The story of the last month in the history of Torquay United and Port Vale represents a shining example of how quickly things can change in football. On 8th March, United were undone at Aldershot, becoming the first side to lose to the Shots in ten games. On the same day, Vale pulled off a fine result in a 2-2 draw at Shrewsbury that kept them well in the hunt for the top three. The league table saw the Valiants in sixth, seven points clear of Torquay with the two sides having played the same amount of games.
Fast forward just seven matches and how the tables have turned. During a 3-0 defeat at Accrington just two games later, Vale midfielder Exodus Geohaghon was involved in ugly scenes with the travelling support after receiving increading levels of abuse that culminated in the player confronting some of his detractors. Striker Marc Richards would call the comments from his own support as “not acceptable,” and “harsh”. There was more fall out from that game with manager Jim Gannon, snuck out of the Crown ground “for his own safety,” shown the door permanently in the aftermath.
Step forward Mark Grew and Geoff Horsfield to take temporary charge, Horsfield the man who had that famous bust up with Gannon just a few weeks prior to his sacking whilst on the team bus to Aldershot. The incident that saw both Gannon and Horsfield leave the bus before arriving in Hampshire is one of the more bizarre stories of the past couple of years in the Football League but the former striker stayed on and is now assisting Grew in his attempt to steer the club back towards the playoffs.
Horsfield has hinted that there may be changes to the starting line-up coming this week with Louis Dodds, Sean Rigg and Lewis Haldane all starting for the reserves in a 1-0 defeat to Bradford on Tuesday and staking their claims for a place in the first team at Plainmoor.
With four teams above Vale all three points clear of them, it’s a must win game for a club that earlier in the season had much loftier ambitions.
Their opponents on Saturday are headed in the opposite direction and having started in record breaking fashion are now finally getting back to the heights of those early days of the campaign.
Having kicked off the season passing a record breaking run of ten clean sheets over the end of the previous campaign and the start of this one, the mood at Plainmoor was jubilant and early signs of a promotion push were beginning to show. Winning their first four games saw the Gulls as the pace setters in League Two but, despite some fine individual results including wins at Oxford and Wycombe, by the start of the calendar year they were outside the playoff places following a draw at Hereford.
Indeed it had been draws that had been keeping the club at bay for the most part but after a fiery FA Cup Fourth round defeat at home to Crawley Town in a game that could have seen them get through to a best ever run in the competition United started to turn the corner.
An unbeaten four game run kicked things off but it was really the 5-0 hammering of Shrewsbury Town in March that got everyone’s attention. Jake Robinson, on loan from the Shrews, scored twice that day against his parent club and the win was a catylist for a seven game run without defeat that continued at Bradford last weekend in a mightily impressive 3-0 victory.
Top scorer Elliot Benyon moved to Swindon in January but that’s only made the likes of Billy Kee, Gavin Tomlin (on loan from Dagenham) and Chris Zebroski step up to the plate. Tomlin and Kee both netted at Valley Parade and the result keeps them in a playoff place that they’ve had to really battle to regain over the last few months.
The four point gap between themselves and Wycombe could well have been closer as well if Torquay hadn’t hit the woodwork a massive 27 times this season, more than anyone else in League Two!
For them, it’s a case of holding on to a place in the top seven immediately but still having a cheeky look up just in case something happens at Adams Park involving the Cobblers and that coveted first victory in an age! For Vale, all thoughts are on the playoffs and this could be one of their final chances to end the season with something to play for.
Elsewhere in League Two this weekend…
This week’s Friday night action sees Southend host Bradford at Roots Hall with both suides playing for pride alone. The Shrimpers have fallen away from a playoff bid and are now eleven points away from the top seven despite a decent draw at port Vale last time out. Bradford are just about safe but will be wanting to make it absolutely sure because Peter Jackson’s positive start as manager has slightly fallen by the wayside in recent weeks. A 3-0 home defeat to Torquay last weekend moved them to within six points of the bottom two but they should have enough to hold off the sides below them, especially with a game in hand.
