Soccer AM/MW - the home of lively and humorous discussion from the Football and Non Leagues

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big Match Preview - Southampton vs. MK Dons

Southampton vs. Milton Keynes Dons
Saturday April 2, 15:00, St Mary's

There's a crunch game in the race for promotion from League One at the weekend as Milton Keynes Dons make the trip to Hampshire to take on top six rivals Southampton.

The two sides currently sit level on 65 points in 4th and 5th respectively, although the South Coast team boast a vastly superior goal difference as well as having three games in hand on their opponents.

Indeed, the Saints have played fewer matches than all of their promotion rivals, and will hope they can take advantage in the closing weeks as they seek to gain automatic promotion back to the Championship.

Last term they only missed out on a place in the play offs because of a ten point deduction, but this season they will hope to avoid the end of season lottery for an altogether more positive reason.

Tipped for promotion in pre season, Southampton endured a slow start and were rocked by the early sacking of Alan Pardew. However, under the stewardship of his replacement, Nigel Adkins, they are beginning to show their potential.

They've suffered just one defeat in their last seven games, and have an imperious record on home soil under Adkins - winning 11 of his 15 league games at St Mary's and suffering just one defeat.

With just ten goals conceded at home all term, too, Saints have the best defensive record on their own patch in the third tier.

In the guise of 17-goal striker Rickie Lambert, Southampton also have one of the most lethal strikers in the division, and he is ably supported by Lee Barnard, who has 12 goals to his name too.

Nigel Adkins and Southampton are aiming for automatic promotion this term

Their opponents from Buckinghamshire come into the game in fine form themselves though, having only been beaten once in their last 14 league matches.

It's a run which has propelled the Dons firmly into the promotion mix - itself an achievement considering they cut their budget after last season's disappointing mid table campaign.

That saw Paul Ince resign from his position and be replaced by rookie Karl Robinson. The youngest manager in the Football League has risen to the occasion in spectacular fashion though.

Their challenge has
largely been built on not drawing matches, with just eight in their 39 matches. Their away record is, naturally, erratic therefore, including seven wins and nine defeats.

However, Saints will need to be wary against a side that have suffered just one away defeat in 2011 and recently registered impressive wins against fellow promotion contenders Peterborough and runaway leaders Brighton.

Top scorer for Milton Keynes this term is homegrown talent Sam Baldock, with 11, and midfielder Peter Leven with eight goals is another key man for the Dons.

This could be a very entertaining spectacle between two sides who are in top form, like to play good football, and have everything to play for with the season reaching its climax.

It will be tight, but I'll go for home advantage to help Saints to just edge it on the day against a Dons side who have been League One's surprise success story of the season.

Nobes' Prediction: Southampton 1 Milton Keynes Dons 0

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

JPT Final Preview - Brentford vs. Carlisle

We continue our build up to this weekend's JPT Final as Nobes previews the two teams involved.

Brentford vs. Carlisle United
Sunday April 3, 13:30, Wembley

The irony isn't lost on me that I'm here trying to make the final of a competition that I have very little affection for sound like one of the season's showpiece occasions.

What's that you say? Turls has already milked it for all it's worth and I can just focus on the actual football rather than glorifying a competition which isn't really worth caring about?

Well, that's a relief. Not least because it would have involved me discovering a heart, but also because, like Mario Balotelli with grass, I have an adverse reaction to any kind of cup competition which detracts from a league season.

Still, I have no doubts that fans of Brentford and Carlisle will be feeling very different in the build up to the 28th Football League Trophy final.

It's a match both will be desperate not to lose, and one in which a win will provide the highlight for what looks like being a season of mid table nothingness for the Bees and Cumbrians.

Not that it's been totally uneventful, particularly for the Londoners. They enjoyed a profitable run to the Fourth Round of the League Cup earlier in the campaign including knocking out Everton along the way.

They ultimately fell to eventual winners Birmingham at St Andrew's and, once out of the cup, quickly turned around their league form which had seen them struggling towards the wrong end of the table.

This was all under the guidance of boss Andy Scott who, in his first two years, had taken the Bees to the League Two title before a respectable 9th place finish in the third last term.

However, the natives were restless at Griffin Park, with the manager coming in for criticism. His biggest crime seemed to be his outspoken belief that "tippy tappy" football wouldn't be successful.

It was no surprise then when Scott was given the axe at the beginning of February after a poor run saw Brentford sliding back down the table - despite them progressing to the Southern Area final of the JPT.

In his place came experienced player Nicky Forster, who has done the rounds in the lower leagues during his career as a striker. He enjoyed the classic New Manager Syndrome, which was enough to see them past Exeter.

Home games against struggling sides Plymouth, Tranmere, and Bristol Rovers were also all won, which has helped lift the Bees into the comfort of mid-table.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Scott's sacking - and in my opinion it was a sad indictment of the modern game - Forster has overseen an improvement in results and been handed the reins until the end of the season.

Should he steer them to a win in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final on Sunday, it would make the case for giving him the job next summer even stronger. Don't underestimate just how much this game means to Forster himself.

In a neat twist, the Bees actually hosted Carlisle at Griffin Park last Friday, running out 2-1 winners. They will hope to have gained a psychological advantage over their opponents.

The sides also met on the opening day of the season in the North West, when United emerged comfortable 2-0 victors. Sunday's final really does represent a best of three encounter therefore.

Key men for the Londoners this season have been striking pair Gary Alexander and Charlie McDonald, who have notched up 22 goals between them.

As a rule though, the Bees have largely struggled for goals this season - only twice scoring more than twice in a game.

With them also boasting one of League One's better defences, it would be fair to say not to expect too many goals at the weekend.

This could be a crucial game for both Nicky Forster and Greg Abbott's futures

What of opponents Carlisle though? The masters of reaching the JPT Final are back once again, looking to right the wrongs of last year and actually return home from this fixture with a smile on their faces.

If the winners of a competition were determined by their effort and commitment to it, then Carlisle would win it every year. Indeed, a United boss not taking the competition seriously is frowned upon by the Brunton Park supporters.

Not that the current incumbent of the manager's seat has found it easy to win over the Carlisle fans despite a record which deserves respect.

