The teams in League Two played their 41st games of the season on Saturday as the clock ticks down towards the end of the season. However, the fourth tier is just as competitive as ever, and this weekend had big implications for both the top and the bottom of the table.
Accrington Stanley 3-2 Crewe Alexandra
Stanley went into their match at the Crown Ground in great nick, having been unbeaten in their last 12 league matches. However, they did not truly have much to play for with six games of the season remaining, and were down in 13th place, seven points off the final play-off place. Their opponents, Crewe, were in a similar position with nothing to play for as they were languishing down in 17th place and had no chance of either being relegated or making late push for the play-offs. But contrary to recent form, it was the visitors who started brighter and went ahead through a thundering strike from Callum Cooke after the Middlesbrough loanee received the ball 25 yards from goal before turning and firing into the bottom corner. Alex then doubled their lead in the first half as in-form Chris Dagnall was slipped in behind the Accy defence and to lift the ball over Marek Rodak and into the corner.
However, after half-time the hosts mounted a comeback which was started when Mark Hughes bundled the ball over the line from close range from Omar Beckles cross. The Reds then got back on level terms with half an hour left when League Two Player of the Month, Shay McCartan, whipped a free kick over the wall and into the net from just outside the penalty area. The comeback was completed on 79 minutes when a corner led to a scramble in the area before Hughes pounced on the loose ball to score his brace and send the home supporters into raptures. Momentum is a vital phenomenon in modern football, so few can be surprised that Accy managed to extend their unbeaten run to 13 matches with a great comeback, and fans will now be optimistically raising their eyes to the play-off positions, which are now just four points away. In the meantime, they have moved into the top half and are sitting in twelfth place, but they will be desperate to force their way into the play-offs to make up for last season’s defeat in the semi-final to eventual winners, AFC Wimbledon. As far as Crewe are concerned, very little has changed regarding their situation. They remain in 17th place, and have a comfortable nine-point cushion between themselves and the relegation zone.
Barnet 0-1 Luton Town
Barnet are another team who did not have anything to prove going into gameweek 41, with safety already assured and the play-offs being too far out of reach to be a realistic ambition for Kevin Nugent. Luton, by contrast, had more than enough to play for as they sat in fifth place, inside the play-offs by three points. The Hatters went into the match as favourites, looking to build on the momentum they built against Blackpool last weekend. The Bees started the brighter, putting pressure on the Luton goal with a couple of dangerous balls into the box from the left hand side, but they were unable to get on the end of either of them. Luton then had the best opportunity of the match early in the second half when substitute Ollie Palmer was released on the right of the penalty area and got to the by-line, but his pull back was scrambled behind by Ricardo Almeida Santos for Barnet. Barnet then enjoyed a spell of dominance as they peppered Stuart Moore’s goal with shots, and they really should have taken the lead. First their top scorer, John Akinde, missed a golden opportunity when he was slid through one-on-one with the goalkeeper but could only pass his effort into Moore’s arms. Mauro Vilhete was the next to miss a golden opportunity when he seriously miscued his header from six yards, sending it flying well wide of the goal.
The Bees then threatened from a couple of free kicks, the first of which was met by Vilhete, whose header had to be clawed away from the top corner by Moore, and the second was sent narrowly over the crossbar by Ruben Bover. But Barnet’s missed chances then came back to haunt them as Olly Lee pounced on a loose ball at the edge of the penalty area and dispatched it into the bottom corner to put the Hatters in front. Even after that, Barnet still threatened to equalise as Vilhete and Akinde missed two more great chances, with the former having his shot scrambled away by Scott Cuthbert, and the latter being unable to send his header past Moore in the dying seconds. It’s true, the three points will mean a lot more for Luton than they would have done for Barnet as they look to cement their play-off place, but the Bees will still be cursing their luck and poor finishing that they came away from the Hive with a defeat despite being so dominant. Luton are now up to fourth and are now six points clear of eighth, but still eight points behind Portsmouth in the final automatic promotion spot. Barnet have dropped one place to 16th and, although the defeat will disappoint them, they will not be too distraught about their declining league position with just five games remaining.
Blackpool 1-3 Grimsby Town
Gary Bowyer’s Blackpool team suffered the disappointment last week of defeat to Luton which sent them crashing out of the play-off positions and back down to eighth. However, with just two points separating them from Carlisle, and with much better goal difference, they knew that a won would go a long way to moving them back into the top seven. Grimsby, on the other hand, went into the game with nothing to play for after a bad run of form had led to the Mariners falling out of the play-offs and losing all hope of being promoted since the departure of Omar Bogle on deadline day. But Grimsby looked to put a dent in the Tangerines’ promotion aspirations and Danny Collins rose highest after 17 minutes to head home Danny Andrew’s cross from the left wing. But the scores were levelled after 43 minutes when a horrendous mistake from Andrew Boyce led to the defender scoring an own goal. Andy Taylor’s cross from the left for Blackpool was met by a diving header from Boyce which flew past James McKeown before the goalkeeper could react.
