Northampton Town v Bradford City: Match Preview

WembleyNorthampton Town v Bradford City

League Two Playoff Final

Wembley Stadium

Saturday, May 18th 2013

This is it! After two weeks of build-up, debates, nerves, ticket panics and excitement. After forty six league games and two tense playoff encounters. After facing the very real fear of relegation just over a year ago. It all comes down to an afternoon at Wembley Stadium as Northampton Town and Bradford City go into battle for the final place in League One for the 2013/14 season.

With just one day to go I’m still in somewhat disbelief that twelve months on from both of these sides battling it out at the wrong end of the table we are set to go head to head in the playoff final. Since the final whistle at Cheltenham I’ve been going through different stages of emotion that started with utter jubilation, then excitement and then actually trying to focus on the football match that will take place before us tomorrow afternoon.

The line between what could be one of the great days of Northampton Town history and one of disappointment is so thin that it makes you nervous just thinking about what happens after 1:30pm and the first whistle of the final so we must enjoy every single piece of the day that leads up to kick-off. If there is to be the happiest of endings to this season then every single member of the 22,000 or so claret army that takes their place under the arch, every player that dons the shirt and every member of staff will have to be at the very top of their game. Bradford go into the game as favourites and as a team that has done the league double over us whilst also ending our progress in the FA Cup but the desire shown at Cheltenham shows that there’s much more to this Cobblers side than long balls and hoofing it.

You never know when this may happen again and I’m so lucky to be able to say that it will be my third trip to Wembley with the Cobblers. Treasure it, remember it and do your wonderful football club proud on what could become a date of Northampton Town folklore!

Here goes…

 

bradford-cityBradford City’s path to Wembley…the long road back…

Bradford weren’t supposed to be in League Two for this long. Relegation to the fourth level of English football in 2007 came as quite the shock to a club that, six years earlier, had been playing in the Premier League. It was more of a gradual decline than an instant one with three campaigns spent in the Championship and three in League One since those two seasons in the sun with the elite. In 2007, though, the Bantams slipped to the bottom tier and were looking for an instant return and for a new dawn to begin a climb back up the league pyramid.

Stuart McCall, a Bantams player during two spells – one of which included taking them into the Premier League- was appointed manager. After a tough start to life in League Two he eventually took them to a tenth place finish in the first season in the basement division. A year later and McCall was getting closer to his promotion dreams but City finished two points from the playoff positions and after a poor run of results the following season he left Valley Parade the following February.

Peter Taylor, Peter Jackson and Colin Cooper all tried their hand but the fallen giant was proving harder to awaken than originally thought with Bradford finishing 14th in 2010 and 18th in both subsequent seasons with an exit from the entire Football League the a very real threat at times during the last couple of years.

Phil Parkinson’s appointment in August 2011 looked like being the one to bring back stability to the club, though, and despite last season’s disappointing league finish he has reinvigorated the Bantams this time around and completely changed their fortunes. This season will already be going down in history for them after Parkinson led the club to the League Cup Final – the first fourth tier side to achieve this since Rochdale in 1962 – with the likes of Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa all beaten en route to Wembley.

What is perhaps just as impressive is that, following a 5-0 hammering by Swansea City in the final, City have picked themselves up to mount a playoff challenge. Days after Wembley, they salvaged a late home draw against Dagenham and Redbridge and were still ten points from the playoff places. Three games in hand were still there to be played but it would still take a monumental effort for City to get back into contention.

One defeat in twelve certainly helped in the games after the League Cup final and by the time Bristol Rovers had been swept aside 4-1 in early April, days after the Cobblers had been beaten at Valley Parade, Bradford were back in the top seven and genuine contenders once again. A home defeat to Rotherham briefly threatened to give the chasing pack something to aim at but victory over Burton Albion in their final home league game ensured a playoff place with a final day draw at Cheltenham Town rounding off the league fixtures.

Their seventh place finish meant that Burton would be their opponents in the playoff semi-finals and it was to be yet another dramatic couple of games for the Bantams. Calvin Zola had the Brewers 2-0 up inside half an hour in the first game at Valley Parade before Nahki Wells gave them hope with a spot kick. But before half-time, Robbie Weir had made it 3-1 and there was everything to do once more. Garry Thompson scored arguably the most important goal of the tie in the second half to mean that they would at least go to the Pirelli Stadium with just a one goal deficit, though.

The second leg saw Wells in inspired form again, scoring mid-way through the first half to drag Bradford right back into the game. James Hansen put his side in front for the first time in the tie before Jacques Maghoma levelled the aggregate score from the spot. But two minutes later Wells struck the decisive blow, turning well in the area and slamming the ball home from a Hansen knock down. They survived for the remaining half an hour and had booked their second trip to Wembley in three months for what will be their 64th game of a marathon season.

The time between the two finals has seen Bradford play seventeen times. They’ve won seven, drawn seven and lost just three of those games and head into Wembley as favourites to finish this extraordinary season by making the giant leap back to League One.

