Examiner Sports Editor MEL BOOTH takes a look at the leading League I contenders for play-off places and assesses Town’s chances of making the post-season knockout for promotion
ONE major question dominates what promises to be an exciting play-off chase for Town manager Lee Clark, his players and the fans.
Can Colchester pick up four more points than the Galpharm battlers over the final six League I fixtures and book a place in the top six?
The decisive factor could well be the result when Aidy Boothroyd brings Colchester to the Galpharm for the penultimate match of the season, although I reckon sixth-placed Town are well placed to be further ahead of their nearest rivals by then.
Colchester have not won in eight matches, taking only three points from 24 available and scoring an average of just one goal per game over the last 10.
That record means Colchester have to find a massive improvement to put genuine pressure on Town, especially as their next two fixtures are against second-placed Swindon (at home) and fifth-placed Charlton at The Valley.
With a four-point gap to make up over six games, because of Town’s nine superior goal difference, that’s a tough start.
Town, of course, cannot afford to relax, even though the win against Oldham – achieved despite a well below par performance – was a significant step towards extending the season.
Clark has driven Town to an improved record away from home of five wins from the last seven on the road, which is encouraging with the season at its nitty gritty stage.
Home points have proved harder to come by, but Town have faced four of the top six at the Galpharm in their last five outings and they’ve been beaten only once, by champions-elect Norwich City.
All of this, it has to be said, without hitting the fluent heights of earlier in the campaign.
Critics keep pointing to the fact that Town have yet to beat any of the top six, but if they make the play-offs who cares? And anything can happen once the post-season knockout gets under way, with nerves jangling at every twist and turn of the two-legged semi-finals for a place at Wembley on Saturday, May 29.
It’s difficult to say who will finish second to Norwich.
While Leeds and Charlton are close, I fancy it will be either Swindon or Millwall – and they meet each other at the New Den on the final day of the season. Swindon have won five of their last six, including successes at Brighton, Hartlepool, Southampton and Leeds, which is an impressive record for manager Danny Wilson.
But Millwall have been in top form for longer and suggest they are stronger with only one defeat in 16 and 12 wins over that period, earning boss Kenny Jackett the latest League I Manager of the Month Award.
If the rest of the top six remains as it is – which I firmly believe it will – then Leeds and Charlton are certainly not going to fancy taking on what could easily be a full-strength Town.
Leeds have won just three of their last 13 in the league and have been well beaten by both Millwall and Swindon at Elland Road in the last couple of weeks.
Charlton have been reasonably solid, with five wins and two draws out of their last nine, but their run-in includes matches against four of the top nine and that could prove draining.
For Town to make up six points on either Leeds or Charlton over the last six matches is unlikely, but equally it’s going to be exceptionally difficult for chasing duo Bristol Rovers and Southampton to close gaps of seven and 11 points respectively on Town.
That’s why Colchester remain the biggest danger to Clark’s men and, if you discount the May 1 meeting between the two, all Town have to do is match Colchester’s points record over the other five matches to be home and hosed for the play-offs.
Town have the ability to be better than that and should go into the run-in bursting with belief.
If they finish sixth and Swindon third, then watch out for a Town v Leeds play-off final. Wow!