However, Grimsby were back ahead almost instantly as a corner was swung into the box and Sam Jones was able to score from the resulting goal line scramble in the third minute of stoppage time at the end of the first half. Jones then ended the game as a contest with twenty minutes left when he won the ball off Tom Aldred by the touch line and raced in on goal before slotting the ball into the corner of the goal. The Mariners will not have felt the win was especially significant in their season as they have left it too late to achieve anything towards the top of the league, but they will be delighted that Sam Jones has found some form as, with four goals from his last four games, they may have found a replacement for Omar Bogle in time for next season. Blackpool, on the other hand, will be furious that they allowed themselves to fall to this defeat as, with Carlisle losing, they missed a great chance to force their way into the top seven. They must count themselves fortunate that they didn’t drop even further off the play-offs and they cannot allow themselves to keep losing if they are to keep in touch with the promotion race over the final five matches.
Cambridge United 3-0 Leyton Orient
The U’s form had been mixed as they approached their match with League Two’s bottom club, winning two, losing two and drawing one of their last five, justifying their mid-table position of eleventh. The O’s, meanwhile, will just want this season to be over, as they went into the match with nine points separating them from safety and four points behind Newport County in 23rd place. The game had a predictable opening when Luke Berry jumped at the far post to head in Harrison Dunk’s cross. It was not long before Cambridge doubled their lead, courtesy of Liam O’Neil scoring a header from a George Maris free kick. At half-time score was 2-0 and Cambridge were hopeful of forcing their way closer to the play-offs with results elsewhere going their way.
After half-time it was more of the same for both teams as Cambridge pushed for an equaliser, while Orient found themselves constantly under the cosh. Sure enough, Orient failed to clear their lines on 53 minutes, allowing Maris to fire home from the ensuing goal line scramble. Cambridge seemed happy to settle for their 3-0 win at that point, possibly wanting to conserve the energy of their key players, while also being reluctant to add even more suffering to what Orient fans are already going through. The win moves Cambridge up to ninth; just two points behind Carlisle in seventh, meaning their play-off push is very much alive. The only consolation for Leyton orient, however, is that the end of the season is in sight and they can hopefully sort out their off-the-field issues and start to prepare for next season in the National League. I’m sure most would agree that, at ten points from safety, they have no real chance of securing Football League status next season, but they can still put the building blocks in place over the next five games for a successful year under Omer Riza next time around.
Carlisle United 1-2 Notts County
The Cumbrians were sitting pretty in seventh place going into their match with Notts County, but it was nothing compared to their early season form when they were keeping pace with Doncaster and Plymouth for most of the first half of the season. Notts County, on the other hand, are undergoing an opposite trajectory to Carlisle and, despite having been in and around the relegation zone for most of the season, a good run of four wins from five going into this match had dragged them up to 16th. The first chance of the game fell Carlisle’s way, but Reggie Lambe wildly sent his shot into row Z when it opened up for him on the edge of the penalty area. However, the next chance came to the visitors as ex-Newcastle striker, Shola Ameobi, had to have his header cleared off the line by Shaun Brisley. The first-half was not the best spectacle and it finished goalless, with both sides wishing they had been able to take the chances that had come their way.
The game was brightened up, however, early in the second half when Jabo Ibhere lashed a volley past Adam Collin from a difficult angle on the right of the penalty box. It was a great piece of skill and looked like it was going to be enough to win the game for Carlisle and boost their promotion chances. But the match changed with five minutes remaining when some calamitous defending from Carlisle saw Brisley round his own goalkeeper before Jon Stead nipped in front of him to score in an empty net from point-blank range. It is fair to say that Carlisle were the architects of their own downfall as the visitors scored the winner in the 89th minute when Mark Gillespie somehow managed to let Matt Tootle’s long range effort squeeze under his body and over the line to continue County’s good form. Kevin Nolan has been an instant success since his appointment at Meadow Lane and, although it is far too late for his side to mount a promotion push, they are taking steps to finish in the top half, with this win moving them up to 15th place. Carlisle, however, saw the return of their all-too-familiar inconsistency after last week’s success and, although they have held onto their position in seventh, there are three teams just two points below them, ready to pounce on any slip-ups United make between now and the end of the season.