The Cobblers will hopefully have something to say about that, though…

 

Club Links…

City keeper Matt Duke was on loan with the Cobblers last season, playing nine games during our bid to avoid the drop. Despite only staying a short amount of time, Duke was a popular figure with Town fans.

Cobblers striker Louis Moult was on loan with Bradford in 2010, scoring once in ten outings with the Bantams.

 

Team News…

The Cobblers report to Wembley with a full bill of health barring long term absentee Alex Nicholls whose season was cruelly ended in October when he suffered a broken leg against Port Vale. Nicholls is one of the reasons why we are at Wembley in the first place, though, after his early season form and hopefully he is able to be with the squad at least. Elsewhere, Aidy Boothroyd has some nice dilemmas to deal with, particularly at the back with the decision to either bring back skipper Kelvin Langmead or stick with Nathan Cameron who was so impressive in the playoff semi-finals.

Bradford have been keeping an eye on winger Kyel Reid who only returned from a groin injury in the second leg of the playoffs. Reid is the only injury concern for the Bantams though who also come into the game with pretty much a clean bill of health despite a mammoth season and they could name the same side that started the playoff semi-final second leg against Burton Albion.

 

Wells...Cobblers troubler!

Wells…Cobblers troubler!

Previous six meetings…

06/04/13: Bradford 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)

Nahki Wells continued his fine form against the Cobblers by scoring the only goal of the game in a crucial contest at the start of April which helped the Bantams towards the playoff places while denting our hopes of automatic promotion.

13/11/12: Bradford 3-3 Cobblers (FA Cup First Round Replay – Bradford win 4-2 on pens)

A youthful Cobblers side took to the field at Valley Parade and did us proud by pushing the hosts all the way before bowing out on penalties. Will Atkinson had put Bradford in front but a penalty from Ishmel Demontagnac levelled before the break. Nahki Wells looked to have won it with a ninetieth minute penalty but Clive Platt took it to extra time seconds later. The drama continued when Kelvin Langmead put us in front in the extra period with Carl McHugh pulling it back for the Bantams. Langmead would miss the crucial spot kick in the shoot-out to send Bradford through but it was a top effort from Town’s young guns.

03/11/12: Cobblers 1-1 Bradford (FA Cup First Round)

Will Atkinson fired the visitors in front in the first cup game between the sides this season but Louis Moult’s second half goal ensured the tie would go to a replay ten days later.

23/10/12: Cobblers 0-1 Bradford (League Two)

Nahki Wells scored the only goal of the game back in October in the first of what will end up being five games between the clubs this season.

14/04/12: Cobblers 1-3 Bradford (League Two)

In April of last year, both sides were fighting to avoid going out of League Two at the other end of the table and it was that man Wells once again who proved to be the difference. He scored a hat-trick to fire Bradford to victory with Clarke Carlisle’s solitary strike not enough for the Cobblers.

22/10/11: Bradford 2-1 Cobblers (League Two)

Michael Jacobs scored a screamer at Valley Parade to put Town into the lead at Valley Parade but the game had completely turned on its head within ten minutes with Craig Fagan’s penalty and James Hansen’s winner nicking it for the home side.

 

The man in the middle…

Taking charge of the big game is Keith Stroud. Stroud was last in action in the dramatic Championship final day match between Hull City and Cardiff City that saw the Tigers eventually win promotion to the top flight. He last refereed a Cobblers game in April 2012, a 1-1 home draw with Gillingham which was the final home fixture of last season. Throughout this season he has shown 155 yellow cards and 10 reds, including three in the Sheffield United-Brentford game a couple of weeks ago.

 

Prediction…

No chance! I’m staying away from any sort of prediction for this I’m afraid.

Que Sera Sera…

 

 

Wembley 2013 – The Key Battles

wembley30_468x289The countdown is now down to just a couple of days so I thought it was time I started looking at the fact that a football match is the main focus of Saturday afternoon and not just a trip to Wembley! Aidy Boothroyd played both legs of the semi-final to perfection tactically but he’s going to have some big decisions to make in the lead up to the big day in terms of his starting eleven.

For what it’s worth, I think he may just stick with the same eleven that started the first leg at Sixfields against Cheltenham to allow for more attacking flair to match what will need to be another dogged defensive display. That team was as follows:

GK: Lee Nicholls

DEF: Tozer, Carlisle, Cameron, Collins

MID: Hackett, Harding, Guttridge, Demontagnac

ST: Akinfenwa, O’Donovan

I think the biggest locks for starting places are Nicholls, Hackett, Guttridge, Bayo and O’ Donovan. I would have said Clive Platt may feature if I’d have written this a few weeks ago but Bayo, if not on the goal scoring front, has signalled a return to form just at the right time and little Roy has shone over the past month.

