The League One play off line up has been decided, and the first legs kick off this week on Thursday night. Scunthorpe, Bradford and Fleetwood were all assured of a place in the end-of-season competition before Sunday’s final league games, but Millwall had to wait until Shaun Hutchinson’s 85th minute winner against Bristol Rovers to book the final spot. The Lions’ reward is a home match versus third-placed Scunthorpe on Thursday night, followed by the second leg away on Sunday. Fleetwood took 4th position in the table and play away at fifth-placed Bradford before the home leg on Sunday evening.
Both Millwall and Bradford appeared in last season’s renewal, and met at the semi-final stage. The Lions emerged victorious after a first leg 3-1 win at the Bantams, and a 1-1 draw back at the Den. They went on to play Barnsley at Wembley, but were beaten 3-1 in the final. It’s a credit to Neil Harris’ men that they have put the disappointment behind them to achieve another top six finish, and the same can be said of Bradford. The Bantams ambitious German owners have been lauded for offering affordable season tickets, and with club legend Stuart McCall at the helm, Bradford are on the upswing.
Fleetwood were tipped by various pundits to suffer relegation to League Two, which puts some perspective on the job that Uwe Rosler has done at the club. They were even in contention for an automatic promotion spot right up until the final day, but Bolton’s win over Peterborough saw the Trotters take 2nd place. Scunthorpe on the other hand, were well-fancied for promotion and have spent the entire season in the top six. They led the table for almost four months between September and December, but slipped out of the top two over the last two months.
The Iron look like they might represent a bit of value to win promotion at odds of +400 with SkyBet.
Manager Graham Alexander took charge in March 2016, and Scunny only missed out on last year’s play offs on goal difference. They went top of the League One table on the 12th of September and stayed at the summit until the 19th of December. Divisional heavyweights Sheffield United and Bolton assumed the top two spots by March this year, but Scunthorpe haven’t been lower than 5th all season.
They guaranteed their play off place with a 3-1 win over Chesterfield two weeks ago, and have plenty of time to prepare for a tilt at promotion. Josh Morris proved to be an astute addition at the start of the season, the frontman third in the League One scoring charts with 19 goals. The Iron have hit the net 80 times this season, the second best record in the division behind Sheffield United, and Alexander will be hoping that firepower sees them through.
The Lions will be able to draw on last season’s heartache for motivation, and the quick turnaround from league to play offs could be in their favour. 6th place was up for grabs on Sunday, with Millwall just a point ahead of Southend. The Shrimpers beat Bury 1-0 on Sunday through a first-half goal and looked to be on the verge as the second half wore on. Millwall were being pegged back to a 3-3 draw at Bristol Rovers with the last five minutes approaching, when Hutchinson rose to head home that vital late winner. If Neil Harris can keep the adrenaline and momentum going, his side will be a big danger to Scunthorpe in the semi final.
Both sides are strong at home, but Millwall’s defensive frailty might count against them. The Lions’ goal difference of +9 is by far the worst of the four play off contenders.
Apart from the first two weeks back in August, Bradford have spent the whole season in the top six and can also count themselves among the pre-season favourites to go up. A huge fan base has been swelled by cheap season tickets, and the Bantams are unbeaten at home all season.
They play the first leg of their semi final against Fleetwood at home – a team they have beaten twice at Valley Parade in the last two League One meetings. They will also draw motivation from last year’s play offs when a 3-1 home defeat at the semi final stage was terminal. Stuart McCall is a popular coach with players and fans, and there is a feel good factor about the club which is hard to resist. The odds are short enough though, for what is a very competitive mini-competition.
Uwe Rosler has earned admiring glances from a number of Championship clubs after the job he’s done at Fleetwood, where he’s taken a limited squad to the brink of promotion. Perhaps their best chance might have been to snatch one of the automatic slots, and Rosler’s task now is to raise his players for another effort.
We will know much more by the time the first leg has been played at Bradford, but it would be perilous to write Fleetwood off at this stage. If they can come away from Valley Parade with a positive result then anything could happen. Can they go all the way? We’d probably want bigger odds if we were to back them to complete the ‘miracle’, but still wouldn’t be averse to seeing a Leicester-style rags to riches story – if they do pull it off.
Scunthorpe to be promoted from League One
2017 Play Offs – 1st leg Thursday 4th May, 19:45 GMT