Colchester United 4-0 Stevenage
Colchester’s indifferent form lately has meant they are still in the top half of the table and have an outside chance of getting into the play-offs, sitting just five points behind seventh place going into their match against Stevenage. The Boro were very optimistic about their promotion chances as, with one defeat in twelve, they sat in third place with a chance of catching Portsmouth and sneaking into the automatic promotion places. However, it was Colchester who threatened first as Richard Brindley was desperately unlucky to see his angled drive hit both the crossbar and the post before bouncing back into play in the opening ten minutes. But Stevenage did not heed that early warning and found themselves behind after twelve minutes when young striker, Brennan Dickenson, showed no mercy when the ball rolled out to him on the corner of the penalty area and ruthlessly dispatched it into the top corner. Stevenage came close to getting back on terms soon afterwards but Matthew Godden was unable to keep his header down to continue his fantastic scoring form and could only find the roof of Sam Walker’s net. Godden then threatened again when he ran down the right before shooting, forcing Walker to make a good reaction save and then planting his effort straight at the keeper when the rebound came back to him.
Colchester were far less forgiving when chances came their way, however, and after George Elokobi hit the post, Chris Porter was able to turn in Sean Murray’s goalbound drive to make it 2-0 to the U’s. A corner was then inexplicably turned into his own net by Josh McQuoid when he seemed under little pressure, before Drey Wright came close to making it four as he dragged his shot narrowly wide of Chris Day’s far post. The fourth goal was eventually scored in the 39th minute when Charlie Lee got himself in a tangle and scored the second own goal of the afternoon when he diverted Tarique Fosu’s cross into his own net, via the post. Remarkably, all four goals were scored over the course of the first half and the only action of the second half saw Chris Porter’s header loop onto the roof of the net harmlessly. This must surely go down as one of the shock results in the Football League this weekend and Colchester will be delighted with their efforts as they managed to close the gap on Carlisle to just two points. Meanwhile, Stevenage will have to recover quickly before their Good Friday match when they must aim to get their play-off ambitions back on track. Having moved down to fifth, and with Portsmouth now nine points ahead of them, they must surely accept that automatic promotion is beyond their reach and, instead, focus on guaranteeing themselves a play-off place at the earliest opportunity.
Crawley Town 1-2 Plymouth Argyle
The Red Devils did not go into their match with second placed Plymouth with anything to play for in terms of league positions, but still keen to prove a point that they were capable of doing more than just making up the numbers in League Two. Argyle looked to recover from a wobble last week as they fell to a 0-1 defeat against Accrington Stanley at Home Park. However, it looked like they were going to be defeated once more after just under a half hour when Enzio Boldewijn got to the by-line and pulled the ball back for Dean Cox, who squeezed it under Luke McCormick from the edge of the penalty area. McCormick was able to do better with a second shot by Cox shortly before half-time and made the save to keep it at 1-0 and the interval. Plymouth boss, Derek Adams, must surely have laid into his players at the break as they were in danger of losing ground and, with Portsmouth ready to pounce on any defeats, he will have been relieved that his team talk had the desired outcome.
Crawley’s demise began when Antoni Sarcević was brought down in the penalty area by Mark Connolly. The foul was probably slightly unnecessary and showed a surprising lack of discipline from a Crawley side which is generally known as being a dogged defensive unit. Graham Carey stepped up and sent the penalty to Glenn Morris’ right and, while the keeper went the right way and has good penalty saving credentials, he the penalty was hit to powerfully for him to reach. The turning point in the game then came on 79 minutes when Crawley talisman, James Collins, was shown a second yellow card for a swinging elbow on Yann Songo’o. In the fourth minute of added time at the end of the match, Plymouth completed the turnaround when a horribly sliced clearance by Lewis Young allowed Ryan Taylor to score the winner for Argyle at the death. Conceded late goals – especially winners – is always a horrible experience so Crawley will be distraught at having thrown the game away, but it will not have any lasting consequences for them in the league table. However, Plymouth will be absolutely delighted as their win, as well as Stevenage’s defeat, means it would now take a miracle for them not to win automatic promotion. They remain in second and have a four point gap between themselves and Portsmouth going into their Good Friday game between the two promotion chasers.