Greg Abbott - no, not the '80s popstar - took over at Carlisle in 2008 with the club battling against relegation. He ensured they stayed up and last season built on that escape.

The Cumbrians had a solid mid table campaign and topped it off with that JPT Final against Southampton. They have been similarly solid this term, never looking like struggling and never being good enough to challenge for the top six.

This time though, a win at Wembley would surely increase Abbott's support amongst the Carlisle fan base and win around more doubters who still think he is the wrong man for the job.

It would have been fascinating to see what would have happened had Carlisle, 4-0 up from the first leg of their Northern Area final, not actually made it to Wembley.

In the end, they restricted Huddersfield to just the 3-0 scoreline back in West Yorkshire, to reach Wembley in the most underwhelming and deflating way imaginable.

Had they thrown away that advantage though, the knives would have been out for the United boss. Forget Forster needing a win to keep him in his position, Abbott could do with some job security himself.

One of Carlisle's outstanding performers this term has been Francois Zoko. The Ivorian striker is reportedly attracting the interest of clubs higher up the league scored ten goals in all competitions.

The burden of scoring the goals has also fallen on him after the loss of set piece wizard Ian Harte to Reading and the sale of top scorer Gary Madine to Sheffield Wednesday.

Fortunately, Abbott has been able to hold onto the services of midfield maestro Tom Taiwo, who remains a vital cog in the Carlisle team and could be key if United are to emerge victorious at the national stadium.

The Cumbrians have certainly been more dangerous going forwards than their opponents this term, particularly on home soil.

However, they've also been more vulnerable at the back, and in recent away trips conceded four at Brighton before being thumped for six at Peterborough.

With both sides being so close in the League One standings, as well as having beaten one another this season, this match is very difficult to call.

I can't lie, I am biased going into the match, as Carlisle are a club I have a soft spot for, and I would like to see them win the match.

However, I just have a feeling that this may be Brentford's year. They have proved to be a decent cup team, and will have a good backing with a long awaited trip to Wembley being not far for fans to travel to.

I hope I'm wrong, but I see this going the way of the Bees in a tight encounter and adding another disappointing conclusion to a JPT campaign for Carlisle.

Nobes' Prediction: Brentford 2 Carlisle United 1

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

JPT Final - Brentford vs. Carlisle

With Brentford and Carlisle United meeting at Wembley for the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final on Sunday, Turls gives his thoughts ahead of the showpiece occasion.

As I sit and hide from angry Sheffield Wednesday fans in my underground bunker, eating tins of red kidney beans and drinking cans of Shandy Bass, I came up with a foolproof plan of writing an article that can in no way vex the Megson Mob.

The Football League Trophy is being contested this weekend as North meets South at Wembley. This has no impact on Wednesday fans because they soon won't be in it as the glorious Gary Megson guides his mighty Owls to League One glory.

But enough about the Total Football that is being seen at Hillsborough and let's move on to the most magical day of the year: Football League Trophy Final Day.

Brentford make the short trip to Wembley to compete in their third JPT Final, having beaten Exeter in the Southern Final. The Bees had a few scares on the way, having to use the non-lottery that is penalties.

They've never won the Football League Trophy and will be looking to banish the demons of defeats in 1985 and 2001. They are a strong outfit and should cause some problems on their day.

They also have an almost identical record to their opponents and actually beat the boys from up North in their most recent fixture.

They'll certainly fancy their chances of walking away from Wembley with the trophy tucked under their collective arm.

I'm not going to dwell on Brentford too much though, because I want to talk about their opponents - who seem to be a permanent attendee of this occasions.

Carlisle United have been to the final of this competition six times. Six! That's twice more than any other club and yet they need a victory to become the competition's most successful team.

Despite going to the national stadium more times than a Club Wembley member, Carlisle have only won the competition once, and that was back in 1997.

Carlisle will be seeking to avoid a repeat of last year's defeat in the final

The Cumbrians got to the final last year, where they had their asses handed to them by Southampton. I happened to be in Cumbria on the day of the final, as I was visiting my fiance's family.

It wasn't a good day, mainly because they thought I wanted Saints to win because I was more southern than they are - and also because I had predicted them to win, comfortably.

Anyway, that's not important. Carlisle are a club who seem to focus on this Trophy every year. They live for the competition.

Why? Is it because they think that they don't have the resources to fight for promotion? Is it because they realise they are too good to get dragged into a relegation battle?

Or is it because the majority of their players recognise that this competition may be their only chance to win a trophy at Wembley?

I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but I do know this - Carlisle United love the Football League Trophy.

I've covered my passion for the JPT before, and Nobes will be putting up his beautiful preview of the game later in the week - if he doesn't I'll give him a kicking.

Carlisle need to win for two reasons - firstly by winning they will become the most successful club in the history of the competition and they need to forget about the three defeats since their last triumph.

Secondly, I'm visiting the fiance's family again this weekend. If they don't win, I reckon the wedding might be off!

Turls' Prediction: Brentford 0
Carlisle United 2

Monday, March 28, 2011

Big Match Review - Port Vale 0 Bury 0

Port Vale 0-0 Bury
Saturday March 26, Vale Park (Att: 5,510)

Promotion-hunting Bury were happy to claim a share of the spoils after finishing with ten men against a Port Vale side frustrated in their own chase for the play offs.

The hosts dominated proceedings in the first half and were unfortunate not to go ahead when a Tom Pope header came off the bar and Marc Richards blasted the rebound over.

Richards was then denied by the woodwork himself as he slid to meet a low centre from the right only to see the upright prevent giving Vale a first half lead.

The Staffordshire side, under the caretaker management of Mark Grew, continued to press for a goal after the interval but once more were denied by the frame of keeper Cameron Belford's goal.

This time a low cross from Lewis Haldane was met with a thundering drive by Doug Loft. However, his effort ricocheted back off the post.

The Shakers ended the game with ten men after captain Steven Schumacher saw red for his challenge on Anthony Griffith. However, they were able to see out the remainder of the game.

It sees the Potteries side remain 9th, just outside the play off positions. For Bury though, while the draw means they slip to third in the table, they will be more concerned with the speculation linking Knill to the vacant managerial post at Scunthorpe.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Prediction League Week 34

No change in the order but, with the season in its final straight, how crucial could a nine point advantage at this stage be for Nobes?

