Ten games that got us to Wembley

WembleyLooking back on the season that’s taken us from a League Cup win over Championship title winners Cardiff City all the way to Wembley Stadium for the playoff final, there’s plenty of key moments that make you wonder what would have happened had we not got the result, had the odd goal gone the other way or had Kelvin Langmead not been around!

So here’s my look back on ten games that went a long way in getting us all excited about our trip to the national stadium this Saturday…

18/09/12: Dagenham and Redbridge 0-1 Cobblers

The first of very few away wins this season but a vitally important one that saw the Cobblers climb to brink of the top seven. It was a cold September evening in Dagenham but one which Town edged by the single goal, a thumping header from Bayo Akinfenwa in the second half. This was the third season in a row that we had come away from Dagenham with a 1-0 win under our belts.

Nicholls...horror injury

Nicholls…horror injury

27/10/12: Cobblers 2-0 Port Vale

The incident involving Alex Nicholls will forever overshadow the result in this match with the striker, hot off some terrific early season form in his first season in claret, clattered by Vale defender John McCombe who saw red for the challenge just as Nicholls put the ball into an empty net for the opening goal of the game. Some visiting fans royally let their club down by screaming obscenities at Nicholls as he lay on the ground in agony and even as he was being wheeled away into an ambulance that had to drive onto the Sixfields pitch. That moment seemed to spark Nicholls’ team mates, though, and Louis Moult sealed a fine win with the second goal from good hold up play by Bayo.

10/11/12: Accrington Stanley 2-4 Cobblers

A superb hat-trick from Bayo lifted the Cobblers into the top half of the table. After an early header from a Joe Widdowson cross by the big man, George Miller had Stanley level. Rommy Boco made it 2-1 to the hosts but mid-way through the second half the game completely turned on its head when substitute Jake Robinson equalised before Bayo took complete control, scoring twice in the last twenty minutes (the last a thumping header) to seal a big away win for Town.

22/01/13: Aldershot Town 1-2 Cobblers

As the only game on a snowy January evening, this was a big chance that was nicely taken by Town to jump into the top three of League Two. Dani Lopez put Aldershot in front but goals from Chris Hackett (from the spot) and Clarke Carlisle before the break put Aidy Boothroyd’s men in front. It was a major victory, it being the fourth win in five after a great start to 2013.

Langers...late strike at Southend

Langers…late strike at Southend

16/02/13: Southend Untied 1-2 Cobblers

Trips to Gillingham and Rotherham, two fellow promotion chasers, ended in defeat before this one so it was crucial that we picked something up from Roots Hall. Roy O’ Donovan hooked in the opener before the enigmatic Bilel Moshsni, making his return to the Southend side, saw red for a high challenge on Chris Hackett. The ten men fought back and looked to have earned a point when Matty Lund headed in with a quarter of the game to go but Kelvin Langmead scored one of many late, late goals of his in stoppage time that helped to propel Town back into the top seven after a spell of drifting out of the playoff places.

23/03/13: Cobblers 1-0 Oxford United

Whilst the away form was hit and miss, win after win poured in at Sixfields and this victory over Oxford United was another key one. Ben Harding got on the end of a Chris Hackett cross to neatly score the only goal of a tight contest and moved us to within a point of third placed Burton Albion.

29/03/13: Cobblers 1-0 Torquay United

Another game in a similar mould was this Good Friday encounter with the Cobblers dramatically keeping themselves in contention for an automatic promotion place. Roy O’ Donovan’s goal five minutes from time made the difference as he finished from a Chris Hackett cross. With six games to go after this one there was all to play for and a playoff place at least looked certain.

20/04/13: Port Vale 2-2 Cobblers

Three defeats in a row put pay to any top three ambition and it was now all about clinching a playoff place and that was confirmed after a well fought out draw at Vale Park against a Port Vale side who were promoted on the back of the same result. Clarke Carlisle slotted in after two minutes to give Town the lead but Liam Chilvers pulled it back for the hosts. Roy O’ Donovan’s wonder goal came so close to winning it for us but an unfortunate own goal from ex Vale man Lee Collins meant that the game ended in a draw that was a decent result in the end for both. Arguably the result that helped to prepare Aidy Boothroyd and his team for the playoff atmosphere to come.

