As we enter the final stretch of games, in what has been a thoroughly entertaining season at both ends of the table. There is still plenty to play for in the promotion race, and for those teams fighting for their lives to avoid the drop into League Two.
Our local teams are involved at both ends and have plenty to play for. We will review each of those clubs seasons so far and what the rest of the season holds for them.
Bolton were many peoples favourites heading into this season, although some felt they would struggle to adjust to life in League One straight away. Appointing Phil Parkinson was seen as a good piece of business, as he had been doing a very good job at Bradford in previous seasons. He is a manager that was seen to have the know how and experience required to get Bolton promoted at the first time of asking. Having gone undefeated for the first 7 league games, and Phil Parkinson picking up the League One Manager of the Month award, the air of negativity surround Bolton before the start of the season was quickly disappearing.
Goals were hard to come by early doors, and a dip in form shortly followed when their tight defence started to leak. Notably, after defeats away to Walsall and Rochdale followed by a defeat at home to Oxford, the pressure was increasing on Parkinson to turn the slump around.
Wanderers finished 2016 on a high with a good run of form to get themselves back in the automatic promotion picture.
January saw the arrival of fan favourite Adam Le Fondre returning to the Macron, on loan for the rest of the season, after a previous successful loan spell. The signing of Alfie will no doubt help boost Bolton’s promotion push; he is a great striker for this level and his goals will no doubt be a huge boost for Bolton.
With only 9 games left, Bolton are well placed to finish in the top two promotion spots, which will have been the objective given to Phil Parkinson in pre-season. A huge win against Fleetwood this month has appeared to be a catalyst to give the Wanderers the final push for promotion.
Verdict: Automatic Promotion will have been the goal for Bolton in August and with the finishing line in sight, they will be favourites to finish where they are. I think their experience and class over the likes of Fleetwood, Millwall and Bradford should be enough to see them home. Keeping key players fit, such as Wheater, Vela, Morais and Le Fondre, is vital to their promotion hopes. Their final fixtures are quite kind with them due to play teams in the bottom half of the table. Bolton will feel confident of picking up a hefty haul of points between now and the end of the season. Barring another slump in form, I think Bolton will get over the line to finish second to Sheffield United.
Not many people knew what to expect coming into the new season from a Bury side blessed with a lot of experience and quality, heavily invested in by Stuart Day.
Many Bury fans were quietly optimistic of mounting a promotion push with the squad Dave Flitcroft had at his disposal and after a very promising start, a number of Bury fans believed this could be their year to get into the Championship. The start of October saw Bury sitting in the top 6 of the table, playing some good football and looking like a serious contender for promotion. A defeat to promotion rivals Scunthorpe at the start of October saw the start of a 12 game losing streak including derby defeat to Rochdale. Bury mounted pressure on Flitcroft to turn things around, but a 5-0 defeat to AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup 1st Round was the end of the road for the manager and he was axed by Stuart Day. Chris Brass was handed the reigns at Gigg Lane, but the club’s fortune remained the same. Bury finally ended their 3 and a half month run without a win with a resounding 5-1 win at home to Peterborough.
February saw the appointment of Lee Clark as manager; a very good appointment at this level, after guiding Huddersfield to promotion a few years ago. He has steadied the ship and made them difficult to beat and picking up a few wins along the way to help steer the club away from what looked like an inevitable relegation in February.
Bury also have James Vaughan to thank for their up turn in form. Vaughan has so far chipped in with 21 league goals, an impressive return for a struggling side, to gain Bury some valuable points. It is vital to their season to keep him fit to ensure they are not sucked back in to the fight for the drop.
The Shakers have some huge games coming up against local rivals Bolton and Rochdale, along with visits from promotion hopefuls Bradford and Fleetwood. It will be important for Bury to pick up points in their other fixtures to keep the gap to the bottom four and ensure League One survival.
