Saturday, February 20
Developing Stevenage can unsaddle visitors
Stevenage 3.02/1 v Walsall 2.77/4; the draw 3.39/4
A recent climb by Stevenage gives them every chance to take advantage of the upheaval at Walsall, after boss Darrell Clarke‘s sudden departure from the Saddlers to manage Port Vale.
Alex Revell‘s Boro (retaining the nickname despite dropping ‘Borough’) picked up 16 points in 10 games after Christmas, having notched eight points in the 10 beforehand. There’s a little pattern emerging in their last three wins (and a draw) in their most recent six matches: they appear to be last-minute merchants.
Late goals earned them 1-0 wins at Tranmere (Danny Newton), Crawley (Elliot Osborne) and a 2-1 win at Grimsby (Matt Stevens) while Luke Norris levelled late in the 2-2 home draw with Morecambe. All those strikes came after the 80th minute.
Fans are starting to see a style of play developing, plus a robustness in defence: It is just a case of whether Stevenage can score. For example, they also held Tranmere and Colchester to goalless draws in their last 10 games, which have earned them 15 points for 10th place across that particular timeline.
It’s no wonder, then, that they have risen out of the bottom two and are nine points clear of the relegation zone. Creative players such as Charlie Carter and Elliot List are beginning to shine, say local observers, balanced well by Chris Lines, whose defensive midfield acumen makes him a great January signing alongside Stevens and Norris. Jack Roles, another recruit last month on loan from Spurs, had a shot saved at Crawley on Tuesday on his full debut.
Recruitment in the summer was harder, particularly when Stevenage did not know for a while whether they would be relegated.
Walsall, draw-heavy particularly away with seven (only three wins) had good periods under Clarke but were not consistent. Perhaps, while he publicly promoted ambitions to get the Saddlers promoted, Clarke felt he had taken them as far as he could. He has since said he “wasn’t Houdini”, on expectations of pulling off a top seven finish after the January exits of star players Elijah Adebayo and Zak Jules.
Those late-in-the-month exits were effectively replaced by loanees Tyreik Wright (Aston Villa) and Jayden Reid (Birmingham), both 19 with the latter yet to feature, fellow forward Derick Yam, 22, from Oxford United, Bournemouth midfielder Francis Vincent (21) and Lincoln defender Max Melbourne, 22. That’s a lot of bedding in to do.
Coalan Lavery, who has featured many times off the bench, might be more guaranteed a start now as a senior player and hoping to add to his five goals this season quickly. It’s a great chance for Dutton, Clarke’s assistant, to impose himself, but that could take time.
Reds and U’s might settle for a draw
Crawley Town 2.265/4 v Colchester 3.613/5; the draw 3.55/2
If Crawley stay up and survive they have done well, insists boss John Yems. I’m perplexed. They are not in a relegation fight and haven’t been for a while. He added: “We’re far from finished.”
He was referencing that the Reds have not won since beating Leeds in the FA Cup six games ago and about losing top scorer Max Watters (16 goals in 19 games) to Cardiff City.
They might not have become a bad team overnight, he added, rightly assessing that no team could afford to lose such a prolific markman. Perhaps affected confidence is the reason fellow forward Tom Nichols has missed two penalties in three games.
Jake Hessenthaler and Tom Dallison, the defender who gives them ball-playing confidence at the back, are the only players to have scored in four league games since the Leeds win, with only a point to show for it. Opta add they are winless in five at home, the last two being defeats.
Having been hit hard by Harrogate (3-1) and after losing to Stevenage, can they pick themselves up against Colchester? The U’s are equally out of winning form but have been for a while. Opta remind us that in their past 11 games, Steve Ball‘s men have not won. They have drawn six – three of them goalless, including their last two away games. At least “not scoring” was rectified by Frank Nouble, back in the fold on loan from Plymouth, and Callum Harriott in the 2-2 draw with Mansfield.
Colchester, near the top for much of the season, also have not become bad overnight. At least, not while they have Tom Eastman to guide them from the back and skipper Harry Pell, back in the side, to do so from midfield.
Ball has laid down the gauntlet to players such as Jevani Brown. A mainstay this season – and top scorer with 11 goals in all competitions – he was left out of the squad of 18 on Tuesday, as were well-known attackers Michael Folivi and Paris Cowan-Hall.
While Colchester had not scored in four games before Tuesday, the hosts will surely have to play tighter than of late to hold them, having conceded seven goals in four games. They would perhaps be more than happy to reset with a draw.
The visitors have a magnificent seven draws on the road. That conceals a -12 goal difference and they might also be satisfied with a point.
Back happy Harrogate on the rise
Scunthorpe 3.412/5 v Harrogate 2.447/5; the draw 3.39/4
A few factors seem to have propelled Harrogate to the threshold of the top half of League Two in their first season.
Firstly, a triple signing in January has breathed real life into their attack. It seems no coincidence they have won three, drawn one and lost two in the last six, but clearly entertained, scoring 10 and conceding eight.
Josh March has netted four since finding his way from Forest Green. Simon Powell‘s influence on the wing is not to be underestimated (he also scored in the win at Crawley) especially with Josh McPake on the other wing. The 19-year-old has also hit the net since signing on loan from Rangers. Simon Weaver says that attacking line worries defenders into making mistakes. Top scorer Jack Muldoon has found himself on the bench.
The Sulphurites are looking up the table and playing with confidence. They have the joint highest away wins (7) in League Two. Victories over Newport and Carlisle might have come at home, but scoring twice at equally high flying Salford and Tranmere confirms great confidence.
Opta state that Harrogate have conceded at least once in each of the last seven away games. But with confidence rising I think they will want revenge for another Opta reference: defeat in their only League Two game against the Iron, 5-2 earlier this season.
For Scunthorpe to maintain their run of three straight wins and clean sheets will be difficult, especially as they have not actually completed a game since January 29, with Bradford abandoned through snow.
Jem Karacan, one of three January recruits, is already injured. Manager Neil Cox will hope he recovered as his performances have been rated higher than two whose loans were up. Defender George Taft‘s arrival has coincided with the three clean sheets and it could have been four, were it not for a late goal at home to Salford. They are still a little light on goals, however, Ryan Loft and Abo Eisa top scoring with six a piece. The visitors deserve the chance to be backed.
Sunday February 21, 13:00
Resilient Rovers can add to Exiles’ woes
Newport 3.185/40 v Forest Green 2.6413/8; the draw 3.39/4
Top of the table clashes are the hardest to predict, but Forest Green’s strong away record gives them a great chance of three points at Rodney Parade. Did I say summit clash? It’s not quite, is it? County have fallen away badly having led League Two for an age.
Michael Flynn‘s hosts have one of the division’s strongest home records, but something isn’t right when as recent leaders you lose on your own patch to a club then in the bottom two (Southend). One win in 11 (eight points) has seen the Exiles sink (relatively speaking) to fifth. Over a six-game form table, Newport are 20th.
Flynn has ranted and raved at his players; criticised performances; made multiple changes such as sending out Tristan Abrahams on loan to Leyton Orient. The deteriorating pitch probably isn’t helping. It’s hard to stretch at team from one side to the other. Extra care with touches of the ball is required.
Maybe Liam Shephard‘s return from suspension will help. It doesn’t help that in three consecutive games they had players sent off – Joss Ladabie, Shepherd and Scott Bennett. Much now seems to hang on the shoulders of experienced Nicky Maynard, 34, who showed a poacher’s instinct to score on his debut at Grimsby (a win). However, he failed to score from great positions against Southend (a defeat) and Exeter (a draw). Star man Padraig Amond still starts many games on the bench.
On the plus side, they have recently drawn with promotion rivals including Exeter, Cheltenham and Salford (twice). At Forest Green in December they earned a point from a 1-1 draw. But Mark Cooper‘s visitors can smell top spot, with two games in hand over leaders Cambridge.
Kings of the narrow wins – 10 of their 12 wins have come 1-0 or 2-1 – Rovers will relish another tight battle despite the pitch. Then there is the odd explosive match, like winning 4-3 over Oldham, leading 2-0 and never behind.
Having a fully fit squad (other than Jordan Moore-Taylor) after a two-week weather gap would have helped. Baily Cargill was an unlikely scorer from the backline, while Jamille Matt (who will be facing one of his former sides on Sunday) converted Odin Bailey‘s cross for his 10th league goal of the season. Isaac Hutchinson, on loan from Derby, showed real quality, setting up Josh Davison, the Charlton striker, for his first goal for the club.
The bobbly surface might suit them, given their mental resilience. Three wins in an unbeaten four games include victories at Carlisle (fellow title candidates) and tricky-to-face hosts Leyton Orient. Opta state if they won a third game on the bounce away it would be for the first time since November 2019. There’s a decent chance of the away win, I wager.