After a blank midweek comes another quiet weekend, with just the Skyrockets in action as the international break sees Preston and Forest off duty.

Solihull Moors vs. Boston United

Solihull Moors 1-2 Skyrockets
Nobes: Solihull Moors 1-1 Skyrockets
Turls: Solihull Moors 0-2 Skyrockets

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Big Match Preview - Port Vale vs. Bury

Port Vale vs. Bury
Saturday March 26, 13:00, Vale Park

Two sides with eyes on promotion from the basement division to League One meet on Saturday lunchtime in Staffordshire as Port Vale host Bury.

It pits the visitors - who currently sit in second - against a Valiants team who, despite recently slipping out of League Two's top seven, lie just five points behind.

That loss of form saw the departure of Jim Gannon from his post as manager after a tumultuous 14-game spell at the helm. Vale won four, drew four, and lost six under the Irishman, who took over from Micky Adams.

It wasn't just on the pitch where things were tough for Gannon, as he displayed a tempestuous attitude alongside his desire to change the team's formation and playing style.

He also struggled to forge a working relationship with the club's coaching staff, including being part of an embarrassing episode where he left the team coach en route to a match at Aldershot last month.

Youth Team coach Mark Grew is now in temporary charge and began his reign with a 1-1 home draw against Hereford, a result which left the Potteries club 9th.

Only a stoppage time equaliser prevented a second successive defeat at Vale Park, although they do still boast one of the division's tightest home defences with just 16 goals conceded.

In strikers Marc and Justin Richards, too, Vale have two forwards in double figures this term and they are capable of giving any League Two defence a problematic afternoon.

Alan Knill and Bury are in a strong position to win promotion from League Two

Problems of their own are exactly what they will face from Bury though, who make the trip to the West Midlands with the best away record in League Two.

The Shakers have won ten and drawn four of their 19 games on the road this term, scoring 37 goals along the way.

Indeed, after successive home defeats to Torquay and Cheltenham, boss Alan Knill may well be relieved for his side to be back on their travels, where they will be seeking to keep a fourth straight clean sheet.

Knill will also be keen, after missing out on automatic promotion in 2009 on goal difference before losing in the play offs, to ensure the Lancashire side maintain the top three position they currently hold.

The Gigg Lane outfit sit four points clear of the play off positions going into the final nine games - but then they had been sitting second in 2009 with just four games remaining.

Without a doubt, the stand out man for the Shakers has been striker Ryan Lowe who recently scored in ten successive matches and is the division's top scorer having registered 23 goals.

This is a match-up between two sides who faced one another on the opening day of the campaign.

On that occasion it went the way of Vale. However, I can see Bury exactly some long awaited revenge this weekend to continue their great away record.

Nobes' Prediction: Port Vale 0 Bury 1

Big Match Review - Torquay 2 Cheltenham 1

Torquay United 2-1 Cheltenham Town
Tuesday March 22, Plainmoor, (Att: 2,186)

Promotion-chasing Torquay moved up to fourth in League Two as their fine recent form continued with victory over Cheltenham in this game postponed from Boxing Day.

The Gulls had already had a goal disallowed before they took the lead just before the half hour mark. Defender Guy Branston powering in a header from a
Craig Stanley corner to put the Devonians ahead.

Town tried to respond, but chances for Matt Green and Wes Thomas were both spurned as they went into the break behind.

Paul Buckle's men went in search of a second after the interval, eventually doubling their advantage with less than 20 minutes remaining.

Ronan Murray took advantage after Cheltenham failed to deal with a cross in the box to finish put the ball in the net and put Torquay out of sight.

With injury time looming, the Robins did reduce the deficit courtesy of keeper Scott Bevan's error in allowing Danny Andrew's long range free kick to beat him.

However, they couldn't find a leveller and returned to Gloucestershire empty handed. In-form United appear to be peaking at just the right time though.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Little Goes A Long Way

After Championship strugglers Scunthorpe part company with boss Ian Baraclough, Nobes talks about the importance of keeping perspective.

Ian Baraclough was in charge at Glanford Park for just six months

They're not used to sacking managers at Scunthorpe. Not since Mick Buxton left Glanford Park in 1997 have the Iron had to issue their boss with a P45.

It's just one of the reasons why chairman Steve Wharton's decision to axe Ian Baraclough last week - a first for Wharton himself - was one of the most surprising managerial departures of the campaign.

Baraclough, who spent the final four years of his playing career with United - winning two promotions along the way - had only been in charge of team affairs since September when Nigel Adkins left to join Southampton.

The chairman admitted that, although the 38-year-old inherited a squad destined to struggle towards the wrong end of the Championship, recent performances had not only shown a lack of quality but, more worryingly, belief.

Saturday's 2-0 loss at Ipswich, under the caretaker charge of Tony Daws, has left Scunthorpe second bottom of the division, five points shy of Crystal Palace - who currently occupy the final position of safety.

A repeat of last season's escape from the drop, where they secured consecutive campaigns in the second tier for the first time since the 1960s, is looking increasingly unlikely.

However, while it's a statistic which is at the heart of why Baraclough has lost his job, it's also why the Iron must now keep some perspective if they do lose their battle against the drop to League One.

In truth, Adkins was always going to prove a tough act to follow for whoever took over the reins at the Lincolnshire club.

The former physio delivered two promotions - including a title, a final appearance in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, and survival in the second tier during his tenure.

It was also achieved playing an attractive brand of football despite having a budget dwarfed by rivals.

Much of the criticism aimed towards Baraclough has stemmed from Scunny adopting a more direct game in their fight against the drop. All well and good when results are coming, but a noose around a manager's neck when they're not.

Iron fans would also argue that last season's heroics proved that staying up can be achieved by playing your way out of danger.

However, it would be worth pointing out that the loss of last season's top goalscorer Gary Hooper to Celtic along with the departure of midfielder Grant McCann severely weakened United's ranks.

Baraclough also had to contend with the sale of Martyn Woolford to Bristol City in the January transfer window - a decision which didn't aid their fight against the drop in any way.