Elsewhere I do think Ben Tozer will play because of his lethal weapon but with him it’s all about whether Aidy will prefer a five man midfield with O’Donovan moving back or whether John Johnson will be sacrificed at right back. I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment but there’s plenty of room for speculation (and to keep Bradford guessing!). Another argument would be Johnson in at right back and Tozer replacing Harding in the middle of the park but I would worry about the protection of the back four should that be the case.

Kelvin Langmead is one who you would never have imagined being considered for a place on the bench in the biggest match in many a year but the inspired form of Clarke Carlisle and Nathan Cameron in the semi-finals have given Boothroyd a good headache there. I say stick with Cameron and his pace with Langmead coming off the bench late on for one of his dramatic injury time winners! Based on what I think Aidy will do, then, here are some of the key battles that will likely take place on the hallowed turf of Wembley on Saturday afternoon…

 

cameronwells Nathan Cameron v Nahki Wells

As mentioned, before the playoffs you would have put Langmead in here without question but Cameron was outstanding in both legs of the playoffs. His pace is likely to win him the battle to get into the Town side because of the nippy and energetic Nahki Wells leading the threat of the Bantams’ attack. Wells has a good history against the Cobblers with a hat-trick in last seasons’ 3-1 win at Sixfields and the only goal of the game in both of the league meeting between the clubs this season.

The Bermudan forward is City’s top scorer with 21 goals and his form in the final should have a major hand in which way this game goes. Cameron was drafted into the Cobblers side towards the end of the season after cutting ties with Coventry City and after a shaky start helped the side to three clean sheets in a row. He will need to be alert for the entire ninety minutes – keeping Wells quiet could well prove key.

 

guttsjones Luke Guttridge v Gary Jones

After the 2-0 home defeat to York City that all but ended our automatic promotion hopes, every Town fan wanted Luke Guttridge back in the team to provide his energy, experience and craft in the middle of the pitch for the season’s run-in. We got just that and were unbeaten for the rest of the season with the midfielder striking a goal that will go down in Cobblers history at Whaddon Road in the playoff semi-final as well as scoring in the final league game of the season against Barnet.

Guttridge faces a big test at Wembley against the vastly experienced Gary Jones. Jones has been consistent in the Bantams side this season and was key to their push into the playoffs late in the campaign with his usual committed and hearty performances. This is likely to be a real battle in the middle of the park and I’m betting that both men cannot wait!

 

hackettmeredith Chris Hackett v James Meredith

Chris Hackett’s performance will be huge for us on Saturday and he comes up against one of the best left backs in League Two in James Meredith. Meredith has been another consistent performer for the Bantams since joining them in June of last year and has had an excellent first season in Bradford colours. He’s a full back that loves to get forward so it will be interesting to see if Hackett is able to cope as well when pushed back.

The Cobblers man has bags of pace and seems to have rediscovered his form of late, creating the Roy O’ Donovan goal in the first leg of the playoffs and terrorising the Cheltenham full backs all night. He had a quieter second leg but with a big pitch at Wembley to escape on to he will be desperate to really get at Meredith from the get go.

 

bayodavies Bayo Akinfenwa v Andrew Davies

Will Beast Mode be on at Wembley? We have to hope and pray that it is because Bayo has a stiff test ahead of him as he comes up against former Middlesbrough and Stoke City man Andrew Davies. The 6 foot 3 defender is rock solid and managed to keep Burton Albion’s star striker Calvin Zola under control in the playoff semi-final second leg having missed the first leg. Davies, then, will be confidant of keeping Bayo quiet too, though the man who could be playing in his final game for the Cobblers is out to banish the memories of his last playoff final appearance.

Akinfenwa was a part of the Swansea City team in 2006 who were beaten on penalties in the League One playoff final against Barnsley and missed a crucial spot kick in that shoot out. A lot may also depend on Bayo’s patience as the game wears on and if referee Keith Stroud takes the usual stance of giving free kicks against him for standing up. Both players have bags of experience and Bayo needs to keep it calm and do what he does against very strong opponent here.

 

aidyparkinson Aidy Boothroyd v Phil Parkinson

The main battle is between the two managers and that in itself is as intriguing as it comes at this level. Both men are in the process of rebuilding their respective reputations after tasting life at a much higher level earlier in their careers. Boothroyd took Watford into the Premier League in 2006 whilst Parkinson was, at the same time, taking charge of Hull City. After relegation for Boothroyd at the first attempt and a bad start for Parkinson at Hull, both found themselves in League One by 2009 – Boothroyd at Colchester United and Parkinson at Charlton, who were relegated from the Championship under his watch.

Since then, Aidy has spent time at Coventry City whilst Parkinson saw his Charlton side beaten by Swindon Town in the 2010 playoff semi-finals, eventually departing The Valley in January 2011. The paths of the two managers then brought them both into League Two by the end of 2011 and since then they have both been through a rigorous process of making their squads capable of first competing and then winning at this level. Both have created squads that are capable of escaping League Two at the right exit after coming so close to losing their places in the league just twelve month ago and both should be commended for the efforts of reaching Wembley just one year later.

