At this stage in the English football season, most leagues contain a lot of teams with little left to play for. Teams that haven’t done well enough to be in with a chance of winning their league, gaining promotion or getting into the playoffs (the three leagues below the Premier League have 4-team playoffs), but have done well enough that they aren’t in danger of being relegated.
Teams react to this in different ways. Some teams relax to the point where they just seem to be going through the motions. Others react by taking the opportunity to experiment a bit, possibly giving some promising young players an opportunity to show what they can do.
But the point is, they can afford to do these things because the last games of the season will not matter to them.
In the Premier League, there are 2 teams battling for the title, four more for the remaining Champions League places and, realistically, four teams battling to avoid being in the last relegation spot (as I think Sunderland and Middlesbrough are both as good as relegated). That makes 10 teams with nothing more than pride to play for.
Similarly, in the Championship, Brighton and Newcastle have been promoted but are still playing to be champions, and there are four teams battling for the three remaining playoff positions. There are also four teams battling for the last relegation spot. That makes 13 teams in the league with little to play for.
In League One, Bolton and Fleetwood will battle for the remaining automatic promotion place, and there are three teams in with a chance of getting the last playoff place. Also, one out of Port Vale, Bury and Gillingham will be relegated. That’s 14 teams with little to play for.
This is normal for this time of the year. Which is why what’s happening in League Two is so exceptional. Of the 24 teams in League Two, 18 still have something to play for in their remaining two games as shown in the graphic below from www.experimental361.com.
The three automatic promotion spots have been sealed by Doncaster Rovers, Plymouth Argyle and Portsmouth, but any of those three can still become champions as they are only separated by four points.
At the bottom, with two teams being relegated to the National League, the disastrous decisions taken during the ownership of Francisco Becchetti has taken Leyton Orient, one of the grand old names of English football, from the brink of the Championship, where Becchetti bought the club, to non-league football within 3 seasons, with the club being in dire financial trouble and staff not being paid on time.
The other relegation place is still to be decided, with 4 teams still in danger of dropping out of the Football League, although it would take a large swing in goal difference for Yeovil to go down at this point.
It’s the battle to get into the playoffs that is the most intriguing. Fourth-placed Luton Town have such a superior goal difference that they have probably secured a playoff spot, but the other spots will be contested by everyone from fifth-placed Exeter down to fourteenth-placed Grimsby.
League Two has been close at the top all season long, with teams moving in and out of the promotion and playoff spots, but what is remarkable is that a lot of the teams in contention have overcame poor starts to the season to muscle their way into the playoff picture.
Exeter City, currently in fifth place, were bottom of the league as recently as November. Similarly, Wycombe Wanderers were in 21st place in October, but then went on a long unbeaten streak in all competitions and propelled themselves up the league.
Accrington Stanley were 20th in February, but then went unbeaten until last weekend, when they lost to Newport County and a win against Luton on Saturday will put them well into the mix with a game to go.
Tomorrow’s games should thin the herd somewhat. Some teams will see their hopes evaporate with either another season in League Two in prospect, or for the teams near the bottom, the spectre of relegation could get nearer. Others will still be in the hunt for a spot in the playoffs, the title or just to pull themselves away from relegation trouble. What is clear though is that the fact that so many teams still have so much to play for makes this League Two season one of the most exciting seasons in any of the English leagues for a long time.