02/05/13: Cobblers 1-0 Cheltenham Town (Playoff Semi-Final, First Leg)

The first leg was as tight as you would have predicted but the Cobblers came away from it thinking that it could easily have been more than 1-0. O’ Donovan netted the only goal after neat build up from Bayo and Hackett and set up the dramatic second leg at Whaddon Road…

05/05/13: Cheltenham Town 0-1 Cobblers (Playoff Semi-Final, Second Leg)

The one that got us there! Lee Nicholls’ early penalty save seemed to give the entire team the belief that this was to be our day and our time to go on to Wembley. Luke Guttridge’s goal will go down in Cobblers folklore along with the likes of Sean Parrish’s 1997 goal at Cardiff – a moment of pure bliss that gave us a first half lead and a 2-0 lead on aggregate. A solid defensive display and a tactical master class from Boothroyd.


Que Sera Sera!

WembleyCheltenham Town 0-1 Northampton Town

League Two Playoff Semi-Final, Second Leg

Sunday, 5th May 2013

It was tense, it was heart stopping and it was dramatic. It was everything we expected but the most important, and incredible, thing that comes from the Cobblers’ win at Cheltenham (yes, an AWAY WIN) is that it means we will be playing at Wembley Stadium for the first time since 1998. The pain of Mansfield and the desperation of Southend were both playing on my mind this evening as I sat down to watch what I knew would be one of the most frightening ninety minutes of my life.

But the Cobblers rose to the occasion and did a thoroughly professional job to not only hold out with a one goal lead on aggregate but to add to it and defend like warriors to make sure that we spent Sunday evening plotting our routes to Wembley.

It’s an extraordinary turnaround from Aidy Boothroyd who, on taking the job eighteen months ago, stated that things would get worse before they got better. That, they most certainly did. I wrote a blog here at the end of January 2012 where I submitted to relegation and accepted what I thought was inevitable despite small improvements from Boothroyd. To be dancing around my house just over a year later having seen a group of players give their all and fight to the death to cling onto it all for us is remarkable.

Tonight was a story of two key moments but many, many heroes. Lee Nicholls’ save from Marlon Pack’s penalty early on was out of the top drawer and his many, many saves during the night kept us in it, earning him the rightful man of the match award. In front of him, Nathan Cameron put in another behemoth of a performance and alongside Clarke Carlisle will even be making Kelvin Langmead worry about his place in the Wembley eleven. Ben Tozer and Lee Collins put in their own solid shifts whilst the midfield five was a masterstroke from Boothroyd with not one of those in there stepping out of line.

Bayo led the line to perfection and did all that he could do being a lone striker. Over these two legs he’s been back to his very best and anyone who thought he had lost his way can now breath easily again. Beast Mode has been switched back on at just the right time.

And then there was the goal. What a belter and one that fit the occasion. Luke Guttridge, the man who has pulled us through this final furlong of the season, just smashed the ball into the roof of the net to stun Whaddon Road and to give us even more than the hope we came with.

From then on we knew we would be clock watching. And boy, were we clock watching. It’s incredible how time stands still in these situations. Ten minutes felt like an hour, every cross into our box felt like it was going to end up in the net. I even panicked when my wife dropped a glass of water on the floor, thinking it was an omen for what was to come!

But the goal never came and Cheltenham were running out of time. They smashed the bar late on and suddenly you felt it was our night. As the clock reached 90 minutes and the ball was booted towards the fantastic Cobblers support we could start to celebrate. The final whistle will have seen man, woman and child up and down the country and around the world with a Cobblers persuasion jumping for joy, embracing strangers and screaming in big letters on social media. Moments like this should be treasured and there’s only one way that we can top it…by winning the final.

That brings us to what I could only call ‘the W word’ before Sunday evening. Wembley Stadium and the League Two Playoff Final against Bradford City. We’ve got plenty of time to worry about Bradford and the challenges that they will bring so for now let’s pinch ourselves once more, go to sleep and wake up in the middle of the night to make absolutely sure that we’re not dreaming this all up.

Northampton Town are going back to Wembley. I’ll see you there!

O’ Donovan strikes to give Cobblers slender lead!

O' Donovan...third goal in as many games

O’ Donovan…third goal in as many games

Northampton Town 1-0 Cheltenham Town

League Two Playoff Semi-Final, First Leg

Thursday, May 2nd 2013

It’s a long, long way from being over but the fact that the above score line reads in the Cobblers’ favour was always going to be the first and most vital part of any successful bid to reach Wembley. Having gone into the most recent second legs in the playoffs with a deficit (2-0 against Mansfield Town) and an uphill task (Southend holding us to a 0-0 draw at Sixfields) it’s a crucial blow that we’ve struck against a Cheltenham side that are likely to be a lot more up for attacking us come Sunday evening.

