Talking football: '˜It's up for grabs now' for Wigan Athletic
The Easter weekend is always a pivotal period in the end-of-season shake-up.
So says the well-worn ‘book of football cliches’.
And while I ordinarily try to avoid cliches like the plague, I can’t help but feel the next few days or so will prove to be utterly decisive in the League One promotion race.
Three into two just won’t go.
Wigan Athletic, Shrewsbury Town and Blackburn Rovers won’t all be celebrating automatic promotion come early May.
And despite all averaging over two points-per-game with less than a quarter of the campaign to go – a ridiculous situation if you think about it – one of those excellent sides will have to be content with a place in the play-offs.
And after coming so close to automatic promotion, you can’t help but feel it would be an almost impossible taskto raise the troops for an extra two, hopefully three, games in the play-offs – with literally everything on the line.
Cards on the table, Shrewsbury were one of my pre-season tips to be relegated from this division – and I promise you I was far from the only one!
It beggars belief the Shrews remain a point clear at the top heading into Easter – albeit having played two games more than second-placed Latics.
Naturally, Paul Cook’s men were my pre-season first pick for promotion, alongside Tony Mowbray’s Blackburn.
And I still can’t help but feel, with the added hassle of a Checkatrade Trophy final at Wembley to negotiate next month, Shrewsbury will still end up being the promotion bridesmaids.
But the Shrews have been proving me – and a fair chunk of the ‘experts’ – wrong for the last eight months, and have proved time and time again they’re in it for the long-haul.
And on the face of it, Shrewsbury will fancy their chances of winning both of their Easter fixtures.
Struggling Rochdale away and mid-table Oxford at home wouldn’t appear to pose too much of a threat on paper.
But we’re approaching the business end of the season, where teams at both ends of the table are becoming increasingly desperate for points...and players up and down the country are potentially playing for contracts – either at home or elsewhere.
In other words, all bets are off.
Blackburn will also fancy their chances of recording back-to-back wins, against a Bradford team tonight whose play-off dreams are decreasing by the week, and away on Monday to an MK Dons side mired in the drop-zone.
Latics, meanwhile, will be strong favourites to see off Oldham tomorrow.
But the Easter Monday trip to Portsmouth has always had a huge asterisk (*) against it from the moment the fixtures were released last June.
While Pompey have been on the fringes of the play-off picture for most of the season, Latics boss Cook will know more than anyone how tough it will be be to pick up three points from Fratton Park.
At a venue where, until last summer, he was afforded hero status, having led the club to the League Two title in dramatic fashion on the final day of last term.
Cook will, according to the ‘book of football cliches’, insist it’s ‘just another game’, for ‘just another three points’.
Clearly, it isn’t. Not for him, and certainly not for any of the passionate Pompey fans.
But it’s vital the Latics boss succeeds in keeping as much emotion as possible out of the occasion.
This time two years ago, Latics won emphatically away on Good Friday at Swindon in front of the Sky cameras before completing a maximum Easter return with a hard-fought local derby win over Rochdale on home soil.
A crucial few days in ensuring the League One title ended up at the DW Stadium.
While this time the holiday fixtures are reversed, I can’t help but feel that a win over local rivals Oldham on Friday, backed up by a televised Easter Monday win at Portsmouth, would be a crucial, repeat, statement of intent.
With a full-strength squad at his disposal, I know Cook wouldn’t swap his hand for that of Hurst or Mowbray.
His only job now is to decide which players to put in, and who to save for future battles.
With 10 games to go, Cook is exactly where he wants to be, with destiny in his own hands.
To borrow another football cliche...(although as a Liverpool fan, one he won’t want to be reminded of...before Michael Thomas’ last-gasp Division One title winner at Anfield)...“it’s up for grabs now...”