On Saturday, Bury against Barnet is the pick of the games that affect both ends of the table. The Shakers crept past Burton on Tuesday night but will have to go without the suspended duo of Damien Mozika and Efe Sodje after both saw red against the Brewers. Barnet are now just a couple of goals away from overtaking Burton in the table but even a defeat for the Bees could see them go above Albion should they lose by a heavier margin! Bury are seven points away from Chesterfield at the top and know that they still have to play them so might yet have eyes on the title.
Chesterfield can seal promotion to League One should they see off Macclesfield and Shrewsbury don’t pick up maximum points. The Spireites were stunned at Hereford last weekend but will be desperate to clinch promotion and ease any worries of being caught by Bury in the race for the title. Macc’s point at home to Accrington last Friday night was their first in five games but that late, late equaliser was vital to steady their own fears of being brought into the relegation battle. They’ll be wanting one more win to be sure but it’ll have to be a monumental effort to see of a team on the brink of celebration.
Stockport may yet be able to stake a claim for a dramatic survival thanks to the failings of Burton to pick up points from their games in hand and following a 2-2 draw with Stevenage last weekend they face another massive test at fourth placed Shrewsbury. After a 3-0 reverse at Aldershot, it’s a massive game for the Shrews to attempt to claw back ground on the top three and they’ll see it as a must win game in terms of their automatic promotion ambitions. Craig McAllister is back in contention for them after missing over two months following a hernia operation.
Top of the League Two form table are Stevenage with five wins and a draw from their last six games and they’ll be slight favourites to continue a run that’s taken them to fifth as they host Aldershot. The Shots are now in the top half though having put together nine games without defeat including that terrific result against Shrewsbury last weekend. Something has to give here with two teams that have shot up the table in recent weeks.
Gillingham complete the playoff positions and following a 4-0 trouncing of Lincoln last weekend will be determined to win again due to the fact that they’re one of four teams all on 64 points going into the weekend. The Gills are now fifteen games unbeaten with their last defeat coming way back in January against Chesterfield. Opponents Morecambe are improving again just at the right time and are up to fifteenth in the table. Veteran striker Paul Mullin will play no further part for them though as he announced his retirement this week. The former Accrington man’s final goal came during the 3-3 draw with the Cobblers in February.
Meanwhile, Accrington will feel unfortunate to have dropped out of the top seven last weekend having succumbed to that late goal at Macclesfield and they are another side on 64 points as they prepare to welcome Oxford to the Crown Ground. United are still six points from the playoffs despite back to back wins and they will see this as a massive chance to get back into the mix.
Burton face Cheltenham at the Pirelli Stadium having blown most of their chances to escape the relegation fight. With just one goal now between themselves and Barnet they can afford no slip ups against the Robins. Town restored some pride last weekend by holding Rotherham after losing 8-1 at Crewe seven days earlier and will be aiming to top last season’s points total, something they need just one more to achieve.
Lincoln are a side in real trouble once again after five straight defeats. Steve Tilson has insisted that the streak needs to end as they travel to Crewe tomorrow. Tilson will be without leading scorer Ashley Grimes though as the Millwall loan man is suspended following his tenth booking of the season during the defeat to Gillingham last week. Crewe are looking to put defeat at Barnet behind them but it still looks a long shot for them to gatecrash the playoff party.
And former Brentford manager Andy Scott will take charge of Rotherham for the first time tomorrow after joining the Millers on a three year deal on Thursday. His first test comes at home to Hereford and with his new troops four away from the top seven Scott will need maximum points from that one. The Bulls’ win over Chesterfield was one of the shocks of the season and they’ll be full of confidence for the trip to the Don Valley.
So with ‘permutations’ the key word you’re likely to hear all weekend long, we wait to see if Chesterfield can become the first team promoted from League Two and how much the other issues are shaken up. With just four games to go after this round of fixtures, there really is no margin for error at all!