Verdict: A season that started so well for Bury, has majorly fizzled out. Since October they went from promotion hopefuls to relegation candidates. The feeling amongst most League One supporters is that Bury should be a lot higher in the table due to the funds and squad at their disposal, but it also goes to show that throwing money at a squad does not guarantee success. With 3 of the 4 relegation spots nearly decided, I think Bury have enough to stay up and that there is easily going to be at least 1 team worse than them that will take that last spot, especially when they have a class forward in Vaughan who will win points on his own. Lee Clark will be eyeing a climb up the table in the remaining games to gather some momentum for next season, whilst assessing his squad for what seems to be an inevitable summer clearout.
Oldham was many peoples favourites for the drop this season; they’re a side struggling for money and had appointed a manager who had no prior professional football managerial experience in Steve Robinson. Robinson certainly had a baptism of fire into the managerial world. After avoiding relegation the previous season after John Sheridan pulled off the great escape, it was many a football fans opinion that this season would be a long hard struggle for Oldham and this has certainly proven to be the case. Poor form on the field and facing winding up orders off the field, many Oldham fans will probably be happy to see this season finish.
The start of the season reaffirmed many pre-season predictions, as Oldham really struggled to get going with only 4 league wins before the turn of the year. The Latics were firmly rooted to the bottom 4 and looked destined to playing their football in League Two next season. The New Year brought no change of fortune for the struggling Latics and when the news broke of John Sheridan’s sacking at Notts County on the 2nd of January, the pressure increased immensely on Robinson to produce results, as fans called for Sheridan to return.
Robinson’s dismissal was confirmed after a 2-0 loss to Mansfield in the Check-A-Trade Trophy and Sheridan was immediately appointed into the position as manager until the end of the season. The change had an immediate effect, as Oldham won 3 out of his first 5 games in charge and it appeared a repeat of the great escape from the previous season was on. Sheridan has made his Oldham side very difficult to beat since his appointment, with only 3 defeats in his 11 games so far since his return; this improvement has seen them climb out of the relegation zone.
Oldham’s final 7 games of the season still makes relegation a big threat, as 6 of those teams currently occupy the top 10 spots in the table. Equally, with local derbies against Bolton and Rochdale also on the horizon, Oldham fans will be constantly looking over their shoulder and hoping that they can earn enough points from a very difficult run-to ensure survival.
Verdict: This season has been a long struggle for Oldham and it will go down to the wire to see if they will avoid the drop. Fans must be wondering where they would be if Sheridan hadn’t left the club last summer, as the form they have shown in both his spells has been steady midtable form. It’s like that it wouldn’t have had them in the predicament they are in now.
Before I saw their final fixtures, I would have fancied Oldham to stay up, but their remaining fixtures are very tough and they will be hoping one of their rivals struggles to find any form going into the final stretch. I think Oldham will take that final relegation spot, the run in combined with teams below starting to get points and having games in hand will ultimately see Oldham taking that final spot in the drop zone. As a Rochdale fan, I would be sad to see them go, as it is a big local rivalry gone, but they have been knocking on the door of relegation for a couple of years and it appears their luck could be about to run out.
After scrapping to stay up last year, Fleetwood fans would have been happy for a nice and easy season in midtable, consolidating their League One status. The board at Fleetwood could never be accused of a lack of ambition, as they have enjoyed a fast rise through the football league and are constantly looking to push on.
Steven Pressley, who guided them to safety last season, resigned a month before the start of the new season. The board appointed Uwe Rosler as their new manager, seen by many as a very good choice after his success at Brentford, but some still had their reservations after his spells at Wigan and Leeds.
After an average start to the season, Rosler’s men really clicked into gear towards the end of the year. They carried this through into the new year, which saw them go on an 18 game unbeaten run to propel them into the race for automatic promotion, something nobody would have predicted back in August. However, this run was brought to an abrupt end after they lost 4-2 at home to Bolton, a result that seems to have spurred Bolton on to one final push for the automatic promotion spots.
Rosler has managed to create a side in short space of time which is both incredibly hard to beat and shares the goals throughout the team. David Ball leads the way at present, with 12 league goals and the former Manchester City youngster really seems to have found his feet on the seadside.