After the final whistle last night, and amidst a feeling of us doing the first part of this job right, most of the talk was about how we could and should have been more ahead in the tie going into the crunch game at Whaddon Road. The Cobblers were well worth the victory by the end of the evening and could have added to the wonderfully worked Roy O’ Donovan goal that gives us a very slight advantage.

The fact that a lot of Cheltenham fans are happy with the result this morning says a lot with their own home record meaning that they have every right to think that they are still favourites to go through having kept the score down to 1-0 last night. Their team will have to really up their game, however, to break down a Cobblers side looking to ensure that we don’t fall into the same traps that have seen us finish the League Two season with the second worst away record in the league.

Aidy Boothroyd’s men will take a lot from last night and the final two away games in the league season where they held out for a 0-0 at Wycombe and, more impressively, a 2-2 at Port Vale in a game that we could well have won. Town were more fluent than usual and played some good stuff through the midfield as well as the usual direct balls to the recalled Bayo and the excellent Roy O’ Donovan.

It was Chris Hackett who was the real star of the show, though. The rest against Barnet seemed to have done him good as he terrorised the Rubies’ left hand side all evening. One of his darts down the wing resulted in the only goal of the game as he latched onto a good Bayo through ball to cross beautifully for O’Donovan to score his third in three games with a well taken volley. Cheltenham keeper Scott Brown could have done better with it but would later pull off a stunning save from a Bayo header to keep it at 1-0, a passage of play that could yet save his side’s playoff campaign.

Straight after the goal, Cheltenham had their best opening when Paul Benson found space but shot wide when in a good position in front of goal. The second half saw the visitors close up shop a little but there always seemed a threat when they came forward on the break away. Town were unlucky not to double their lead through that Bayo chance and Hackett’s constant threat on the right hand side.

It did finish just 1-0 but hopefully the performance gives us confidence ahead of Sunday. Key players all stepped up with Nathan Cameron putting in a fine shift at the back as well as notable outings for the likes of Lee Collins, Luke Guttridge, Hackett, Bayo and O’Donovan.

The away form has been awful this season but what better time to put it right than on Sunday afternoon when our fate will be known. Cheltenham will be well up for it and confident despite the deficit so we have to go there and stamp our authority over the game because if we can somehow get into the lead then the Wembley dream will be alive and well. An early going against us, though, could send panic through the ranks and being away from home may work very much against us.

We are only half way but at least we have a good, solid base to work from on Sunday. With over 1,500 Cobblers fans expected to be there it should be a cracking atmosphere at Whaddon Road where we are certainly going to need that twelfth man.

We’ve kept the dream alive – now let’s all finish it off so that we can live it on May 18th!

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.



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.

More twists as others close in

Sixfields...key to success

Sixfields…key to success

So we’re down to four games. Four games that will decide whether the Cobblers will be promoted from League Two or left to face the challenge of the playoffs or even left with an unthinkable position of losing it at the last. It’s very pessimistic to think about the latter but with last night’s results you get the feeling that any kind of slip ups in the final two home games in particular could lead to a disastrous end to what has been a terrific season.

The Cobblers are now chasing third place once again with Burton Albion recovering from a 7-1 mauling at Port Vale to beat Wycombe 2-0 last night and go back above Town in the race for third place. Aidy Boothroyd will be comforted by the game in hand – away at Wycombe – and will know that the home games against York City and Barnet as well as the trip to Adams Park hold the key to any sustained challenge on automatic promotion.

The only other fixture is away at Vale and is one that will provide the sternest of tests with the Valiants now looking a lock for second place. The lifeline there could be if Vale are already promoted and Gillingham have taken any chance away of them going for the title by then.

It’s all ifs and buts and there’s so much more to come, so many questions to be answered and challenges to be met. With the Cobblers now chasing third again rather than trying to hold onto it, could it bring out the best in us?

What of the others in the playoff positions? Cheltenham, who have some tough fixtures left, will be desperate to claw their own way back into third. Rotherham, a lot of people’s tips, seem to be finding some form again as they catch up with their games in hand will undoubtedly have a say. And Bradford themselves off the back of a victory over the Cobblers and a hammering of Bristol Rovers last night have their own spare game and are looking dangerous.

There’s still games involving all of these sides against each other and it promises to be a frantic last few weeks. For The Cobblers, we must win the two home games and probably one of the away games to be in contention for third place. It makes it a big ask but if you’re going to be promoted, now is the time to stand up and earn it.

Finger nails at the ready…

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.