His capturing of Joe Garner on loan from Nottingham Forest also appeared inspired, with the former Carlisle forward scoring vital goals to secure wins over Sheffield United and Swansea.

It makes the removal of Baraclough from his position appear all the more harsh. After all, their history and resources, not to mention attracting the division's lowest average crowds of just 5,600, aren't of Championship standard.

Nor would relegation be a disaster for the Iron. Under Adkins they were instantly demoted back to the third tier in 2008. However, he then helped them bounce back immediately.

For the club who finished just a few points above the drop zone in League Two in 2004, the history books will show they have spent three of the last four seasons in England's second tier.

Fans who spent years making trips to the likes of Macclesfield and Chester have become accustomed with visiting Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace in recent years - and they don't want to give it up without a fight.

Nigel Adkins brought unprecedented success during his time at Scunthorpe

Relegation to League One next season wouldn't be the end for Scunny, but expectations are now that they should be challenging for a return to the Championship.

Baraclough's tenure suggested he was not the man to lead that expected charge next term, and Wharton must now seek somebody to build on the legacy established at Glanford Park over the past seven years.

However, while it's natural for United to want to continue to punch above their weight in the Championship, just how realistic an aim is it?

Their average attendance would still only place them in mid table in the third tier - and that would be with smaller clubs bringing fewer away fans with them.

While the argument could be made that winning more games would bring more home fans, their average crowds in 2008/9 were still only around the 5,000 mark.

Of course, Scunthorpe have already proved that fan base and resources needn't hold you back when it comes to achieving things. The difficult part comes when consistently trying to punch above your weight though.

Their local rivals Grimsby were amongst a clutch of clubs ten years ago who held down a place in the second tier - looking down on much bigger and more illustrious opponents.

The Mariners now find themselves in the Conference, another such side, Stockport, are on course to join them there next term. Gillingham, Crewe, and Rotherham are all in League Two, which Walsall are battling to avoid dropping into.

Now the Championship is the fifth most watched league in Europe, with two thirds of its membership former Premier League teams, many playing in top class all-seater stadia.

The division below includes clubs like Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield, Charlton, Milton Keynes, and - when they move grounds during the summer - Brighton, all of whom are ready made for playing at that level of football at least.

In comparison the compact Glanford Park, with its capacity of under 10,000 and still sporting a terraced stand behind the goal, sticks out when viewed alongside more grand arenas.

It's why, compared to even ten years ago, clubs like Scunthorpe face an increasingly difficult job to muscle in with the big boys of the English game.

Depending on who comes up from League One, it's entirely plausible that next season's Championship won't see a single side with a four-figure average attendance. That's almost unheard of.

In the era of transfer windows and those with bigger budgets being able to carry larger squads, money is becoming even more important at all levels. Scunny may well find themselves priced out of the market.

The truth is, managers like Adkins who produce attractive and winning football on the pitch to a budget are rare. Throw in his ability to find cheap players and selling them on for a profit, and United's search for another may be an impossible one.

The reality may be that this was Scunthorpe's zenith, years spent competing with bigger and richer clubs that they can reflect upon with pride in the future.

The immediate future must now be treated with realism and looking to ensure that, like so many before them, relegation from the Championship doesn't begin a slide back down to the basement division.

While promotion back is the dream, the focus must be on solidifying in League One. For the club from a county known for its flatness, it's time for Scunthorpe to keep their feet on the ground.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

More Than Words

Does what managers say really make a difference? Nobes looks at psychological warfare as the season enters its final straight.

Nottingham Forest boss Billy Davies is playing down his side's promotion chances

It's not as snappy as Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" or as recognisable as Victor Meldrew's "I don't believe it."

However, so often has Billy Davies uttered the words that his Nottingham Forest side are "
great candidates for the play offs," you'd think he was attempting to coin his own catchphrase.

It's classic behaviour from the Scot who, throughout his managerial career, has been quick to downplay his club's chances despite a managerial record in the Championship that's almost unrivalled.

At Preston he twice took the Lancashire side to the play offs, including losing in the 2005 final to West Ham. At Derby he went one better, guiding the Rams into the Premier League in 2007 during his first year.

Last season he turned Forest from relegation strugglers to the third best team in the Championship before bowing out in the end of season lottery to eventual winners Blackpool.

It's a record which is notable not only for the manager's ability to bring instant success, but also in how it has been accompanied by Davies's almost constant dialogue that his team is overachieving in challenging.

Going into the 2005 play off final, the 46-year-old spoke about how Preston were in "bonus land" against a West Ham side he branded as favourites due to their size, tradition, and history.

The reality was that the Lilywhites had beaten the London club home and away that season and finished above them after 46 games. Preston were no more the underdogs
that day at the Millennium Stadium than West Ham.

Again, taking over at a Derby side that only narrowly avoided relegation the previous season, he spoke about having a three year plan for challenging for the play offs.

However, with six games of the season remaining the Rams were top of the division before a late stutter saw them finish third behind Sunderland and Birmingham.

Davies described it as "no disgrace" and remarked that whatever happened in the play offs the season it had been "a fantastic achievement."

For the manager though, another play off contest meant he had to postpone a planned vacation in Dubai as the Rams saw their season extended.

It begged the question if, when making his reservation in the Middle East believing his side's season would already be over, did he do so because he thought they wouldn't be in the top six or, rather, they'd have already clinched promotion?

That's the thing with the Scot, you never know whether he's actually telling the truth. Does he really believe his side isn't good enough or is he actually simply engaging in some managerial mind games.

Along with the phrase "squeaky bum time" it's a phrase which inevitably crops up at this time of the season in context with words emanating from Sir Alex Ferguson.

Leeds boss Simon Grayson believes his side are under no promotion pressure this term

The Manchester United supremo is apparently the master of the mind game, seeking to psyche out opposition managers and teams with the comments he puts out to the media.

Mind you, like the censorship of a Soviet state, history only seems to record the times his mind games worked. Nobody mention Devon Loch.

So what about his fellow countryman, Davies? Just last month, after beating promotion rivals Cardiff to move second, he was still playing down Forest's chances - bemoaning the size of the squad at his disposal.

Since then, the East Midlands side have failed to win in seven - their worst run of the season. In the process they lost their 36-match unbeaten home run and have slipped down to sixth.