Regardless of whether Fleetwood miss out on 2nd spot or not, they have had a season so far that they can be immensely proud of. A play-off spot is the minimum they should expect come May, and with their form since December, they will be feared by any side that joins them in the play off spots.
Verdict: Fleetwood have had a fantastic season and wherever they finish, I am sure their fans will be proud of the way the team has done this season.
For me, Rosler is the manager of the season for League One. What he has managed to achieve in such a short space of time, is something that should not be overlooked. The circumstances in which he came in to the job, after Pressleys pre-season departure, make this seasons achievements even more remarkable.
Ultimately, I feel they will fall just short of getting into the top two places, but the play offs are a lottery and they will surely fancy their chances of a trip to Wembley. If they do fall short, Rosler has a fantastic platform to build on for next season for another push at promotion.
After another strong season in League One last time out, Rochdale had been hoping for more of the same and were looking to build on last seasons 10th place finish. That said, many fans and pundits predicted a season of struggle for the Dale, which has now become the norm since promotion in 2010.
Keith Hill has performed nothing short of a miracle in both his spells as Rochdale manager; taking them from relegation battlers in League Two, to becoming a well established League One side. Working on a shoestring budget and a low average gate, Rochdale under Hill has become a very good side to watch, with a mix of youth and experience. Hill seems to have a knack of turning players, who have been released by previous clubs and not appearing to be wanted elsewhere, into players who can be sold on for a good profit. This has created financial stability, which isn’t something Rochdale are used to.
The Dale started this season poorly, waiting until the 9th game of the season, to register their first win. Many of the Dale fans were not too disheartened with the poor start, as they were encouraged by good performances. It felt as though it was just a matter of time, before the results began to bring the points they deserved, even though they found themselves in the bottom four. Fortunes then started to turn for the Dale, 10 home wins on the bounce, including derby wins over Bury, Oldham and Bolton, along with picking up points away from home, saw the Dale fly up the table and into the mix for a top 6 place.
Injuries hampered Hill’s men early doors and it ended up with Hill having to play players out of position. Although, this did end up creating one of Rochdale’s stand out performers of the season. Joe Bunney, naturally a striker, was moved to left-back and has since proved to be a revelation. Bunny has become a vital player in the team now.
Ian Henderson and Steve Davies have stood out through their good performances and eye for goal. Matty Lund has also rediscovered the form he showed in his earlier days at Dale, to prove his class in midfield. In recent years, Rochdale have started to produce a lot of quality home grown talent. Jamie Allen, Callum Camps and Andy Cannon, now first team regulars and are stand out performers when they take to the field, and the emergence of Aaron Morley has got Dale fans excited for the future of the club.
Form started to take a turn, after Hill won the manager of the month for December, and the dreaded curse of the award seemed to have struck again. Dale would then go on a run of 10 games without a win, until a resounding 4-1 home victory against Gillingham stopped the rot and kept Dale’s faint play off hopes alive. However, these hopes seemed to fade away after an entertaining 3-3 draw at home to Millwall, some saw this as a must win game to keep any hopes alive.
Although its not out of the question that Rochdale can reach play offs, they have left themselves with a huge mountain to climb and needing results elsewhere to help them. Hill will surely now have one eye on next season and be planning his squad to have another tilt at promotion next year. With the majority of the squad being contracted to next season, there are good foundations to build upon. That said, Lund and Mendez-Laing are out of contract, and Hill will surely want to keep these two for next season.
Verdict: My dale tinted glasses will always make me think the play-offs are still a possibility, until its mathematically impossible. But, realistically, I think we should start looking to next season and give ourselves the best chance to give promotion to the championship a real go.
With the club now owning the stadium and having earned a nice windfall from the Scott Hogan transfer in January, the future is definitely bright for Rochdale. The club has ambitious season ticket plans for next season and, hopefully, the town will finally get behind the club and give the team the support it’s been lacking and thoroughly deserves.
For the rest of this season, I think Hill should look at fringe players, or maybe experiment with different formations, and use the squad to give himself options for next year. I really do believe next season is one for Dale fans to be excited about.