Doncaster Rovers 1-0 Mansfield Town
Doncaster knew that a win against Mansfield would be enough to book their place in League One next season, guaranteeing promotion for them. The further incentive to win was to maintain their six point cushion over Plymouth in second to get one step closer to winning the League Two title. Mansfield went into the game in ninth place, four points off the play-off places and well in with a chance of finishing in the top seven. However, all the match was being covered as was the Doncaster Rovers promotion party so it was always going to be difficult for the Stags to halt Donny’s promotion charge. Doncaster almost took an early lead when a long ball over the top from Ian Lawlor allowed Andy Williams to bear down on goal but Jake Kean was able to recover well when the winger tried to take it round him, and dove on the ball. Kean then had to be on his toes to prevent Krystian Pearce from putting the ball through his own net on the brink of half-time, before getting up again to catch Niall Mason’s cross.
The Stags then came close at the end of the first half when a bit of good fortune gave Matt Green some space outside the area, but his curling effort was caught easily by Lawlor. Tommy Rowe was then denied for Donny as the one-way traffic resumed, as Kean once again moved quickly across his goal to push Rowe’s shot around the post. But Rowe was not to be denied for a second time as, with fifteen minutes to go, the midfielder met a corner at the near post and glanced his header across Kean to go into the far corner. The Stags almost managed to ruin the party as Ben Whiteman came close to scoring a sublime goal, but his effort from 25 yards just failed to curl enough and grazed the post on its way past. As the full-time whistle blew, the home supporters invaded the pitch in delight as promotion was secured. With five matches remaining Doncaster have a six point lead over Plymouth and will almost certainly win the title, barring too big a hangover from their promotion celebrations. Mansfield, on the other hand, have dropped four places in the league standings and, although they are still just four points away from the play-off spots, this will have disappointed them and makes their play-off push just a little bit more difficult.
Morecambe 1-1 Hartlepool United
This was a match which did still have some implications at the bottom of the table, as Morecambe sat in 20th, with Hartlepool in 22nd. The Shrimps were ten points above Newport County, while the Pools were only five above the Exiles. Both sides needed to get something from the match to alleviate fears of relegation, but neither came into the match in the best form, with Morecambe having lost their previous seven matches while Hartlepool had just one win from their last five games. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the match did not turn out to be a classic, with neither side showing much cutting-edge as far as creating chances was concerned. The scoring was opened just before half-time, however, when to ex-Morecambe players combined for Hartlepool, in the shape of Lewis Alessandra threading the ball through to Pádraig Amond to poke the ball past Danijel Nigić.
Morecambe then levelled through a goal which was just as scrappy as the game itself when the ball was laid on a plate for Ryan Edwards to shoot, but his shot was blocked on the line and looped up for Paul Mullin to head the ball over the line from a yard out. Neither side was able to create anything concrete in the remaining half an hour, although Amond and Kevin Ellison both had chances to get a vital win for their respective teams. With Newport County’s upturn in form, Hartlepool will be very worried and looking over their shoulders at the Exiles, willing the three point gap not to get any smaller. Morecambe, meanwhile, are just about safe as eight points and three teams currently separate them from the relegation zone with five games left. Neither side can call this season a success, but Morecambe can at least hold their heads up high that they have stayed up despite their off-the-field issues.
Portsmouth 3-1 Yeovil Town
Portsmouth went into the game with a six point cushion over Stevenage, knowing that they simply had to maintain their recent good form to win automatic promotion, with the Blues having won five of their last six matches. Yeovil, on the other hand, had got just two wins from their previous 21 league matches so the odds were stacked against the Glovers ahead of their trip to Fratton Park. However, it was the visitors who had the first clear chance as Tom Eaves could not guide his header under the crossbar when he beat the Pompey keeper, David Forde, to a cross. Pompey then recovered well from the early scare and went ahead after fifteen minutes when Gary Roberts nipped in front of Bevis Mugabi and was brought down to win the hosts a penalty. Despite Pompey having missed all of their previous six penalties, right-back, Gareth Evans, stepped up and swept the ball into the bottom corner, sending Artur Krysiak the wrong way. Pompey came close to doubling their lead in the first half when Gary Roberts’ cross from the left was deflected over Krysiak, but rebounded off the inside of the post and was cleared away by Mugabi.
The second half started at a rapid pace, with Krysiak having to save well from a Kal Naismith header before his side went right up the other end and scored the equaliser. The goal was officially awarded to François Zoko, but there was more than a hint of good fortune about it as it deflected off both Matt Clarke and Enda Stevens before lobbing David Forde. However, Pompey did well to get themselves back in front on 68 minutes when some good interplay released Enda Stevens on the left wing who was able to pull the ball back for the in-form Kal Naismith to score at the near post. They then made the game safe with twelve minutes remaining when Jamal Lowe benefitted from a lucky rebound which allowed him to advance into the penalty area before somehow managing to squeeze the ball in at Krysiak’s near post from the tightest of angles to score his first goal in professional football. The victory was enough to extend Pompey’s advantage over fourth to eight points, meaning they will be promoted automatically as long as they can avoid any major failings in their final five matches. Yeovil slipped down to 20th after their loss, and although they are in no danger of relegation (being seven points above Newport County) they will be keen to bring their torrid run to an end before the end of the season.
