Monday, 14 January 2019

League 1: December Review

It was another excellent month of League 1 action during December and the hectic festive period. Portsmouth continue to lead the way with Luton and Sunderland in hot pursuit of them at the top. While AFC Wimbledon, Plymouth, Oxford and Scunthorpe make up the bottom 4. Plenty of excellent goals, quality football and more managerial departures as Bristol Rovers waved goodbye to Darrell Clarke.

Portsmouth continue to boss League 1 after another excellent month for Pompey which saw them collect 10 points from their 6 games and secure a place in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Portsmouth are looking a force to be reckoned with a despite 2 defeats in December, they have managed to bounce back on both occasions showing true spirit and determination to succeed. Interestingly, only Gillingham have beaten Portsmouth twice this season managing to quiet their strong attack in both matches. Kenny Jackett is a serial promotion winner from League 1 and after success with Millwall and Wolves, he will determined to add this famous old football club to his list. The likes of Jamal Lowe, Oliver Hawkins, Ronan Curtis and Gareth Evans have been magnificent this season and no doubt they will want their form to continue in 2019. It could be a very special year for Pompey the way things are going for them, but Jackett knows there is still a long way to go. Meanwhile, it has been a terrific first half of the season for Luton with the Hatters looking very good for back to back promotions. However, Nathan Jones’ shock departure to Stoke at the start of 2019 has hurt both the players and the fans of the club. Jones is highly regarded and leaves Luton in a terrific position after a strong December which saw Luton collect 13 points from their 5 games and overall are unbeaten in their last 12 winning 10 of those games. Truly impressive statistics but no doubt Luton must find the right man to see through the terrific job done by Nathan Jones as a shot at back to back promotions is a realistic ambition for the football club.  And with the likes of James Collins, James Justin, Pelly Ruddock, Harry Cornick, Glen Rea, Elliott Lee and Matty Pearson all at the top of their game, it truly is a terrific job to walk into and who knows it could be another special year for the Hatters after a wonderful 2018. The play-off places are made up by Sunderland, Charlton, Barnsley and Peterborough. It has been another good month for Jack Ross and Sunderland with the Black Cats notching 7 points from their 4 December games. The form of Josh Maja has been integral to their solid first half of the season with the young striker notching 14 league goals thus far however, he is stalling on a new deal and has just six months remaining on it so Sunderland will be desperate to keep him at the club. Jack Ross certainly has Sunderland where they need to be at this stage of the season, and he will be determined to push the top 2 hard during the second half of the season. The inform side in the play-off places is certainly Barnsley who are on 4 match unbeaten run also winning their last 3 in the process. After a mixed November, Barnsley have recaptured their early season form and like Sunderland, are looking to push the top 2 hard going into the new year and with their current form, Barnsley will fancy their chances in the new year. Kieffer Moore is their key figure in the attack and with the support of others like Mamadou Thiam, George Moncur and Cameron McGeehan, you cannot rule Barnsley out of the promotion race but the loss of Brad Potts to Championship Preston is a blow, but Barnsley have enough quality in that squad to be celebrating something in 2019.

Other sides who enjoyed December includes Doncaster, Burton and Coventry. It was a strong month for the closest challengers to play-off places Doncaster who collected 10 points from their 5 games. Grant McCann is thoroughly enjoying his first season in charge at Doncaster having been appointed in pre-season. John Marquis continues to deliver up front and the evergreen James Coppinger continues to lead by example in a vibrant, attacking Doncaster team. 3 wins from 5 including back to back wins at the start of the month has got Doncaster fans believing that something special could happen in the new year. Thunderous wins over Bristol Rovers, Scunthorpe and Gillingham have got them believing with Rovers scoring 10 and conceding just once in those three matches. Doncaster are chasing Peterborough down for 6th place and Posh must improve as Donny are on a terrific roll and head into 2019 full of confidence. Meanwhile, mid-table Burton had one of their better months this season collecting 7 points from their 4 league games and reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup where they will entertain Premier League giants Manchester City for a place in the final. Nigel Clough continues to do a terrific job on a small budget at Burton and although, they aren’t mounting a promotion charge, the Burton fans do have plenty of reasons to smile with the likes of Scott Fraser and David Templeton impressing in their first seasons at the club while the old guard of Lucas Akins, Kyle McFadzean and John Brayford continue to bring a determined spirit and effort for the club in a season where they are struggling to challenge the top 6 but also are comfortably clear of the relegation battlers. Despite starting December with 3 straight defeats, it was an excellent Christmas for Coventry as they ended 2018 with back to back league wins having not won in their previous 7 games. Mark Robins will be pleased with their first season back in League 1 and a top half finish is a real possibility for the Sky Blues this season. The only issue blemishing their season is their off-field issues with owners Sisu who continue to anger, frustrate and alienate the Coventry fans with their refusal to sell the club and sort a permanent home for their football club. It’s a shambolic way to run such a fantastic, historic football club but on the pitch, the fans can certainly smile and enjoy watching their team and they head into 2019 full of confidence.  