Tactically, Boothroyd gets unfair criticism for his ‘long ball’ tactics but you would struggle to find many League Two sides playing flowing football I would suggest. His direct approach has worked and if it gets us over the line on Saturday I can’t see many of the 20,000+ Cobblers fans in attendance complaining! Parkinson has already helped Bradford to the League Cup final this season, of course, and that run saw some outstanding performances full of organisation and utter commitment to the cause. It’ll be a cracking head to head on the benches!

Northampton Town v Cheltenham Town: Match Preview

PlayOffTrophyNorthampton Town v Cheltenham Town

League Two Playoff Semi-Final, First Leg

Thursday, May 2nd 2013

So this is it. The playoffs kick off this evening with the Cobblers involved in the end of season lottery for the first time since 2005. Back then, we were beaten by a single goal over two leg against Southend United in a display that was desperately lacking any kind of cutting edge. A year earlier we had been involved in one of the most emotional games we’re ever likely to see at Mansfield Town, going out on penalties after a stonking come back, some shocking refereeing and awful luck in the second leg.

In both of those ties, the Cobblers were at home first and failed to get a good grip on the tie before making the journeys north and east respectively. What we need to do tonight is instead channel the spirit from happier semi-finals at Sixfields – the 3-2 victory over Cardiff City in 1997 and the best night ever to take place on Upton Way, the 3-0 turn around against Bristol Rovers a year later. Both of those were second legs of course and the problem facing us this evening is how far to push it and really go in all guns blazing ahead of a tough, tough away leg on Sunday.

The advantage to going away first is that a draw would be a good result and no doubt Cheltenham would be over the moon with an outcome like that. But Aidy Boothroyd is fired up and Sixfields needs to be the same under the evening summer lights. There should be an electric atmosphere based on some of the build-up already taking place online and no doubt in work places up and down the country this afternoon. Let’s do this!

Cheltenham’s road to the playoffs…

Our opponents were just pipped to automatic promotion by Rotherham United on Saturday but come into the game with a better run-in behind them than the Cobblers. After seeing off Town at the start of the month at Whaddon Road they were beaten by Plymouth at Home Park but recovered to beat eventual League Two champions Gillingham and playoff chasing Exeter City before holding Bradford City to a goalless draw on Saturday.

Yates...winner as a player

Yates…winner as a player

Rubies’ playoff history…

The Rubies have a decent record in League Two playoffs having beaten Rushden and Diamonds 3-1 at the Millennium Stadium in the 2002 final and Grimsby Town by the single goal (scored by future Cobbler Steve Guinan) in the 2006 showpiece. In the first instance, now manager Mark Yates captained the side and lifted the trophy for the club he now leads into a fourth playoff campaign.

Last season, Cheltenham were beaten at Wembley by Crewe Alexandra and will be coming into this one hoping to erase all of those memories and make it four finals from four attempts.

 

Team News…

The Cobblers have almost a fully fit squad to choose from with Kelvin Langmead, Clive Platt and Ishmel Demontagnac all coming back into contention. Joe Widdowson is the only one not 100% and who could be left out in favour of Lee Collins. Alex Nicholls is, of course, the only long term absentee after his broken leg back in October against Port Vale.

Cheltenham also have a near to full strength squad available with Harry Hooman the only possible absentee as he is set to sit out for the remainder of the season. Paul Benson is back from an ankle problem and came off the bench in Saturday’s draw with Bradfor.

 

Previous Six Meetings…

01/04/13: Cheltenham 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)

As the Cobblers sat three points ahead of Cheltenham at the start of this month, the Rubies had to win to close the gap on a Town side who still had a chance of automatic promotion. After a quiet first half, Steve Elliot netted the crucial winner on the stroke of half-time to set up a dramatic final few weeks of the season.

08/12/012: Cobblers 2-3 Cheltenham (League Two)

The Cobblers looked set for a good home win when Bayo Akinfenwa scored after just two minutes and Billy Jones put through his own net soon after. But Darren Carter and Chris Zebroski levelled things up before even half an hour had passed and it was left to Darryl Duffy to slot in the winner for a stunning turnaround late on for the visitors.

03/03/12: Cheltenham 2-2 Cobblers (League Two)

Ben Tozer and Bayo Akinfenwa gave the Cobblers a surprise two goal lead at Whaddon Road in the first half but the hosts hit back in the second as Darryl Duffy slotted in a penalty before clinching a point for his side in stoppage time.

20/08/11: Cobblers 2-3 Cheltenham (League Two)

In the second home game of last season, Darryl Duffy opened the scoring from the spot for Cheltenham on eleven minutes but goals either side of half time from Arron Davies and Bayo Akinfenwa steered the game in our favour. The Rubies had other ideas though and Duffy got on the end of a cross from ex-Cobbler Josh Low to level it before Low himself won it ten minutes from time.