Going into the two week international break - something welcomed by the Forest boss - he has been quick to point to Blackpool's late form last season which ended in promotion and has declared the race to be "far from over."

He's not wrong. Forest are only seven points shy of the automatic promotion spots, and still have crucial six pointers to play at Leeds and Norwich. However, why now is he choosing to be positive?

True, he's looking to restore confidence and belief within his ranks after a poor run. Why though, when these particular assets were already high, did he decide against boosting them further instead of continually talking down his side's chances?

It's the delicate psychological balance between confidence and pressure. Too much confidence can be dangerous, but too little can be debilitating. Too much pressure can crush a team, too little can lead to a lack of urgency though.

Davies's track record portrays a man who is keen to downplay expectations, deflecting any pressure off his players and looking to move it elsewhere, preferably to rival clubs.

It's little surprise the driven, yet diminutive, Scot wants to keep his side's feet on the ground. There will be no getting carried away under his watch.

However, while avoiding over-confidence and complacency is important, would there have been so much harm in declaring that Forest were at least the equals of their opponents and had every much a chance as them to earn promotion?

While nobody argued with his assertions that they were way behind Newcastle and West Brom last term, his comments this season don't ring as true.

Forest finished third last season and have a highly talented squad with a blend of both the mental and physical qualities required for promotion.

It's hard to use their current sticky spell as evidence to support Davies's earlier warnings too when the same manager is now declaring himself still bullish over his side's chances of going up.

Forest's seven match run has included dropping points to struggling Preston and Middlesbrough, as well as losing to relegation haunted Sheffield United. They're the kind of results which smack of the kind of complacency he was desperate to avoid.

If so, his words clearly didn't have the desired effect. Or, had he issued more positive re-enforcement of Forest's prospects, they may have walked out believing they would comfortably see off their opponents and done so.

Paul Lambert is striving to find the right balance between positivity and relieving pressure

Nobody knows of course, and I'm the last person to want to point a finger of blame towards Davies who, in this writer's opinion, is the best manager in the Championship.

It's also the case that he's not the only manager looking to suppress expectations and take the pressure off his players as the season reaches its climax.

Simon Grayson claimed recently that there were no nerves in his Leeds United camp and has encouraged his squad to enjoy finding themselves in the promotion mix.

The Yorkshire side were in League One this time 12 months ago, so Grayson's belief that they have exceeded expectations has some validity. He has also suggested the budgets spent by rivals clubs demands they win promotion.

It's a brave statement from a man whose chairman is Ken Bates, but it would be fair to say that, whatever happens in the remaining few weeks, it has been another positive season at Elland Road under Grayson's stewardship.

Down in East Anglia, it's a similar story. After clinching the League One title last term, Norwich are sitting in second and are firmly in the race to secure back-to-back promotions.

Despite being in the play offs at Christmas though, boss Paul Lambert was still talking about just staying up. He then described the club's lofty position as "unthinkable."

He has been quick to dismiss claims his side are in "the driving seat" to finish runners-up to a QPR team whose march to the Premier League has been unflagging.

However, he seems to have found the right balance between keeping expectations suppressed while bullishly declaring he has no fears over his players who he thinks are strong minded enough to handle any pressure.

Contrast that with Davies though, who has consistently lamented Forest's transfer policy and how his squad is lacking.

Politicking with his bosses or just some clever reverse psychology maybe, but one wonders how the Forest players feel when their manager is telling people he doesn't think they can deliver promotion.

After all, you can read a lot into what a manager does and doesn't say and the motivation behind it. It's what makes taking
seriously Lambert's recent claims that he "can't influence any other club's players" a bit difficult.

It all comes down to handling the pressure and the less there is to contend with, even if it's just a perception, the better. That's why managers like Grayson will be keen to shift it elsewhere in the run-in.

The fight for promotion has a new front. The war of words has started, the downplaying begun. Don't believe all you hear.

That's because if, come the end of play, one of them does win promotion will they, like Mr Meldrew, really be unable to believe it?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Big Match Review - Hull 1 Norwich 1

Hull City 1-1 Norwich City
Saturday March 19, KC Stadium, (Att: 22,967)

A second half goal from Nick Barmby earned play off chasing Hull a deserved share of the spoils as second placed Norwich were denied another away victory.

The home side began the stronger with Matty Fryatt seeing a shot blocked by Elliott Ward before Aaron McLean also went close for the Tigers.

However, it was Paul Lambert's men who went ahead against the run of play after 27 minutes.

Hull keeper Brad Guzan came to claim a David Fox free kick played into the box. However, the American was beaten to the ball by his fellow countryman Zak Whitbread who headed the ball into an unguarded net.

The Yorkshire side responded and John Ruddy was called into action in the visitor's goal to tip away a Fryatt effort before James Harper skied a shot over when well placed.

After the interval, the Tigers continued to press for a leveller, but it was the Norfolk outfit who had cause for complaint just after the hour mark when they had penalty appeals for a foul in the box on Russell Martin turned down.

It was to prove decisive, as Nigel Pearson's side eventually restored parity when Barmby was on hand to fire home from close range after good work on the left by Fryatt.

Both teams sought a winner, with Fryatt going close for the Tigers and Guzan making amends for his earlier mistake to produce a late save from Simeon Jackson's shot.

The draw sees Norwich remain in the automatic promotion spots while, with eight games left, Hull lie just four points off the top six.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Prediction League Week 33

Lakes earned an extra point in midweek than his rivals, which saw him cut Nobes's advantage at the top to seven points.

This weekend there are home games for both Preston and Boston while Forest are on their travels in the Championship.

Preston North End vs. Coventry City

PNE 1-0 Coventry City
PNE 2-1 Coventry City
PNE 2-0 Coventry City

Swansea City vs. Nottingham Forest

Lakes: Swansea City 1-1 Forest
Nobes: Swansea City 1-1 Forest
Turls: Swansea City 1-0 Forest

Boston United vs. Harrogate Town

Lakes: Skyrockets 2-1 Harrogate Town
Skyrockets 2-0 Harrogate Town
Skyrockets 3-0 Harrogate Town

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Big Match Preview - Hull vs. Norwich

Hull City vs. Norwich City
Saturday March 19, 15:00, KC Stadium

Two sides dreaming of a place in the Premier League next season clash in East Yorkshire this weekend as Hull City entertain high flying Norwich City.