December started miserably for Bristol Rovers and after a thumping home defeat from Doncaster, Darrell Clarke was sacked by the Pirates after a terrific spell in charge which saw the club promoted twice under his leadership leading them from non-league football following their relegation back to the third tier and stabilise them in League 1. However, a poor first half of the season was the writing on the wall for Clarke having won just 4 league games in 21 matches. Graham Coughlan was put in caretaker charge and after a narrow defeat to Sunderland in his first match in charge, Rovers have massively improved and ended 2019 with 3 straight league wins beating Fleetwood, Walsall and Oxford Utd to move out of the relegation zone. Coughlan’s terrific start has now been rewarded by the club and he has been given the job on a permanent basis with the aim of ensuring Rovers stay in League 1.

As Rovers improve others are sinking and enduring poor runs, and managers are severely under pressure. So far things are not working well at Scunthorpe, Oxford Utd and Plymouth. Stuart McCall endured another poor month with Scunthorpe with the Iron losing 4 on the spin prior to their crucial win to end 2018. Prior to that victory over Wycombe, Scunthorpe had lost 5 on the spin for the second time this season having endured a 6-match losing streak in October. McCall is severely under pressure with the fans unhappy at the manor of their defeats and the performances of the Scunthorpe players. However, a dogged, hardworking, spirited victory over Wycombe may have brought McCall some more time at the club but he knows they must improve in the new year otherwise Scunthorpe could be staring League 2 in the face. This a side remember that many predicted could be challenging for a place in the Championship having missed out in previous campaigns. McCall will no doubt be feeling the pressure but also will be looking to add some new faces to ignite their worryingly poor season. Things just haven’t worked out for Karl Robinson at Oxford Utd having taken over in early 2018, their first half of the season has been very disappointing with many Oxford fans wanting to see their side challenge at the right end of the table. While Robinson may regret walking out on Charlton to join the U’s, he must work with an underperforming team that he assembled in the summer. A poor December saw Oxford collect just 5 points from their 5 matches and end the year with consecutive defeats. The fans are majorly unhappy, and Robinson is under pressure to get them going and fast. Marcus Browne and James Henry have been the only two players who can say they’ve had good campaigns so far. The rest of the team has underperformed for most of the season and Robinson will be disappointed. He is feeling the heat and they begin 2019 in the relegation zone and with fan unrest, Robinson’s days could well be numbered at the Kassam Stadium. Meanwhile, if Karl Robinson thinks he has problems, he certainly blessed compared to his Plymouth counterpart Derek Adams with the Pilgrims enduring a terrible first half of the season which has seem virtually stay in the bottom 4 all season. Adams managed to turn them around last season having started poorly, and he will be desperate for lighting to strike twice as 2019 dawns on the Devon club. The fans have been majorly unhappy with the team and Adams who has even had a few digs at the fans for their support towards the team this season but with just 4 wins in 25 league games you’d be forgiven for thinking the Plymouth fans were happy with that statistic. Graham Carey has gone missing this season with the talismanic midfielder really struggling for goals, assists and confidence on the pitch. The only shining light in a flat season has been the signing of striker Freddie Lapado who has notched 12 league goals so far this season having never reached double figures in his career. Another disappointing month for Plymouth saw them collect 5 points from their 5 games to leave them languishing in the relegation zone. Adams has been under pressure for much of the season and with a new chairman in the hot seat, could his days as Plymouth manager be numbered? One thing for sure, Plymouth must go on another terrific run to save themselves as they did last season and certainly, they must recapture that form, belief and confidence which saw they charge to the play-off places only to miss out in the end.

December was excellent in League 1 and no doubt 2019 will deliver the same as the second half of the season arrives for the 24 clubs. The new year also brings the transfer window and an opportunity for clubs to strengthen their squads whether they are battling for promotion or against relegation. There are also plenty of excellent and crucial games to come including Luton vs Barnsley, Plymouth vs Oxford Utd, Charlton vs Sunderland, Sunderland vs Luton, the Yorkshire derby as Barnsley face Bradford, Luton vs Peterborough, Rochdale vs Fleetwood, Peterborough vs Charlton and Luton vs Portsmouth. So key games to come in January 2019 with the second half of the season firmly upon us.  

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