08/01/11: Cobblers 1-1 Cheltenham (League Two)

The first of many draws in 2011 saw Billy McKay give the Cobblers an early lead before Wes Thomas netted the equaliser just after half-time.

09/10/10: Cheltenham 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)

Dean Beckwith’s red card at Whaddon Road saw the Cobblers reduced to ten men within the opening quarter of the game. It took until the hour mark, though, for Cheltenham to take advantage and Brian Smikle scored the winner.

 

The man in the middle…

The man trusted with the first leg is someone who has been involved in controversy this season in Mick Russell. Russell was the man who showed two yellow cards to Sheffield Wednesday’s Jeremy Helan and failed to send him off during a game at Huddersfield Town back in December. Russell was taken off duty for just under a month after the incident and went on to referee seventeen more games this season. Russell was in the middle for the Cobblers’ 1-0 win at Dagenham and Redbridge last September and for the dramatic cup replay at Bradford in which Town lost on penalties. He last officiated a Cheltenham game in August of last year, a 2-2 draw at Torquay.

 

Prediction…

It’s so hard to predict a playoff game, especially one that involves your own team. I’m dreading putting anything down for the ‘kiss of death’ implications. So I’ll go for a draw to keep me from anyone saying it was all my fault. This should be a tight, tense game that is likely to be well in the balance come Sunday. 1-1.

League Two Playoff Special: Crewe Alexandra

Playoff History: Division Two (League One) final winners 1997

There’s always one…one team that creeps up on the playoffs in the closing few weeks of the season and nips in there thanks to a great run of form and capitalises with that increased momentum. This season in League Two that accolade goes to Crewe Alexandra, who were struggling away in 17th place back in November but have now put together a run of sixteen games unbeaten.

Dario Gradi stepping down was a key moment in the history of the club and it could yet be looked back on as a massive turning point in this particular season. Steve Davis, who played 145 times for the Alex as well as captaining them at the age of just nineteen during a successful playing career, took the reins and slowly but surely turned things around.

The Alex had taken five games to pick up any points at all but a 1-0 win at Plymouth gave them something to build on and they would win their following two league games as well as progressing past Bury in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. A 2-0 win at Accrington in mid-September was enough to take them away from the lower reaches of the table but they wouldn’t win again for a month – a 3-1 success at Wimbledon.

Inconsistent form continued to stop them from moving any further up the table and Gradi stepped down to concentrate on the academy that has produced so many success stories over the years. His tenure through various spells took him to 1,404 games as manager – a daunting task for the incoming Davis to take on.

Davis’ first game in charge was a 4-1 hammering in the FA Cup First Round to Colchester United but he did produce back-to-back wins in his first two league games, 2-1 at Morecambe and 1-0 at home to Hereford United. A mixed December was rounded off with a storming 5-2 victory at Bristol Rovers to end the calendar year in style.

Eighteen year-old Nick Powell starred on that day at the Memorial Stadium and on several other occasions this season and is even being touted as a possible target for Manchester United and Tottenham as of this week.

Hotly tipped…Nick Powell

Powell continued to inspire his side to further success and the Alex won three out of five in January whilst victories over and Accrington and good points against Wimbledon and Port Vale helped them into the top ten as momentum and anticipation began to fully build around the club. In fact, the 1-0 defeat to playoff opponents Southend United way back on February 18th was Crewe’s last defeat and since then they have built their way towards the top seven.

Alex had to go toe to toe with Oxford United as it became clear that there would only be one playoff spot left come the final day of the season but a pivotal 1-0 home win over Cheltenham Town on April 21st coupled with Oxford being held at Plymouth tipped the fight into their favour and Davis’ side were finally in the top seven following months of ascension up the league.

The job needed to be finished off though and nervy draws at Torquay and, on the final day, with Aldershot Town eventually confirmed Crewe’s place in the playoffs, where they will meet the last side to beat them all those months ago, Southend United. If this long unbeaten run is to continue to nineteen games then Crewe will be the latest in a growing line of teams that have crept into the playoffs to win promotion at the last. Can it be done? I asked Crewe fan Jim Wiltshire (@jimwiltshire72) …

Did you expect to be in a playoff position when you started this season?

At the start of the season, I expected us to be somewhere close to the top seven, after last season we lost 11 of our last 12 away games and still only missed out on the play offs by 3 points.

A young player called Nick Powell who had a handful of games last season came of age in the summer with some brilliant performances in the U-17 World Cup.

What have been the key moments in achieving a playoff spot?

The key moments have been Dario moving upstairs and Steve Davis taking over. He noticed that the team were not as fit as they could be and fading in games. That was addressed quickly as was the player’s belief in their ability. When Davis took over in October, we were 18th and looking like relegation material. Since Davis took over we have been one of the better sides in the division.

Who have been the key men?

