Saturday, May 28, 2011


I have not posted on the blog this week, tennis is big for me in the summer months and I have been watching the action from Roland Garros all day every day, which has left little time for anything else.

The weekend's sporting action is, of course, dominated by the Champions League final tonight and is a mouth watering prospect that we are all eagerly anticipating and will doubtless be disappointed by, sorry, but that is normally the way of these things, but hopefully I will be wrong and we will witness a classic.

Elsewhere we see the completion of the Football League playoffs and all the drama they bring, I will preview the first of these below and also include my pre semi final playoff notes for three other leagues, one of these is already decided ( Ayr United) which has paid for the other two positions, but you may find all of interest ahead of the finals and next season. BTW, these were the only three outright playoff positions I took.


I saw Reading play at Millwall early season and picked them out that night as a likely promotion contender, it took an extended FA Cup run to really kick start their season, with wins over EPL teams WBA and Everton and holding Manchester City for 74 minutes in the quarter final , giving them the confidence to launch a big end of season push. They lost just one of their final 16 starts and even that came late in the campaign when their chance of automatic promotion had gone, in a match against a desperate Sheffield United, they were coasting at 2-0 and heading for what looked a 4-5 goal victory, when a mad ten minutes cost them a fairly meaningless game. They still collected 35 points in the final third of the season, five more than Swansea, seven greater than playoff semi final opponent Cardiff and a whopping 13 more than Nottingham Forest.

Swansea are a very nice footballing side, but are the only one of the four semi finalists without any recent playoff experience and have struggled on the road, losing more away starts than any others team in the top nine. With two of their potentially three remaining games away from their fortress Liberty Stadium that is a concern and I prefer teams with more of a cutting edge at this stage and like Arsenal, City too often opt for one more sideways pass when a more probing ball would serve them better.

Cardiff had an automatic promotion spot there for the taking earlier in the campaign ,but did regroup and push Norwich hard entering this month, however, they came up short and the 3-0 home defeat to Middlesbrough last week when a win would have put huge pressure on the Canaries, who were playing later that day in a difficult away fixture, convinced me that they do not have the stomach for this battle, boss Dave Jones has looked increasingly rattled over the last month and I do not see him as a calming dressing room influence.

Forest once again lost their way entering the business end of the campaign, but did come on strong at the end of the season to reclaim a post season spot which looked to have slipped from their grasp. I suppose we should give them credit for that, but they have the worst away record of all four contenders, scoring just 26 road goals all season and that is going to put them under immense pressure to get a result tonight at home to Swansea. They have created just 464 attempts on goal all season , an average of four per game less than Swansea and having not got past this stage in three previous attempts, they are not a side I would want to back or trust. So, it is Reading for me.

The Royals have lost only five road starts all season and conceded just 26 goals, they keep the ball well and have plenty of offensive options, especially out wide with McAnuff and Kebe a match for any defenders at this level and have the promising Antonio and Robson- Kanu waiting in the wings, infact, Reading have cover in almost every position and are a very well run club from top to bottom. They have two classy goalkeepers, a much vaunted striker in Shane Long, the evergreen Ian Harte making the Championship team of the season and holding midfielder Mikele Leigertwood who has been sensational ,the Berkshire club are desperate to make his loan deal from QPR permanent whatever division they are playing in next season and should try to make it hapen, Reading are simply a better team when he plays.

The Championship playoffs have tended to be won by the team finishing the season strongest in recent years, with five of the last seven winners namely Crystal Palace 2004 (12th place) , West Ham 2005 (7th), Hull 2008 ( 8th) , Burnley 2009 ( 9th) and Blackpool last year ( 8th) all outside the top six with a dozen games to play. Reading were down in tenth 12 games back, six points off the pace and are looking to frank these very strong form lines.

Cardiff might have the strongest starting eleven, but their backline looks decidely dodgy at times and no team has the options or form that the Royals have coming into the post season and they are my idea of the likeliest winners.

1.5 units Reading to win outright 3.75 + ..... up to 3.90 on the exchages for small money.


Huddersfield must be feeling a little hard done by, their total of 87 points would have seen them promoted in all but one of the previous ten seasons at this level and to have entered the New Year just one point off the automatic promotion places and go unbeaten for the rest of the season is not just unbelievable, but downright cruel !

They have collected 51 points in the second half of the season, that is 19 more than Bournemouth, which extended over a full camapign would have seen them finish first and 12th respectively in any "normal" season. I expect that difference to be apparent over the two legs and for Town to earn a deserved trip to Manchester for the final which will take place at Old Trafford with Wembley hosting the Champions League final. Bournemouth have shown great team spirit and fight to hang on in there after losing their two best players and coach this season, but the last few months have seen them falter and they were fortunate in the end to hold on to a top six spot.The other semi is a coin flip in my opinon with both teams very evenly matched. However, neither has the defensive capabilities of Town and even Peterborough, with 106 goals this season would not match up with the Terriers front men on a going day. Talented boss Lee Clark has the option to rotate five very good strikers at the club, with players of the calibre of Jordan Rhodes 46 goals in 61 starts and Lee Novak 17 in 38, not always certain of a starting place, Rhodes would walk into the starting eleven of any other third tier team with the exception of Southampton and they are now in the Championship ! Town learned a lot from their two playoff games with Millwall last year and I know that they are very relieved to be opening on the road this time round. Only MK Dons of the other three contenders has any recent playoff experience and that was with a much changed squad and completely different backroom team. Town are potentially a big club with big ambitions and are already planning for next season, with some important contract issues settled in the last week, it is a very different situation at Peterbourough for example where the three best players look on their way out of the club, even if promotion is achieved. Recent experience and form all point to Town, who were the third best team this season by some way and they look very worthy favourites to get the job done this time, btw, they have the "indian sign" on Dons who they are probably hoping to meet in the final, having put seven past them in the two league games this season and four last, winning all four meetings.