The Tigers are one of a clutch of sides on the fringes of the play offs hoping to put together a late run to snatch a top six berth, while their visitors currently have an eye on automatic promotion lying second.

It's been another great season for the Canaries, who have continued their rise up the ladder after being crowned League One Champions 12 months ago.

Much of their success has to go down to the work of boss Paul Lambert, who has City competing to regain the top flight position they lost six years ago.

The Canaries also boast the division's best away record - with eight victories, seven draws, and just three defeats on the road all season.

Their latest win, a 3-2 success at Leicester, brought an end to Sven-Goran Eriksson's unbeaten home record at the Walkers, and they have achievable notable draws at Nottingham Forest and Leeds.

They are also the one of the few sides to prevent runaway leaders QPR from scoring this season, earning a 0-0 shut out at Loftus Road and defeating the Rs 1-0 back in Norfolk.

In striker Grant Holt, they boast a hard-to-handle striker who has 18 goals to his name this term, and midfielder Wes Hoolahan also has 10 goals too in a free-scoring side, attacking team.

Nigel Pearson's Hull side are mounting a late push for a play off place

It promises to be a stern test for Hull, therefore, who come into the game off the back of extending their unbeaten away record to 14 games with a 1-0 win at Coventry.

That run included finally ending Nottingham Forest's 36 game run without loss at the City Ground, an indication of the danger that Pearson's men will pose to Norwich this weekend.

However, they return to the KC Stadium looking to avoid a third successive home defeat, with a 2-0 loss to Cardiff and 1-0 defeat against Burnley hindering their push for the play offs - they currently sit five points shy of 6th.

Pearson, who guided Leicester into the top six last term before making the move to the banks of the Humber during the summer, will know that they can't afford to drop too many more points at the KC if they are to make the play offs.

Goals have clearly been their problem. While they have only leaked 11 on home soil, their record of 14 goals scored is the worst in the Championship and needs massive improvement.

Their current top scorer is Matty Fryatt with seven. The former Leicester man was a January signing alongside strike partner Aaron McLean who, with three goals himself, was brought in to boost Hull's mediocre attacking threat.

This looks like being a fascinating encounter between Norwich's fluid attacking style against the more pragmatic and gritty Tigers.

Hull's home record has been poor of late though and, given the Canaries are really flying at the moment - especially on the road - I'll go for them to continue their promotion push.

Nobes' Prediction: Hull City 1 Norwich City 2

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Don't Look Down

Nobes on why those who love a good relegation battle may be disappointed come the conclusion of the season.

The contrasting emotions for the managers in last term's relegation battle at Hillsborough

Call me sadistic, but there's nothing I love more than a good old relegation battle.

During my own club's inauspicious five years in the Football League, three times we were involved towards the wrong end of the table fighting relegation.

I can honestly say they were the most fun times I had during our League era. Mind you, that could be because we spent the other two years flattering to deceive in mid table with an expensively assembled squad playing dour football.

That sad fact - as well as a warning to all Crawley fans of what's to come - apart though, even challenging for the play offs wouldn't have been as much fun as a dogfight at the bottom.

Sure, winning most weeks and looking upwards and forwards is great. I'm not saying I'd trade our current top five push in the Conference North for anything either.

However, were we to somehow make it back-to-back promotions come the end of the season, a relegation fight next term would have me salivating rather than worrying. Bring on the drama.

In fact, I think it's a football fan thing. After all, nobody really enjoys a dull end to a season, you'd rather have your team fighting for something if only to make life interesting.

It's a unique pressure that differs greatly from competing for promotion. Success is met with relief rather than joy. Every point gained is won, rather than the fear factor of dropping points when you're at the top.

While the achievement may not warrant a trophy or medal, finishing above the drop zone can sometimes generate the greatest outpouring of emotion and celebration.

Would the final round of fixtures in last season's Championship have been quite as dramatic had Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace been competing over promotion, rather than relegation at Hillsborough?

We get that every year with the play off finals. One team wins, one team loses. One celebrates, one commiserates. With relegation one team breathes the biggest sigh of relief while the other despairs. There is no greater contrast in the game.

Which is why those of us who revel in watching close fights to the wire to avoid relegation may be a bit disappointed come the conclusion of this season. Things could soon become very cut and dry in the relegation issues.

Take the bottom of League Two, for instance, where appearances are incredibly deceiving. While Burton may sit in 22nd and just two points above Barnet, the Brewers have four games in hand over the Londoners.

Just a couple of wins from those matches and the Bees, as well as similarly beleaguered Stockport, will suddenly find themselves cut well adrift and in need of top seven form to survive.

Time and games are running out for League Two strugglers Stockport County

Games in hand could also leave things in League One not quite as interesting as they appear to be. Dagenham & Redbridge currently occupy the final position of safety in the third tier, by virtue of a superior goal difference to Walsall.

However, the Daggers hold four games in hand over the Black Country side, and the next closest opponents - Yeovil and Tranmere - also have a couple of games more than the Saddlers.

The same applies to the trio of West Country sides, Plymouth, Swindon, and Bristol Rovers, who are also currently fighting to avoid the drop into the basement division next season.

In the Championship, too, the relegation fight doesn't appear as close as previous season.

Phil Brown has been unable to rescue the carnage left behind by the Darren Ferguson regime at Preston. The Lancashire side lie ten points adrift of safety, and relegation appears a formality.

Just one win in 14 league games under Micky Adams hardly suggests that Sheffield United will manage to lift themselves out of the bottom three between now and the end of the season either.

The Blades are six points adrift of fourth bottom Crystal Palace, with Scunthorpe - four points behind - completing the trio of sides in the relegation zone.

Ian Baraclough's men have shown a fighting spirit of late, collecting 10 points from their last six home matches. However, they've yet to collect a single point from seven away games in 2011.

When you consider too the strength of Palace at home - they've kept clean sheets in eight of their last nine games at Selhurst Park - then the Iron can't rely on their own home form keeping them up.