The form of Nick Powell has been a major factor. Steve Phillips in goal has been fantastic, as has the form of Adam Dugdale in defence and Ashley Westwood in midfield.

Which team would you want to avoid in the final should you make it?

I rate Torquay as a much better side than Cheltenham, so I would rather we faced Cheltenham if we get to Wembley. If I’m honest I think we have the toughest opponents in the semi-finals in Southend. We lost home and away to them in the league, and they were the last team to beat us,

16 matches ago- in mid-February!

Finally, will you be promoted?!

We’ve been unbeaten in 16 games- we only need to keep that going for 3 more to win promotion, unless of course we get involved in a penalty shoot-out! We have missed a lot of penalties this season so not full of confidence there. Funnily enough though we did score all of our penalties to win a shoot-out at Bury in the JPT- so you never know!

I’m confident we will go up now that we have come this far, though we all know what a lottery the play-offs are!

League Two Playoff Special: Cheltenham Town

Playoff History: League Two final winners 2002, 2006

In the next part of this playoff special we take a look at the prospects of one of, if not the surprise package of League Two this season, Cheltenham Town. Mark Yates has transformed the Rubies from relegation candidates last season, a campaign in which they finished just five points above the drop zone, to promotion contenders for the majority of this season.

2011/12 has already seen plenty to shout about for Yates’ men as they recovered from a disappointing first couple of games to discover form and defeat both Swindon and Crawley at Whaddon Road. A mixed September meant that not even the most hardened Town supporter could envisage what would come in October as their club won five out of six games in the league as well as seeing off League One Wycombe in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Yates was perhaps cruelly beaten by Crawley’s Steve Evans to the Manager of the Month award that month but a foundation had been built and Cheltenham were on their way.

Winning all three league games in November, the Rubies also progressed through the First Round of the FA Cup, beating another League One club away as Darryl Duffy’s penalty saw them through at Tranmere. Yates finally got his recognition with the Manager of the Month for November and not only did his side continue their fine run by going through December unbeaten but they also set up a Third Round FA Cup tie with Tottenham Hotspur by winning 4-2 at Luton Town.

A 3-0 defeat at White Hart Lane was no disgrace and the fact that it was sandwiched between back to back league wins made it that bit more bearable as Town rode on towards the summit of League Two. A slight February wobble was hammered away by a 5-0 victory at Dagenham and it all looked set for an almighty finish to the season.

Rubies boss Mark Yates

The club were hanging around the top three until mid-March when four successive defeats pulled them back from the automatic promotion shake up into the playoff race and it’s perhaps a testament to the work of Yates and his squad that they were still in a strong enough position to keep hold of a place in the running for the top seven.

That place was confirmed thanks to three straight home victories in April and many people’s underdogs will now take their rightful place in the end of season lottery in a two legged-affair with Torquay United.

Max Hobbs (@maxihobbs), our resident Cheltenham fanatic and creator of this Rubies’ blog, gives his thoughts below on what could be a stunning end to a surprising season…

Did you expect to be in a playoff position when you started this season?

Not at all and I think the same could be said for Torquay in reality too. A look at Coral on the day before the season began put us 11/4 favourites to go down, in that sense alone our season has been remarkable especially considering we topped the League as late as February. Sadly March killed off our automatic hopes but I prefer the thrill of the play offs anyway!!

What have been the key moments in achieving a playoff spot?

Our start to the season, as usual, was fantastic and we were right in the mix after some great performances mainly on the road. People expected us to fade which ultimately we did but I think we’ve shown great character to now finish 7 points into the play offs. Between September and December was where teams really stepped up and took notice of us.

Who have been the key men?

It’s a cliché but the whole squad have been imperative in our rise this season. We have a small squad so they’ve all played their parts but inevitably you have stand out players and it’s hard to look past the quality of Marlon Pack, the sheer determination of Russ Penn and Sido Jombati at the back has been a revelation. I could name plenty more including the 2 CB’s, Luke Summerfield and Kaid Mohamed – as a unit we’ve been fantastic and the togetherness of the squads of 02 and 06 which saw us win the playoffs is there.

Which team would you want to avoid in the final should you make it?

Without being disrespectful I’m happy to have drawn Torquay and I think they’d probably believe likewise. Crewe’s unbeaten run is becoming longer by the week and we recently came off the back of a 4-0 hammering at Southend so I didn’t fancy either of those and whoever we get in the final will be very difficult. Crewe have already done the double over us and have forgotten what it’s like to lose and with the quality of Nick Powell and Luke Murphy I’d probably rather take on Southend, just!

Finally, will you be promoted?!

Our playoff record is as good as it gets and we always seem to pull something out the bag for occasions like this but I’m not so sure. I think whoever goes up will be deserving of their spot and I also feel all 4 teams could hold their own in League 1. There’s no reason why we can’t but I’ve got a feeling for Crewe.

League Two Playoff Special: Torquay United

Playoff History: Division Four final winners 1991, Conference semi-finalists 2008, Conference final winners 2009, League Two finalists 2011

Player of the Year: Lee Mansell

Top Scorer: Rene Howe (14)

The Playoff series continues today with Torquay United coming under the spotlight. After defeat in the final last season, the Gulls will be desperate to go that one step further this time around and come through on top. With a new man in charge and a team that were fighting for the last automatic promotion spot right up until the last minutes of the season, Torquay represent a serious challenge once again.

After Paul Buckle’s defection to Bristol Rovers last summer, Torquay were looking for a man with past experience in getting out of League Two and turned to former Leyton Orient and Cambridge United boss Martin Ling. Ling guided Orient to promotion in 2006 and was aiming to do the same with his new charges, though few neutrals would have gone out of their way to place his side in the running for promotion.

But Ling made a positive start to his reign and seven points were collected from his first three league games in charge. A couple of defeats brought the Gulls back down to earth at the end of August but they would only be beaten once in the next six games with three draws keeping them in safe mid-table during September.

It would be two heavy defeats that would, ironically, spark the club into life though as they were beaten 5-2 at home by Gillingham and 4-1 at Southend before going on a superb run of five straight wins in all competitions that included a 3-1 win at League One Chesterfield in the FA Cup. By the end of November and following a 0-0 draw at Port Vale, United were back up in tenth place and really pushing the upper echelons of the division.

Gulls boss Martin Ling

Exit from the FA Cup followed but after a mixed Christmas period, the Gulls were flying again and put together a sequence of seven successive wins, all by a slender margin, to start 2012 with a bang. The first defeat of the calendar year didn’t come until February 18th against Bradford but even that and another reverse the following week at Gillingham couldn’t keep them from the top seven as things really had begun to click.

March began with back-to-back wins and yet again they were by the odd goal as United proved to be one of the toughest and most organised in the league. They would pick up four more victories in March and after winning 1-0 at Barnet they stood just a point off the top of the table with six games to play. Ling also collected the Manager of the Month award for March to match the one received just two months earlier for his team’s efforts in January. Also celebrating in those months were Mark Ellis (January) and Lee Mansell (March) who picked up the league’s Player of the Month for those respective months.

April, though, proved to be the month that cruelly turned out to be the club’s downfall in terms of going for automatic promotion. A 1-0 win over Accrington on Good Friday would be their last of the league season with just three points taken from the last five games, including a dramatic 3-2 defeat at Hereford on the final day.

Ling is concerned about fatigue creeping into his troops after a demanding season but you get the feeling that the hunger should still be around the club from last season’s final defeat at the hands of Stevenage. As his club prepares to meet Cheltenham Town in the playoffs this time around, Ben Mayhew (@greenwichgull) of top Gulls blog Greenwich Gull gives his thoughts…

Did you expect to be in a playoff position when you started this season?

In all honesty, no. We’d lost our manager and several key players so I’d have been happy with mid-table. Our Board publicly stated that survival was the only criterion for a successful year and I expected that new boss Martin Ling would need some time to adapt. While he did take a few months to get the best out of the team, the way we’ve played since has more than merited our final league position.

What have been the key moments in achieving a playoff spot?

The key moment in a lot of our games has been half time! So often this season we’ve played turgidly for the opening 45, only to re-emerge with almost frightening purpose after the break after a presumably inspirational team talk or deft tactical tweak from Mr Ling. From a timeline perspective, our season pivoted on a dark spell in October where we suffered 3 embarrassing losses in a row. The first was a narrow defeat to 10-man Bradford, followed by a 2-5 hiding at home to Gillingham and then a 4-1 reverse at Southend. That dire sequence obviously triggered something because we went on to lose just 1 of our next 16 league games and have been formidable ever since.

Who have been the key men?

Clichés aside, it really has been a team performance this year, but there are a few whose contributions have been consistently excellent. First of all, Bobby Olejnik has proven himself to be probably the best goalkeeper below the Championship – a genuine hero on countless occasions without whom we’d never have made the play-offs. Another man who at times has single-handedly turned a game is our captain, Lee Mansell, who has added a prodigious amount of goals to his tireless midfield dynamism in a season where our attack has been frustratingly profligate.

Which team would you want to avoid in the final should you make it?

I’d rather avoid Southend as they’ve caused us more problems this season and are the only top 7 side we haven’t beaten. We’ve only taken a point from them, including the aforementioned 1-4 defeat, compared with four points from Crewe who we beat by the same margin at their own ground.

Finally, will you be promoted?!

I know I’m supposed to answer this with a resounding, confident “yes”, but the way we’ve stumbled over the line suggests that our thin, battered squad might not have enough left in the tank to prevail over three more massive games. Our physio has done an excellent job of keeping the players on the pitch, but several have been nursing injuries for a while and the manager has recently aired his concerns around fatigue. However, we’ve got plenty of recent play-off experience compared to the other 3 challengers which could just about give us the edge.

