The first round of League One play-off fixtures have now been completed, with Sunderland and Charlton taking slender leads into their second leg games.
One of the four teams, Doncaster and Portsmouth being the other two, will not have the honour of a Sincil Bank trip next season. Three will, so we decided to have a quick look at all four, what we think is going to happen in the next couple of matches and which we’d like to face when the season kicks off in August.
We won the League Two title, as you’ll know, meaning that for the first time in an awfully long time, all of this actually means something. I thought I’d use the header picture of us celebrating, just to remind you how great we did.
We’ve enlisted the help of Football League World writer Gary Hutchinson, me, to look at the season all four have had and what to expect from the next three games.
We’ll start with the side that finished third in the table. Charlton have impressed me hugely this season, not just because they finished third but because they did so in spite of some rather testing conditions.
For those who don’t know, they’re owned by a guy called Roland Duchatelet who is a lot like the Chris Sutton of the chairman world. He’s aloof, doesn’t really care about the club he owns and has driven them into the ground. He’s stopped youth players having water, cut back on staff and sold their leading scorer in January before refusing permission for a free transfer replacement to be brought in.
January was a tough time for them as they also lost Jed Steer, the keeper they’d had on loan from Aston Villa. His understudy Dillon Phillips stepped up and he’s been incredible, as have the whole side.
Duchatelet also employed the ‘cheap option’ manager when Karl Robinson left, a man who had previously only managed a carp lake. Lee Bowyer (pictured) has proven to be an incredibly astute manager though, guiding the side through some testing times.
No Karlan Grant? Not a problem, Igor Vetokele will do a job. His loan signings weren’t big names, few have heard of Krystian Bielik or Ben Purrington, but both have been instrumental in their rise.
You might be detecting a bit of admiration for Charlton and Bowyer. You’d be right. I’m amazed they managed to finish third and if the season had been 50 matches, I think they’d have gone up automatically.
They’ll take a 2-1 lead back to the Valley against Doncaster and despite the late goal that gave the home side hope, it should be enough to set up a Wembley final. Players like Lyle Taylor, Joe Aribo, Johnny Williams and the big German, Patrick Bauer, are Championship quality.
The worry for Addicks’ fans is that Bauer and Aribo are out of contract this summer, as is Bowyer. They need this promotion to keep the wonderful momentum they’ve built up going.
Can I write as passionately about Portsmouth as I do Charlton? The answer is no.
I’m not anti-Portsmouth, but I believe Kenny Jackett has made some odd decisions which affected his side adversely. At one point they were top and looked nailed on for promotion, but a collapse saw them drop dangerously low before their late rally, spurred on by the EFL Trophy win against Sunderland.
What I’ve found odd is the treatment of some of his forward players. Brett Pitman hit a lot of goals last season, but he was dropped early doors in favour of Ollie Hawkins (pictured). As the season rolled on Hawkins fell out of favour and Omar Bogle came in on loan, along with James Vaughan. By the end of the season, Hawkins was back in the side with Pitman struggling for matches.
That inconsistency in selection might be a reason they struggled after Christmas, but two players they do rely on have had good seasons. Jamal Lowe was playing National League South when we were in the National League, but he’s been their best player this season. Ronan Curtis came over from Ireland in the summer and has also impressed.
For me, there’s a blueprint in terms of recruitment it might be worth bearing in mind. Also, in January of 2018, Bruno Andrade went for a trial down there but wasn’t signed. They’re not afraid to give talent from alternative sources a shot and it’s paid off to a degree.
It’s the Black Cats they face in the semi-final and they’re carrying a 1-0 deficit thanks to Chris Maguire’s goal yesterday. Having home advantage will be a big boost, but they’ve now failed to win in four fixtures. They have had some big wins at Fratton Park in 2019, 4-1 against Rochdale and 5-1 against Bradford, so there are goals in them. However, they’ve only kept one clean sheet at home since late February, meaning the lack of away goals rule could be crucial for them.