>League Two Easter Preview: Part 1

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Focus on…Oxford United v Chesterfield…

The Kassam Stadium in Oxford will be awash with blue and white this weekend as Chesterfield expect to clinch the League Two championship after months of running away with a promotion bid that’s never seriously been threatened. The Spireites have been odds on favourites since Christmas to return to League One and have steadily picked up points while all below them struggled to keep up with their blistering pace.

As with Brighton in League One, there can be no doubting that Chesterfield are the rightful winners and only a ridiculous run of results can now prevent them from lifting the title, something they can do tomorrow afternoon with a single point at the Kassam.

They will return to League One after four years out with a fresh look in their new B2Net Stadium, the 10,500 seat venue that has had the best possible christening in its first season as the Spireites’ home. It’s almost destiny that after flirting with the playoffs during the final three seasons at Saltergate (the club finishing 8th, 10th and 8th again) that as soon as they moved into their new home everything fell into place.

John Sheridan had led the club to the brinks of the playoffs last season, his first in charge, and although the season wouldn’t end with a spot in the top seven, there would be a fitting farewell to the old ground when an injury time winner from Derek Niven saw off already promoted Bournemouth. Following two pitch invasions, it was time for the change to come and what a job Sheridan has done over the last twelve months.

Craig Davies joined on a year long deal in July and after scoring the first ever goal at the B2Net Stadium and also becoming the first to be sent off there, hit eleven goals in the opening thirteen games as his new side became the early pace setters. Nothing has stalled since then either and Davies’ tally has risen to twenty four goals. Add to that the fifteen from Jack Lester, fourteen from Danny Whittaker and eleven from Oldham loanee Deane Smalley and it’s not difficult to tell why the club are not only runaway leaders but also the top scorers in League Two with eighty goals.

Since the turn of the year, they’ve opened up a huge gap between not just themselves and the chasing pack in the playoffs but also second place as they aim to wrap up the title and promotion in quick succession. The last two away games have produced unexpected wobbles at relegation threatened Barnet (2-2) and Hereford (0-3) but two home successes steadied the ship to make it five straight home victories as they close in on that promotion.

Oxford, then, will be relieved that the game will be on their home turf, the still three sided Kassam Stadium, as they cling on to what is now a very much outside chance of the playoffs.

After winning a place back in the Football League following a 3-1 Conference pPlayoff Final against york City in May last year, the U’s have equipped themselves well and have been around the edges of the top seven all season.

That’s a testament to the steady progress of rookie manager Chris Wilder who is slowly making a name for himself in this division, his first as a manager in the league.

Wilder cut his managerial teeth at Alfreton Town before moving on to Halifax Town just after they were relegated from the league in 2002. Staying there until 2008 when the club went into liquidation, Wilder joined old pal Alan Knill at Bury and became his assistant manager. Six months later and he was on the move again though as Oxford came calling in December 2008. After missing out on the playoffs in that season, Wilder led the side there in his first full campaign and sealed it with that fine win over York.

While not making huge waves it’s still a fine achievement for Wilder and co to finish in the top half and the season, whatever happens from here on in, will be seen as an important stepping stone to the next level.

Surrendering a 2-0 lead at home to Wycombe a couple of weeks ago will probably be seen as the end of the playoff hopes with a draw last weekend at Accrington seeing them drop to seven points behind Gillingham and the playoffs.

They’ll still be eager to prevent a party in their ground though as Chesterfield search for that point they need to become the second Football League side promoted this season. The U’s will also take heart from the victory at the B2Net Stadium earlier in the season when they came from a goal down to win 2-1. If they have their way, the Spireites might just have to wait a little longer to start the party!

Elsewhere in League Two…

Bury will be hoping to keep the pressure on Chesterfield but a victory against Lincoln on Friday will also go a long way towards their own automatic promotion hopes. The Shakers have seen off the Cobblers and Barnet at Gigg Lane in the last couple of games and will be looking to make it a triple victory over relegation threatened sides at home. Lincoln are poised just above trouble but they’ll be looking over their shoulder until they get another win under their belts. Gigg Lane probably isn’t the best place to go when you need that though!

There’s also a massive game at Plainmoor on Friday as Torquay play Shrewsbury with both sides gunning for the top three. Shrewsbury, in fourth, are four points ahead of their hosts but United know that victory would not only close the gap on them but also edge them closer to the automatic promotion places before Saturday’s games.

Another team in sight and level on points with Torquay are Stevenage who will want to get an early run on the other playoff chasers behind them as they travel to Southend tonight. Graham Westley’s side have risen from the depths of mid-table to join the elite for the final stages and will be bitterly disappointed if they lose that place now.

Crewe and Morecambe are in the “nothing to play for” category but the Shrimps are looking to extend a three game unbeaten run at Gresty Road as they aim to overtake Dario Gradi’s men and finish in the top half.

The pick of Saturday’s other games sees Gillingham defend their seventeen game unbeaten run as they welcome Barnet to the Priestfield for a game with massive importance. Gillingham remain in a playoff place thanks to a late Cody McDonald leveller last weekend and the on loan Norwich man is proving to be the difference between the Gills holding on to that spot and ending up outside the playoffs. Barnet are of course on our tails and should the Cobblers fail to win on Friday night they’ll have a huge incentive going into their game.

Hereford have given Jamie Pitman a new two year deal to remain as manager after the former physio led the Bulls to the brink of safety. Pitman’s charges host promotion chasing Shrewsbury looking to follow up excellent results against Wycombe, Chesterfield and Rotherham in the last couple of weeks.

It’s near enough last chance saloon for Stockport and Port Vale as the two meet at Vale Park. Vale are one good result from getting right back in the payoff mix but more seriously for Stockport is that the Hatters would be as good as down with defeat.

Accrington are just a couple of goals away from the top seven and will be favourites to see off a shaking Bradford side. Peter Jackson’s men still aren’t safe and won’t be relishing a trip to a ground where no away team has won in ten games.

Macclesfield have gradually pulled away from danger and can overtake Cheltenham if they beat them at Whaddon Road. The Robins were beaten at Burton last weekend but have Andy Gallinagh available after his ban was overturned from that game.

Burton used their last game in hand to overtake the Cobblers and they are finally level on games with everyone else as they prepare to face Aldershot and attempt to end the Shot’s ten game unbeaten run.

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