League Two Play-off preview

It seems strange that there is still a football season going on, especially when you consider we haven’t kicked a ball in anger in almost three weeks, and we’ve had the championship wrapped up for almost a month. However, in our league (League Two, of the Football League) there are still unresolved issues, namely who is to join Plymouth, Portsmouth and Doncaster in League One.

The four teams in the semi-finals all meet each other tomorrow evening to decide who will contest the Wembley final, and both matches are delicately poised despite first legs packed full of goals. Here’s my look at the two games.

Luton (2) v Blackpool (3)

In the clash of 4th against 7th it is the lower placed side heading into the second leg with a goal advantage, but the Hatters are far from out of the tie. Mark Cullen, a former Luton player, grabbed a hat trick for Blackpool in the first leg including 67th minute penalty that gave them the goal start at Kenilworth Road.

Blackpool were in the Premiership as recently as 2011. They were relegated but were back in the Championship play-offs in 2012, losing to West Ham. From there it has been quick decline, dropping through the league amidst fan unrest, controversial owners and incredibly poor football. They booked their play-off date with Luton following a 3-1 victory over already-relegated Orient on a day dominated by fan protests rather than ecstatic celebrations. The first leg of the play-off at Bloomfield Road drew a pitiful 3,882 fans, as die-hard Tangerines fans stay away in protest of the current ownership situation.

Luton on the other hand, they appear to be a club on the up. They just missed out on the first ever Premier League by dropping out of the old First Division in 1992, and they sank to the very depth that we have. Administration, 30-point deductions and eventually relegation from the Football League look to have put paid to the 1988 Littlewoods Cup Winners, but they’ve risen again. In 2013 they became the first non-league team to defeat top-flight opposition by beating Norwich City 1-0, and in 2014 the won the National League. Sound familiar?

The neutral (including yours truly) must surely want a Luton Town win in this one, and there’s no reason to suggest otherwise. Despite conceding three goals in the first leg, Luton actually had the second meanest defence in League Two, conceding less goals than both Doncaster and Plymouth who went up automatically. In Danny Hylton they have a striker who knows where the net is too, with 21 goals this season. Despite my immense disdain for Hylton, he would seem to be the Hatters best chance of turning around the surprising first-leg deficit.

Exeter (3) v Carlisle (3) 

Another stunning game packed full of goals, and another match delicately poised to go either way. Points could separate 5th and 6th place this season, both finished on 71 although Exeter’s goal difference of 17 was significantly better than Carlisle with just one. All of that counts for nothing now as they go toe to toe for a place in the Wembley final.

At one point in the first leg Exeter were 3-1 up, the third time they have held a lead against Keith Curle’s Cumbrians. They have yet to beat them though, and two late goals drew this tie level and set it up beautifully for the second leg this evening.

Exeter had five years in the Conference themselves, from 2003 through until 2008. They climbed back through the play-offs beating firstly local rivals Torquay and finally Cambridge United. They only spent one year in League Two, finishing second in their first season back, something that would suit us nicely. Manager Paul Tisdale has been in charge of the club for over ten years now, managing over 560 games and yet still pushing the Grecians on. They’ve got a strong side too, players such as Ollie Hawkins are attracting attention, and older hands such as Reuben Reid and Joel Grant add the experience. In goal they feature former Imps loanee Bobby Olejnik, a player we signed on loan from Villa in 2007 but who didn’t feature in our first team.

Carlisle had one season out of the Football League, bouncing back at the first time of asking in 2005. They too went straight up the following season, spending eight years in the third tier. They dropped out of League One in 2014, and are now plotting a way back up the table. They’ve got an ex-Imp or two in their line up as well, Tom Miller is a regular feature in their defence having featured 85 times for them, and Ben Tomlinson is a recent addition making two appearances as the season came to a climax. Jabo Ibhere and Charlie Wike are their main threats in front of goal, sharing 26 league goals so far this season.

This match is far harder for a neutral to call than the other, and both represent a long journey for Imps fans. Rather selfishly I want Exeter to be in our league next season as I have family down there, but I think they’ll have enough to see themselves through to a Wembley final against Luton, especially with all those lovely away goals behind them.

Stacey West Predicts: Luton v Exeter final