League Two Playoff Special: Southend United

Playoff History: League Two Final Winners 2005, League One beaten Semi-Finalists 2008

Player of the Year: Mark Phillips

Leading Scorer: Ryan Hall (14)

In the first part of a four part series, I take a look at Southend United who are aiming to attempt their 2005 efforts when they saw off the Cobblers in a two legged semi final before beating Lincoln City in the final after extra time…

Heading the playoffs this season is Southend United, who ended the season in the highest place available for the end of season lottery. Usually the team finishing in fourth is labelled as favourites for promotion but only one club, since Southend did it themselves in 2005, has won the League Two playoffs after finishing the season in fourth place. That includes none in the last three seasons with Gillingham (5th), Dagenham (7th) and Stevenage (6th) taking home the glory so there’s no gurantee at all that Paul Sturrock will be the manager celebrating on the hallowed turf of Wembley at the end of the month.

Sturrock worked wonders just to finish in mid-table with the Shrimpers last season having only four professionals in the squad at one point during that pre-season and they started this season with real purpose, winning three of their opening five games and inflicting Port Vale’s first league defeat on them with a 3-2 success at Vale Park to close out the month.

Shrimpers boss Paul Sturrock

The Shrimpers were even better in September and Sturrock was named Manager of the Month with his side winning four, drawing one and losing one in a superb spell that saw them climb to the top of the table with resounding victories away at Rotherham (4-0) and at home to Shrewsbury (3-0).

Form continued to hold through October and November as a thirteen match unbeaten run, finally ended by Cheltenham Town, kept them right in the mix for automatic promotion. It wasn’t just in the league either – the Shrimpers fought through to the area semi-finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and past League One side Preston North End after a replay in the FA Cup. That particular run would end at North End’s league rivals Oldham in mid-December, a result sandwiched between two league defeats – the one at Cheltenham and at home to Bradford.

But after ending 2011 with a 4-1 hammering of Wimbledon, United picked up seven points from the opening three games of 2012, including a 5-2 victory at Sixfields that saw Liam Dickinson and Bilel Mohsni both score braces. But as the year fully kicked into gear, there were a few wobbles and Southend were suddenly battling to keep their place in the top three.

A key moment came in the February trip to Sturrock’s former club Plymouth Argyle. With Southend leading 2-0 with just four minutes to go, Argyle hit back to draw 2-2 and that led to a home defeat by Rotherham that left them looking over their shoulders nervously. The inconsistent form continued to play a part in United’s run-in with five wins in twelve games that followed the Plymouth draw.

Eastwood…Southend return

Something was needed to spark the side back into life and it was perfect timing for a returning hero to make his mark. Freddy Eastwood, who score forty nine goals in one hundred and eleven games for the club between 2004 and 2007, signed back on loan from Coventry City and netted his first goal since returning to Roots Hall in a much needed 4-0 win over Cheltenham.

Eastwood scored again in the next home game, a 2-0 victory against Wimbledon but there was still a lot of work to be done if they were to get back into the top three. A late surge saw them put them right in contention, though, and a decent point at Torquay United was followed by back-to-back wins to set up a last day of the season where they could potentially pip Crawley and the Gulls for third spot.

But despite a 2-0 win over relegated Macclesfield Town on Saturday it wasn’t to be as Crawley won their match at Accrington to make it academic and to condemn the Shrimpers to the nerves and drama of the playoffs.

Looking ahead to them is Southend fan Mark Kendrick (@MarkKendrick79) who gives us his thoughts below…

Did you expect to be in a playoff position when you started this season?

I thought with our summer additions like Neil Harris we were on for a top 7 finish. Sturrock has a good record in our league and impressed massively last season despite only takin over the team a few weeks before the season started with four professionals on the books.

What have been the key moments in achieving a playoff spot?

I would say the key moment was our run over September, October and November where we went 18 games without defeat. We looked very solid and getting wins where otherwise we’d drop points.

Who have been the key men?

Having Mark Philips, who was voted player of the season on Saturday, fit this season was like a new signing after spending all last season out injured. He has been like a rock at the back and always caused trouble when venturing up for a corner. Think he got 8 goals this season. Mohsni, who has too much talent to be playing at this level, has been great playing wherever required on the pitch. He has scored some good goals and wound up lots of opposition fans with his erratic behaviour. Just wish he would stay focused all season. Other key men have been Ryan Hall, ever reliable Sean Clohessy, Anthony Grant, Michael Timlin impressed whilst on loan from Swindon and joined perm, Cameron Belford and Freddy Eastwood whose return lifted everyone.

Which team would you want to avoid in the final should you make it?

Torquay. Had a tough 0-0 draw with them a few weeks ago.

Finally, will you be promoted?!

If we carry on this form of 4 wins and a draw with no goals conceded into the playoffs then we can only hope.