Instead, interest will turn to the promotion issues in each division, which have been scarcely been tighter than they currently are.

Excluding Queens Park Rangers's relentless march towards the Premier League, there's little to separate the rest of the Championship's promotion chasers.

The likes of Swansea, Cardiff, Leeds, Nottingham Forest and current occupiers Norwich have all sat in the second automatic promotion spot at some stage this season. It's impossible to know who will hold it come the end of the term though.

They all have taken points off one another too and, to further complicate matters, although Forest remain unbeaten against all their promotion rivals they currently sit below them all.

The weekend's results were a case in point, with Swansea going down to a surprise loss at Derby while Cardiff, Leeds, and Forest were all held at home by mid table sides. Only Norwich recorded a victory.

All five sides have experience of promotion and play offs in recent seasons too. Forest and Cardiff were play off contenders last term, Swansea finished 7th, and Norwich and Leeds won promotion from League One 12 months ago.

Only Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers hasn't any experience of play offs as a manager too, with Simon Grayson at Leeds, Forest's Billy Davies, and Cardiff manager Dave Jones having all won promotion via the end of season lottery in the past.

Will no play experience stop Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers from winning promotion?

Then you can throw three late challengers into the mix. Burnley were promoted via the play offs in 2009 and with a promotion winning manager at Bournemouth in Eddie Howe at the helm.

Twelve months before the Clarets went up, it was Hull who were enjoying Wembley success in the play offs, and their boss Nigel Pearson was in the play offs with Leicester last term.

The Foxes shouldn't be discounted this time around either, with the vastly experienced Sven-Goran Eriksson looking to guide his expensively assembled squad into the top six.

It's a similar story in League One. Gus Poyet's Brighton & Hove Albion look destined to begin life in their new stadium at Falmer next season in the second tier. Who will join them is anyone's guess.

Just five points separate the sides beneath them, with Huddersfield, Peterborough, Southampton, Bournemouth, and Milton Keynes Dons all in the running for promotion.

And waiting in the wings, hoping to use games in hand to their advantage are Leyton Orient. The O's have lost just one of their last 20 league matches, and manager Russell Slade took Yeovil to the 2007 League One play off final.

Of the others, Huddersfield figured in last season's play offs, with the Dons doing the same in 2009. They were knocked out by a Scunthorpe side who won promotion under Nigel Adkins - who is now at the helm at Southampton.

Darren Ferguson is back at Peterborough, whom he took into the Championship a couple of years ago, and Bournemouth's group of players know all about promotion after last season's elevation from League Two.

Speaking of which, with Chesterfield running away with the basement division title, the fight for the other two automatic promotion places is even more intense.

Bury and Wycombe lead the way currently - the two sides finished 4th and 3rd respectively two seasons ago. Rotherham are once more in contention as they seek to bounce back from play off final disappointment last term.

The Millers manager Ronnie Moore took the South Yorkshire side to back-to-back promotions last decade, so has experience of such scenarios. As does Shrewsbury boss Graham Turner, who most recently won promotion with Hereford in 2008.

Gillingham are hoping to bounce back from relegation last season and make it two promotions in three years and Port Vale are managed by Jim Gannon, who led Stockport to play off final glory at Wembley in 2008.

The nearest challenger is a side who enjoyed play off success in the Conference in 2009, Torquay United. The Gulls would relish the chance to extend their season by two or three matches.

A quick glance at the fixture list sees the Devon side travel to Rotherham on the final day, a fixture which could have a lot riding on it.

Indeed, you could be well advised to look up
for your last day drama in 2011. By then, events at the bottom could well be done and dusted. More's the pity.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Prediction League Week 32 continued

A point apiece by all the lads means little has changed in the standings.

There are a couple of games this evening with our two sides playing not a million apart from one another with Preston hitting the road and Boston once again on home soil.

Scunthorpe United vs. Preston North End

Scunthorpe United 0-2 PNE
Nobes: Scunthorpe United 1-2 PNE
Turls: Scunthorpe United 0-2 PNE

Boston United vs. Alfreton Town

Lakes: Skyrockets 2-1 Alfreton Town
Skyrockets 1-1 Alfreton Town
Skyrockets 1-2 Alfreton Town

Non League: Focus

Nobes takes some time to dip into the Non Leagues to look at how the big issues are shaping up further down the pyramid.

Could rookie Andy Sinton lead AFC Telford to promotion into the Conference?

It's fair to say that an almost unprecedentedly cold winter has produced an uneven picture in the Non Leagues this season.

Never before will the argument of points on the board over games in hand have undergone such scrutiny. It will be fascinating to see which wins the debate come the end of the campaign.

It's a situation perfectly illustrated in the Conference North - currently topped by phoenix club Nuneaton Town. The Warwickshire outfit are challenging for back-to-back promotions and have had an impressive season.

However, their lead at the top is by just a single point ahead of pre season favourites Alfreton Town who have a massive seven games in hand, as well as a vastly superior goal difference, over the side at the summit.

It's almost unthinkable that, in such a comfortable position, Nicky Law's men won't take advantage and end the season where most expected them to - on top and gaining elevation to the Conference Premier.

Also in the mix are my very own Boston United. I was confident of a push for the play offs before a ball had been kicked, but even I've been surprised by how well we've done this season.

I can't speak highly enough of our managers Paul Hurst and Rob Scott and the job they've done in the two years they've been at the club. Successive promotions would be a dream, but either way, just finishing in the top five would be a terrific achievement.

Especially considering we're not breaking the bank and can't match the budgets of our rivals. One of them, Guiseley, are another side who have plenty of games in hand and could well take advantage to seize a play off spot.

The current form side are Solihull Moors, who have put together a consistent run of results to force their way into the play off picture.

It would be a fitting tribute if the Moors did so after the sad passing of long-serving boss Bob Faulkner from cancer earlier in the year.

Arguably it's another phoenix side in AFC Telford who, looking good for a top five finish, would enter the play offs as favourites for promotion though - not least because of their recent play off experience.

Under former England international and rookie boss Andy Sinton, the Bucks have once again shown their quality, and boast an impressive record against the other top teams. After near misses in recent years, this could finally be their time.