Wycombe Wanderers 3-3 Cheltenham Town
Wycombe went into the match in tenth place, and still had a very reasonable chance of getting into the top seven, being just four points behind Carlisle. Their opponents, on the other hand, were 21st and just six points above Newport County in 23rd so this was a match where both sides had a clear incentive to get something from the game. Cheltenham had won just a single game out of their last six so would have been very wary when travelling to Adams Park, knowing that they would have to play out of their skins to achieve a result. Harry Pell scored a brace for Town last weekend, one of which was a thunderous free kick, and he was involved in the opening goal after seven minutes with another free kick, but this time Jamal Blackman was able to parry it out, only for Billy Waters to tap in the rebound. Pell then scored his third in two matches on 13 minutes when he did well to readjust his body and stroke home from James Rowe’s cross, even though it was slightly behind him. Garry Thompson then got one back for the hosts after 21 minutes when he was able to poke the ball past Robert Lainton from inside the area. Cheltenham were reduced to ten men shortly before half-time as Jordan Cranston was shown a second yellow card for a foul on Matt Bloomfield.
Sure enough, Wycombe equalised shortly before the break, as Thompson volleyed home spectacularly into the top corner after Aaron Pierre flicked on a long throw-in. This surely gave Wycombe the momentum as the sides went in at half-time, as they had come back from 0-2 down and had a man advantage over their opponents. Sure enough, they went ahead with nine minutes remaining when Daniel Wright needlessly pushed over Thompson in the area, allowing Joe Jacobson to score from the spot. However, the controversy was not over there, as just two minutes later Wright was sandwiched in the Wycombe area, giving a penalty to the visitors. Billy Waters stepped up to take it, and although his effort was saved my Blackman, the striker reacted quickest to poke home the rebound and secure a valuable point for Town. Newport County’s win means that Cheltenham are just four points away from relegation and have a genuine chance of returning to the National League at the end of the season. Their penultimate match of the season against Hartlepool could end up being one of the club’s biggest in years as both sides will attempt to escape the drop. Wycombe, on the other hand, will be desperately disappointed not to have taken advantage of their extra man as a win would have been enough to move them into the play-off places. They will need to put this disappointment behind them instantly if they are to force their way into the top seven this season.
Exeter City 0-1 Newport County
This match had big implications at both ends of the League Two table, as Exeter looked to guarantee themselves a play-off place and Newport County aimed to bring themselves three points closer to safety. Exeter had earned themselves a reputation for scoring late goals in the weeks leading up to their match against Newport at St James’ Park, most recently having come from behind to salvage a 1-2 win at Mansfield last week. Newport also went into the match on a high, having seen a vast improvement in results since Warren Feeney was sacked and Michael Flynn took over as caretaker manager. The club looked dead and buried a couple of months ago but now have every chance of making a ‘great escape’. The match had to be delayed for almost an hour because the Newport coach was delayed in traffic, and the supporters were not given much of a performance once the match eventually kicked off.
David Wheeler has been a threat in front of goal for Exeter this season, but Joe Day saved well from his first half header, before Tom Owen-Evans cut in from the left for the Exiles and fired a shot into the bottom corner from all of 30 yards. The youngster first goal for County could hardly have come at more important time, as his effort secured the win for the visitors and moved them to within one win of Hartlepool. With Newport’s recent good form, I would make them favourites to stay up as Pools cannot seem to buy a win at the moment. Exeter, on the other hand, are still in sixth but there are now three teams just two points behind the Grecians who will be ready to overtake them if they lose any games. It looks like the 2016-17 season will give us an intriguing race for the play-offs and a relegation battle which will go right down to the wire, with both Exeter and Newport heavily involved.
With every team in League Two having played on Saturday, there is lots for us fans to digest and analyse, with the added bonus of not having to wait as long for the next round of fixtures, with matches taking place on Good Friday. Doncaster have been the big winners from this week’s matches, having secured promotion back to League One at the first time of asking, while the big losers are probably Leyton Orient, who had to endure another convincing defeat as they hurtle towards the National League. Hopefully the matches over Easter will give us even more to discuss and reflect upon! In the meantime, here how the League Two table looks after the weekend: