The League One programme has entered its final third, with the race for promotion promising a thrilling finale and potentially a blanket finish. Tranmere, the leaders through most of the last five months, lost top spot in midweek but remain well placed to challenge from a large pack of clubs. NICK HILTOn assesses the other contenders.
AFC Bournemouth. Points: 58. Games remaining: 14. Manager: Eddie Howe (since October 14). Bookmakers odds for promotion: 9/4-on favourites.
IT IS no surprise to find the bookmakers installing Bournemouth as clear favourites to win promotion from League One. They are following the momentum and the money. The Cherries’ 2-1 win at Crewe Alexandra in midweek was their fifth consecutive victory.
Bournemouth’s spending on players is spectacular by League One standards. The cash comes from a £6 million “loan” to the club from co-chairman Maxim Demin, a Russian who made his fortune in the petrochemical industry and owns a £6 million mansion in the exclusive Sandbanks area of nearby coastal Dorset.
Demin’s money is being spent on players’ transfer fees – a club record £800,000 for Matt Tubbs, £400,000 for Matt Ritchie from promotion rivals Swindon in the transfer window and another £420,000 for Ryan Fraser.
It is also being spent on the development of a new training ground, improvements to Dean Court and servicing a wage bill for players described by Tranmere manager Ronnie Moore as being “that of a Championship club.”
Eddie Howe, in his second spell as manager, returned to Bournemouth in October and quickly began converting the club’s financial resources into points on the board. The Cherries’ League One record since he took over in mid-October (starting with a win over Tranmere) is 14 wins, five draws and just one defeat in 20 games.
Howe admitted: “This is a new dynamic from the previous time I was here. Expectation is probably the biggest thing we have had to deal with. I have never had the resources to the level we are at now as a manager. It‘s never easy to consistently win, you have to earn the right in every single game. At the moment, the lads are doing that really well.”
Doncaster Rovers. Points: 57. Games remaining: 15. Manager (since January) Brian Flynn. Bookmakers’ odds for promotion: 6/4.
DONCASTER have spent the last year recovering from the departure of two multimillionaire directors – Dick Watson and Terry Bramhall – who stepped down from the board, leaving chairman John Ryan to shoulder the financial burden.
Last season the budget soared above income as Doncaster were relegated from the Championship. Dean Saunders, who succeeded Sean O’Driscoll as manager as early as September 2011 could not prevent Doncaster’s fall.
He did however build a new team that was mounting a strong promotion challenge in League One this season when he was headhunted by Wolverhampton Wanderers in January.
Saunders’ replacement was his chief scout, the former Wrexham, Swansea and Wales under 21 manager Brian Flynn.
Doncaster’s results have been inconsistent since the change at the top and the six-point advantage they share with Tranmere over the rest of the division a few weeks ago melted away.
Doncaster edged ahead of Rovers when drawing at home to MK Dons in midweek. Flynn remains confident, insisting Doncaster are the best side in the division.
Flynn said: “That six point gap has disappeared now. There’s obvious concern about that, but I’d still rather be in the position we’re in, where others are chasing us. Ourselves and Tranmere have stuttered. We have merely stuttered, not stopped.”
Swindon Town. Points: 55. Games remaining 15. Manager: Paulo DiCanio. Bookmakers’ odds: 6/5.
SWINDON TOWN’S promotion chances may rest on the volatile temperament of one man – manager Paulo Di Canio – and whether he is able to forge a relationship with a new consortium who pushed through a takeover of the club this week.
The Italian guided Swindon to promotion from League Two last season and into a challenging position in the current campaign while working with the club’s previous majority shareholder Andrew Black. However, Black called time on his term of ownership at the County Ground towards the end of 2012 and is reported to have written off the personal investment in the club of up to £9million.
Di Canio has been unhappy about the changeover process, complaining about a communication problem with interim chairman Sir Derek Patey. Earlier this month Di Canio said he was considering his position after Swindon sold Matt Ritchie to Bournemouth in the transfer window. Club officials said the sale was necessary to avoid the club lapsing into administration.
If Di Canio stays the Italian’s tactical and motivational powers can make Swindon strong contenders. Should he leave, expect the bookmakers to adjust the odds.
Sheffield United. Points 54. Games to play: 50. Manager: Danny Wilson. Bookmakers odds:13/8.
THE big city club with a significant advantage in revenue generated through home gates of 18,000 have big overheads to match.
The Blades also have to deal with higher expectations after last season’s near miss, a third-place finish and a defeat at Huddersfield Town in the play-off final.
United’s mediocre record at home – three defeats and six draws in 15 games so far – reflects how difficult it can be for them to force results in front of an impatient Bramall Lane crowd.
Successive away wins at Shrewsbury and Bury over the past week kept the Blades in the frame and Wilson, an experienced manager, believes last year’s disappointment could yet work to their advantage
He said: “I think the fact that we always have to deal with pressure could be a definite advantage for us between now and the end of the season. Some teams who’ve never had the same weight of expectation are now going to be under pressure if they’re up there in the mix.”
Brentford. Points: 54. Games to play 15. Manager: Uwe Rosler. Bookmakers odds: 9/5.
BRENTFORD look like a team who have fallen for the distraction of a fairytale FA Cup tie.
The Bees climbed the League One table steadily through the winter and were unbeaten in 14 League One games when they won a Cup replay against Southend to secure a fourth round meeting with European champions Chelsea. Brentford lost their next game, at home to Tranmere and failed to win the next three in the league, while the Chelsea tie extended to a replay to be staged at Stamford Bridge this weekend.
Rosler was grateful for a three-point haul from a midweek home win over Stevenage. He said: “We have a blip in form, but we are right up there.
“We have to turn that around but there is more to come from this very young team.”
Yeovil Town. Points 54. Games remaining 15. Manager Gary Johnson. Bookmakers’ odds: 6-1.
YEOVIL are as much a surprise package this season as Tranmere and operate on a similar budget.
They weren’t receiving a lot of attention until a run of seven straight wins lifted them to the edge of the play-offs zone. The wisdom of Gary Johnson’s return to manage the Somerset club last season is now apparent. Johnson, meanwhile reckons he may have made the signing of the season in Paddy Madden, a 22-year-old who scored 16 goals this season, including nine in the last six games.
Johnson said: “At the moment we are keeping in there with everyone else. Someone is going to slip up eventually and we have got to make sure it’s not us.
“We are also putting a bit of a gap between the likes of MK Dons, Crawley, Walsall and Coventry City, and we are keeping up with others that were a long way ahead of us at certain parts of the season.”
Yeovil bought out the six remaining months of Madden’s contract with Carlisle after the player impressed in a loan spell at Huish Park. Johnson said: “He’s the bargain of the season. He’s the only one we’ve paid for and it wasn’t much.”
COVENTRY CITY fans must hope the loss of manager Mark Robins, headhunted by Huddersfield Town this week, does not hold their steady climb up the table. Robins, appointed in September, had guided the Sky Blues to within seven points of the play-offs on before his departure.
Walsall, looking like relegation candidates earlier in the season, moved to within seven points of the play-offs after winning eight of the last 10 games. Leyton Orient, overcoming the usual slow start, have moved into the top half of the table after a five-game unbeaten sequence.
Notts County and MK Dons, just above halfway on the table, are performing below expectations after being quoted among the promotion favourites at the start of the season. County sacked manager Keith Curle earlier this month. Midfielder Alan Judge says he is “fed up” of the upheaval. “I’ve been here two and a half years and that is my sixth manager,” he said. MK Dons have their work cut out to make the play-offs for a fourth season in succession with manager Karl Robinson complaining about wretched luck with injuries.