At the bottom, a disastrous campaign for Redditch United - including a 9-0 home loss to the Skyrockets - looks destined to end in relegation, with the Worcestershire outfit lying bottom and 15 points adrift of safety.

The second spot appears to be a fight between financially troubled Hyde and Stafford Rangers - who are now under the stewardship of former Leicester defender Matt Elliott after the departure of Tim Flowers.

It's been another disappointing campaign for big-spending Gainsborough Trinity too, who are still nervously looking over their shoulder six points above the bottom two. Much more was expected from Brian Little's side.

Liam Daish is hoping to guide Ebbsfleet United straight back into the Conference

In the Conference South, Braintree Town are leading the way at the top as they attempt to win promotion to Non League's top tier for the first time in their history.

The Essex club - twice losers in the play offs in recent campaigns - hold a four point advantage and have a game in hand over nearest rivals Ebbsfleet United.

The outfit famous for being owned by the MyFootballClub website experiment have made a strong bid for bouncing back at the first attempt after relegation from the Conference last season.

Liam Daish's side look likely to be play off contenders at least. Also in contention are phoenix club Farnborough - gunning for a third promotion in their six year history.

Things are changing for the Hampshire club, who are also currently re-developing their Rushmoor Stadium with a new stand inspired by Preston North End's iconic Deepdale stadium.

Regular contenders Chelmsford City have bounced back from play off failure last term as have Woking - on the fringes of the top five alongside Eastleigh and this year's FA Cup giant killers Dover Athletic.

Welling United are also in the running in a division thankfully much tighter than last season when, the runaway success at the top of Newport County robbed the league of much drama and excitement.

At the bottom, St Albans City have been surprising strugglers and Maidenhead United, under former Yeading boss Johnson Hippolyte, are also struggling.

After their great escape last season, financially troubled Lewes find themselves in familiar territory in the bottom three. Following on from relegation from the Conference in 2009, there appears to be no end in sight to the struggles at the Dripping Pan.

Just outside the drop zone, Thurrock will be concerned lying just two points above the bottom three having played two more games than Maidenhead.

The Essex side appear stuck in a cycle of comfortable mid table finishes followed by a relegation struggle. As in 2009, they will hope their fight against the drop is successful.

Phoenix club Chester FC are drawing in big crowds as they enjoy success

At the next level of the pyramid, another phoenix side are odds on to continue their rise up the divisions with FC Halifax in charge at the top of the Northern Premier.

The West Yorkshire side hold an eight point advantage over nearest challengers Colwyn Bay and have three games in hand to boot. It seems hard to imagine the now completed Shay ground won't be hosting Conference North football next term.

Notable names in contention for the play offs include North Ferriby United, beaten in the semis last term. Fresh from their FA Cup exploits too, FC United of Manchester are challenging for a top five finish.

In the Southern League, Salisbury City - who were forced to resign from the Conference Premier last term because of financial issues - currently lead the way.

The Wiltshire side hold a five point lead at the summit with their biggest challenge being provided by Truro City. The ambitious Cornish team could continue their rapid rise up the pyramid via the play offs.

Another side in the mix are Cambridge City - demoted in 2009 because of the state of their ground. The Lilywhites will hope to make up for that come May.

At the bottom, the demise of Weymouth continues, with the Terras continuing their plummet from the Conference and in danger of slipping down to the eighth level of English football.

In the Isthmian League, infamous 1989 FA Cup giantkillers Sutton United sit pretty at the top, although nearest rivals Bury Town have two games in hand with which to reduce United's nine point lead.

In the running for a top five finish are Lowestoft Town - FA Vase runners-up in 2008 - and after missing out on the play offs last season, Tonbridge Angels look good for a chance in the end of season lottery this time around.

Finally, perhaps the brightest story in the Non Leagues is the revival of football in Chester. After the demise of Chester City last season, phoenix side Chester FC look destined for promotion in their first year.

The Blues have a huge 12 point lead over ambitious Chorley in the Northern Premier Division One North and, with crowds averaging over 2,000, it seems like FC Halifax and AFC Telford before them they are a new club on the brink of a bright future.

At a time when the future of more and more clubs find their future under threat, it is another good news story which should offer others hope. There is life - new life - outside the Football League.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Big Match Review - Swindon 1 Dagenham 1

Swindon Town 1-1 Dagenham & Redbridge
Saturday March 12, County Ground (Att: 7,864)

A late goal from Jon Nurse prevented relegation-threatened Swindon Town from gaining their first win under Paul Hart as Dagenham & Redbridge continued their own quest against the drop.

Chances were at a premium early on, with the home side's best effort coming from David Prutton who saw Tony Roberts block his attempt after being put through by Mike Grella.

The Londoners went close, too, as Grella was called into action at the other end of the field to block a shot from Danny Green.

The Robins took the lead just before the interval as Grella ran onto a long kick forward from Smith and held off the attention of Abu Ogogo to lob the ball over Roberts and into the net.

Dagenham pressed for a leveller in the second period with Smith being forced into saves from Nurse and Bas Savage.

Hart's men then almost sealed the points when Roberts tipped wide a shot from Matt Ritchie and, from the resulting corner, the visitors had to clear a Scott Cuthbert header off the line.

However, Town were to be denied a vital three points with just seven minutes remaining. They failed to clear a long throw and, when the ball was put back into the box, Nurse deflected the ball past Smith with his head.

The Wiltshire side were frustrated late on, feeling they should have been awarded a penalty, but were forced to settle for a draw.

It ensured the Daggers remain outside the drop zone on goal difference. Swindon, while still deep in trouble, can at least console themselves with having moved off the bottom.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Prediction League Week 32

It was a good midweek for Nobes who, with four points, strengthened his lead at the top to eight.

With the season reaching its climax, too, the defending champion could be on course for successive titles.

This weekend PNE are off while Forest and Boston are both in home league action. Turls and Lakes's predictions have been made using their averages.

Nottingham Forest vs. Doncaster Rovers

Forest 1-0 Doncaster Rovers
Forest 1-0 Doncaster Rovers
Forest 2-0 Doncaster Rovers

Boston United vs. Gloucester City

Lakes: Skyrockets 2-0 Gloucester City
Skyrockets 2-0 Gloucester City
Skyrockets 3-0 Gloucester City