1.5 units Huddersfield to win the League 1 playoffs 2.75 ( P Power/ Hills .... should also see this on the exchanges tomorrow ) and 2.80 Unibet.



I am keen on United to progress through this two legged tie and to go on and book a quick return to the First Division following relegation last season, they had previously gone up through the playoff system in 2009 so know what to expect and look the strongest of the four sides. They are definitely the biggest club, with arguably the best starting eleven, who should be well rested after most were given a day off at the weekend with second place already assured. They took a little while to get a settled side this season, but really started to find the net in the last month or so, beating playoff rivals Forfar 3-1 and Brechin City 3-0, City might claim to have got some revenge on saturday, with a 1-0 victory, but United had nothing to play for and fielded a team mainly made up of youngsters. They also suffered a recent 3-2 loss here in the league, where they led twice and then conceded a late own goal and will be confident of getting a result tonight against a team who were expected to struggle this season after promotion last year, when they were two divisions below United. Hosts will have 18 yo Neil Duffy between the sticks, he is on loan from St Johnstone and has plenty of promise, but has only made five career starts and that is far from ideal in such a big game, against an opponent with goals in them. United also got a massive boost off the pitch this week, when Bodog agreed a sponsorship deal with the club, this is unheard of at this level and could lead to bigger things for the cash strapped club ,with Bodog owner Calvin Ayre having links to the area. I am going to split two units between Ayr with the handicap start tonight and them to win promotion.

Ayr United +0.25 ball 1.86 IBC

Ayr United to win Division 2 Playoffs 3.60 + (Boyle/Hills) ...3.75 Stan James/ Bet Fred.


I have taken the direct quotes in this preview from the excellent Paul Fletcher blog on the BBC website.

United have come in for support over the last couple of days, that has caused Borough to ease out to odds against with the level ball option and I have to get involved at those odds.

Stevenage boss Graham Westley has made few friends this season with his tactics and win at all costs approach, we touched on this earlier in the season, his side are incredibly fit ( I will explain why later) and play at an extremely high tempo that few teams can match, even Boro cannot keep that up for 90 minutes and once they are ahead will resort to plan B, which is to stay down on the ground following any foul, sometimes for several minutes to enable the players to take on fluids and get new tactics from Westley. It is not pretty to watch and very annoying if you are the opponent, but no one can dispute it works and Boro are operating within the rules if not the spirit of the game. There were seven minutes of added time in the first half ( !) alone at Accrington in the second leg of the semi- final and that was never going to be a pretty spectacle with the visitors leading 2-0 from the home leg.

Westley has a business outside of the game called Aimita which stands for attitude is more important than ability, clearly his life mantra. He is not afraid of hard work and said this week "We always try our hardest to make sure we are better today than yesterday, and will be better tomorrow than today." His team train all day, not a morning session 3-4 days per week like most teams, but all day, five days per week. The team have breakfast together, stretching, running, gym work in the morning, lunch, then a "normal" training session football related and finish with more weight/ fitness work.

Last year this enabled them to march through the Conference which they won by 11 points. The players believe in Westley and his search for perfection and follow his every word to the letter. They took a while to get into their stride in their first season in the Football League and were 18th in mid January, but the heavier pitches and tired legs started to affect the other teams and Boro's fitness regime kicked in and they got stronger and stronger week after week, also boosted by a bit of a FA Cup thumping they administered to EPL side Newcastle United, which also showed that they can play a bit.

Veteran keeper Chris Day talked about the work ethic at the club and how they get stronger ... "There is a method that we work to, although I am not going to give those secrets away. I'm coming up to 36 now and I do wonder what I might have achieved in my career if I had worked like this from the start."

This is also a very tightly knit squad because of the long hours spent together and the team spirit and belief within the club is through the roof. Borough have also played two big FA Trophy finals at Wembley under Westley and whilst they are going to play this at Old Trafford in front of a handful of fans ( about 10,000 tickets had been sold a day or two ago), that big game experience will stand them in good stead.

The support for United is probably because a couple of Boro players are carrying knocks, but that has been the case for weeks and Westley is always likely to give out some misinformation, that is just the way he is. The squad is pretty interchangeable with no real stars and every single player will be prepared to play through the pain barrier for the boss and team mates.

The big open spaces of OT are going to find some of these players out today, but I believe the superior fitness and spirit of the Boro boys will see them home.

United boss Paul Buckle has had to comment on the Bristol Rovers job this week, he has said that he has not agreed to take it (yet), that is probably true, but I know for sure he has had extended talks with Rovers who are a much bigger club and that must be a little disruptive to his team. I have seen a soft underbelly to United away from Plainmoor on occasion and do not like that they have lost 29 points from winning positions this campaign, I feel they lack the mental strength of Stevenage whom I expect to be playing League 1 football next season.

Stevenage level ball 2.02

Good Luck.

No comments: