The League Two Relegation Dogfight
To have a good guess at who’s going to be relegated to the Conference, you need three things: the League Two table, a form table, and knowledge of what has gone before. You don’t need knowledge of the squads – League Two squads are generally so evenly matched that form and confidence overrules overall talent and star quality.
It is fair to say that, like most divisions, most of the teams that are at the bottom by the end of the season have been there for most of it. Last year’s table is good evidence of that – on 12th January 2012, the bottom five teams (going downwards) were Barnet, Hereford, Dagenham, Northampton and Plymouth; all five would finish in the bottom six, joined only by Macclesfield.
But Macclesfield are an example of that other great factor in the race to avoid the black hole – the mid-table team that plummets. Usually there’s at least one – last year we had the interesting situation of having two, with Burton slipping into the danger zone, only to recover to 17th with a good run towards the end. Macclesfield had tumbled from 15th, 9 points ahead of the relegation zone, at this time last year to finish 9 points off safety by the end. The previous season, Lincoln were affected by an even more dramatic slide, failing to win in their last 11 matches – this took them down despite having been 14th, 11 points clear, with 11 to go.
With such dramatic stories in mind, it seems everyone in the bottom half of the table is on edge for fear of being the next Macclesfield or Lincoln, which could lead to some interesting self-fulfilling prophecies. But for now, it’s best to look at the teams down there.
The early walking pace was set by AFC Wimbledon, Bristol Rovers, Aldershot, Wycombe and perennial strugglers Barnet. Four of those five have since changed their manager – out have gone Terry Brown, Mark McGhee, Gary Waddock and Mark Robson, and in have come Neal Ardley, John Ward, Gareth Ainsworth and Edgar Davids, the latter pair being player-managers. Barnet in particular have benefited from the Dutchman’s presence and are now one of the form teams in the league, though they remain just three points clear of the drop zone in 20th. Aldershot, the only team not to have changed their manager, are a point behind. They are in turn ahead of the team that has slipped into this battle, Plymouth, who have recently sacked their inexperienced manager Carl Fletcher and replaced him with John Sheridan, who won promotion with Chesterfield in 2011.
The pair in the basement are Wimbledon and Bristol Rovers. Wimbledon began the season with some terrible defensive showings, and their home form is particularly poor – their away form, with 5 wins from 13 isn’t relegation form, so if they can sort out their showings at Kingsmeadow, they should be able to get out of it. For Bristol Rovers, on the other hand, it might be more of a slog, although since John Ward’s arrival, their form has picked up slightly. They are perhaps the most surprising of the candidates – although they had a poor first half of 2011-12, they did recover under McGhee to finish solidly mid-table, but did not continue this form into this season.
The most surprising thing to outside observers will probably be the fact that a number of these teams are relatively established names in the Football League, particularly Rovers and Argyle. But this isn’t a new thing – Northampton teetered on the edge for much of last season and Bradford weren’t much higher, while Lincoln and Stockport’s demise added to the significant number of long-time Football League clubs in the Conference.
That being said, usually the smaller clubs in League Two do gravitate to the bottom, even when one or two can be found towards the top. This season is no exception. Accrington Stanley have probably the worst form in the division, having struggled to get over with the loss of manager Paul Cook to Chesterfield. They are also one of the worst-attended clubs in the league, which cannot be helping the bank balance for trying to find new recruits. Sitting just four points above the relegation zone, the Lancashire club’s fans are now sweating nervously.
Another former Conference club Morecambe are just above them on 32 points and have also slipped down the table in recent weeks. They are a long shot at this stage but could yet be sucked in, being on a long-term run of mixed form since their excellent start to 2011-12. They are a point behind the recovering Wycombe, who seem to have escaped – for now at least.
And then there’s Torquay. Two wins in eleven has seen us drop from play-off contention to just seven points above the relegation zone. Since the start of December, we are 22nd in the form table. And yet manager Martin Ling has remained unmoved, signing no new players in the January transfer window where virtually every other club in League Two has looked to refresh their squad. It is an odd situation, with Ling saying there is no money for new players and insisting the situation is under control, even though results suggest otherwise – in the last 5 games, the Gulls have thrown away 7 points in the last 10 minutes of matches, which shows a worrying lack of ability to them see out. They haven’t been against top sides either, as those matches includes points lost at Plymouth and at home to Wimbledon. I remember the season that we were relegated to the Conference well, and that season we similarly struggled to hold onto results, although by this point in the season we had already sunk to the bottom.
But this season is different – though I have nothing to prove it, the league seems to be a weaker one. I could go on to include tumbling Rochdale, inconsistent York and stuttering Dagenham & Redbridge here, which would make every team in the bottom half of the table relegation candidates. Meanwhile, last year, Burton were as high as 8th on 12th January 2012 before they tumbled into the battle. However, the two that go down are likely to come from the teams that I’ve reviewed.
Do I think we’ll go down? It’s unlikely – at the moment, you would fancy us to at least just edge out the teams that we have a head-start over. However, with four of the bottom five winning this weekend, the gap is shrinking quickly. We are closer to the zone than Macclesfield were at this time last year, in position and points, our form is poor, and yet we are not active in the transfer market. Though we have up to three games in hand on the teams around us, you wouldn’t fancy us to win them, as they are previously-postponed matches against some of the form teams in the division – Rotherham, Aldershot and, most importantly, local rivals Exeter, now 3rd in the table, who we have to play twice in the next three matches.
At the moment, my money would be on Wimbledon and Accrington. Nothing against those sides but I’m not sure they have the muscle and managerial experience – both have gaffers who are in their first jobs, and you can’t get much tougher than this. Plymouth and Bristol Rovers, like Northampton last year, may have just about enough to squeak away – the immediate impact that Sheridan has had at Home Park is a good sign, although I am dubious about the appointment, while for the first time in a while, there are positive vibes around Rovers. Accrington’s form is quickly deteriorating so I’d make them favourites right now. Wimbledon might just be able to make it out of there. If they do, you would have to look at Aldershot (who I think will be OK), Morecambe and then, I guess, us.
With bigger clubs with more money below us, and a refusal to budge in the transfer market (and there may be bids for our better players to come), we have to acknowledge that we’re in a fight. The blissful naive statements about play-off contention have disappeared – we’re in for a dogfight now. We need to act before the losing mentality becomes commonplace. The games against Exeter, then, are vital – one or two defeats and things could quickly spiral out of control.