This weekend felt like a significant one in League One, with some of the stories likely to play out over the remaining weeks of the season starting to come into sharper focus.
It’s a messy old world and we writers are always on the lookout for a good ‘narrative’ to pull the mass of events and facts together into some kind of coherent story. Sometimes it works and sometimes, like a goalkeeper deaf to the pleas of an apoplectic manager trying to substitute him during a cup final, the facts simply refuse to cooperate.
But on rare occasions, the narrative just writes itself. Starting close to home, Argyle’s demolition of Rochdale on Saturday produced a number of interesting stories.
With just one goal in his previous 12 appearances, a section of the Green Army was wondering whether the club should have grabbed the rumoured £400,000 offered for Freddie Ladapo in January. So it was the perfect time for the striker to break his drought with not one, but two well-taken goals – including the all-important first of the game.
Then, having established a much more solid centre back partnership with Niall Canavan in recent weeks, Ryan Edwards’ howler gifted Rochdale an undeserved equaliser just after the restart. But a mere 13 minutes later, the defender redeemed himself with a rare non-headed goal to put the Pilgrims back in front.
Oscar Threlkeld’s Home Park (re)debut, coming on just after Freddie’s second, was greeted with rapturous applause by the Green Army and it took him only four minutes to justify that reception with a fierce drive into the bottom corner of the Rochdale net. And as if that wasn’t enough, Ashley Smith Brown, who has grown in confidence and stature after a difficult start to his Home Park career, grabbed a debut goal just before the final whistle.
Rochdale may well have a strong claim to be the poorest side to visit Home Park this season, but it will have done Argyle’s confidence no harm to hand out such a convincing thumping as the season moves into its final quarter.
A narrative is starting to take shape in the division’s relegation zone as well. For the first time on Saturday, it started to feel like we might be seeing the line-up of teams likely to face the drop in May, as the bottom four clubs all lost and the four immediately above won. The manner of those defeats added to a sense that these could be the clubs bound for League Two next season. Bradford lost to a Walsall team that played almost the entire match with 10 men. Wimbledon, so close to winning a priceless point, went down to a 91st minute Charlton winner while Bristol Rovers were beaten comfortably by Sunderland. And we know what happened to Rochdale who, incidentally, have now conceded a whopping 72 goals, 15 more than they let in for the whole of last season.
Inevitably, the fans of some the bottom four clubs are starting to turn on their managers. Rochdale, sitting just below mid table for much of the early part of the season, have plunged deep into the danger zone with just four points from the last 10 games. The pressure is certainly on ex-Argyle man Keith Hill, who has just passed six years at the Dale helm. It’s the same story at Wimbledon who are effectively eight points from safety once goal difference is factored in.
The first actual casualty though has been Bradford City manager, David Hopkins who ended his 175 days in charge at Valley Parade on Monday morning with a 25% win ratio from 28 games. The Bantams are now looking for their fifth permanent manager in 12 months (and the third of this season), which doesn’t bode well for their trip to Portsmouth next weekend. And with games against Peterborough and Luton to follow in the space of 10 days, the Yorkshire club couldn’t have picked a worse time to be rudderless.
The one exception is Bristol Rovers, who have spent pretty much the entire season in the bottom six of the table. Argyle old boy Graham Coughlan has only been in charge since 13th December and his relatively respectable haul of 17 points from 12 games means that the fans are cutting him some slack for now.
The final strand to this season’s League One narrative concerns the two clubs currently threatened with disciplinary action by the EFL. The resolution of the issues facing Blackpool and Coventry City could have a material impact on the relegation situation by the end of the season.
The good news for Blackpool is that the endless shenanigans around the universally unpopular Oyston family, the club’s owners since 1986, appear to be coming to an end. Blackpool was put into receivership on 13th February to force Owen Oyston to pay £25m owed to a former director (the family was found to have illegally stripped cash out of the club following promotion to the Premier League back in 2010). The long-suffering Blackpool fans should now be finally able to bid farewell to their hated owners. Unfortunately, receivership usually brings a 12-point deduction, which would drop the club from 9th to 18th place in the table, firmly into the relegation dogfight. Whether the EFL will in fact impose that sanction remains to be seen.
Coventry City’s situation is, if anything, even more perilous. They are only tenants at the Ricoh Arena and the current rental agreement runs out in the summer. Clubs must show the EFL that they have a secure tenancy for the forthcoming season. But the Ricoh’s owners, Wasps Rugby, are in dispute with the owners of Coventry City, the Sisu hedge fund, and are unwilling to sign a new lease with the football club. The EFL has asked for an update on the situation by 5th March and if no satisfactory solution has been found by April 25th, an EGM of all clubs will be called to consider Coventry City’s expulsion from the league. Should the worst happen, presumably only three clubs would then be relegated from League One this season.
So, the season-run in is going to be very interesting. You’d have to say that the odds now favour Argyle staying up, but let’s not get carried away. Just seven points separate Rochdale and Bristol Rovers in 21st and 22nd place from Southend in 13th, and a bad run of form could see any one of about eight currently ‘safe’ teams slip into the drop-zone. The Pilgrims face a tough couple of weeks, with a long trip to Sunderland followed by the visit of table-topping Luton Town. Argyle also have the toughest run-in of all the 10 clubs below them based on the current league position of their opponents. The outlook at Home Park is much brighter than it was at Christmas, but the season is far from over.