the opposition to seize on the rare opportunities that we allow them when our concentration drops. It’s time to wipe the lethargy out of our recent performances and get back into top gear.

I’m fairly confident that we will be able to do that and as such, I am predicting a 3-1 Coventry City victory.

Preview: Oldham Athletic

A much-needed win against Colchester United at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday has got Coventry City right on the verge of securing safety after a long and difficult season. Normally 50 points at this stage of the season would be enough to start mixing the Pina Coladas and planning for next season, however in this crazy division someone may well go down with as many as 53 points.

This upcoming home game against Oldham Athletic is a must win game for us to put relegation fears to bed. With the remaining fixtures after this an away trip to Bristol City for their promotion party, a home game against our bogey team Crewe and an away trip to a resurgent Crawley Town side, we would be well-advised to go for all three points here.

Villains against Worcester in November, Reda Johnson and Lee Burge played a massive part in a vital win on Saturday.

Villains against Worcester in November, Reda Johnson and Lee Burge played a massive part in a vital win on Saturday.

After missing several guilt-edged chances in the second-half against Colchester, we may feel that the 1-0 scoreline did not quite reflect our dominance of the proceedings. However it was reflective of a team still neurotic about playing at home, particularly during the period after the interval where we seemed intent on allowing Colchester a chance to take at least a point from the game. Still, the win was all that mattered and hopefully begins a process of finally putting together some strong form at home.

The return of Reda Johnson was a reminder both of the quality that the powerful centre-back has and also just how much we had missed him during his lengthy injury absences. Whilst the reckless way in which he attempts to win the ball leaves that worry that anyone with pace could exploit the space he leaves in behind, the dominance he offered in the air cut off Colchester’s main attacking threat of target-man centre-forward Chris Porter.

With the recent injury through over-exertion that Marcus Tudgay suffered still on Tony Mowbray’s mind, Johnson could be rested for this meeting with Oldham Athletic as a precaution. Given how important recording back-to-back victories is right now, Mowbray might prefer to play Johnson in this game and rest him for the ‘free hit’ game we have against Bristol City.

Otherwise, it will be the exact same squad available to Mowbray as he had against Colchester. James Maddison’s impressive cameo at the weekend could see him earn a starting spot but it seems like the manager prefers to hold players back a little to make them hungrier for first-team action. Whilst it seems Mowbray is concerned about fatigue with this team, I would be surprised to see any major changes from Saturday’s starting 11.

Possible Line-Up: (4-4-2) Burge; Willis, Pennington, Johnson, Stokes; Barton, Ward, Fleck, O’Brien; Proschwitz, Nouble.

Last Time We Met

Oldham inflicted upon us one of our most miserable defeats on us this season the last time we played them. Without a win in six, the Steven Pressley’s Sky Blues travelled to Oldham more in hope than expectation, as evidenced by the experimental choice of James Maddison and Shaun Miller in attack. In the event, play-off chasing Oldham ran riot against a demoralised Coventry City team, capitalising on sloppy errors to run four goals past the hapless Ryan Allsop in goal. The only positive thing to come from the game was James Maddison’s first goal for Coventry City from a deflected free-kick.

How Are They Doing?

Under Lee Johnson, Oldham looked like dark horses for the play-offs for much of the first half of the season. Their campaign never really recovered from back-to-back heavy defeats to Yeovil (4-0) and MK ‘Dons’ (7-0). That lost sense of direction probably played a part in Lee Johnson’s eventual departure from the club at the end of February to Barnsley. Oldham are waiting until the summer to appoint a new manager, rumoured to be Uwe Rosler, and caretaker manager Dean Holden is currently keeping the seat warm.

With their season in a state of stagnation, Oldham are without a win in four. That poor run though obscures creditable draws taken against Bristol City and Sheffield United in recent weeks. With nothing to play for, Holden has opted to stop starting his loan players and instead test some of the club’s younger players at first-team level. Goalkeeper Joel Coleman has made a solid step up in recent weeks alongside forward Rhys Turner who scored a brace in a 3-0 win over local rivals Rochdale.

Dominic Poleon's pace could make him the perfect player to help Oldham to a typical 'smash and grab' at the Ricoh Arena.

Dominic Poleon’s pace could make him the perfect player to help Oldham to a typical ‘smash and grab’ at the Ricoh Arena.

Oldham raced to a two-goal lead on Saturday against Sheffield United and were unlucky not to see out the win. The scorer of Oldham’s two goals was ex-Leeds forward Dominic Poleon. Signed as a replacement for Singers’ Corner’s favourite striker Jonson Clarke-Harris, Dominic Poleon has been a major disappointment for much of the season. However, those two goals on Saturday were endemic of an improvement in performance levels and his pace will be a major threat for our defence to deal with.

The quality that Oldham have in midfield could see them edge this contest. Sitting in front of the defence, Liam Kelly has a range of passing that has seen him dominate midfields at this level all season and he is someone with the intelligence to pick holes in our back-line. In front of him will be the dynamic Mike Jones and Carl Winchester. Jones is a converted winger who covers a lot of ground in the centre of the pitch and can glide past players in the final third. Carl Winchester is more prosaic but has the potential to score some stunning goals from long-range.

Possible Line-Up: (4-3-1-2) Coleman; Brown, Wilson, Lockwood, Mills; Jones, Kelly, Winchester; Philliskirk; Poleon, Turner.

Prediction

This time of the season often sees fans of clubs fighting at either end of the table talk about how games against teams ‘with nothing to play for’ are the easiest ones. Recent results against sides chasing the promotion spots have shown that Oldham are far from being ‘on the beach’ with caretaker manager Dean Holden desperate to stake a claim for the permanent position.

Crawley’s recent win over Oldham though showed that if we can get off to a quick start and score some early goals, perhaps Oldham will be less inclined to fight back. This game is all about us taking the initiative and showing how much we want to win this game. From the sounds of what the players and manager have been saying in the lead up to this game, they want to seize this chance to take all three points and I think we should have the edge here. 2-0 win for the Sky Blues.