The Final Five
The race for automatic promotion from League Two
Editor's Note: Long Read
Five games, four clubs, three positions, two opportunities, one goal: automatic promotion.
With a mere quintuplet of matches remaining for all but two of League Two's members, this is the stage of the season where fates are decided. Quite unbelievably, Tranmere find themselves embroiled in an unlikely battle for automatic promotion, pitting their wits against the best the fourth tier has to offer in an attempt to return to the third tier after a five-year absence.
Due to the Milton Keynes Dons vs. Mansfield Town fixture on the final day of the season rendering it impossible for both to reach their maximum points tallies of 87, leaders Lincoln City require just one more win to secure a top-three berth. In reality, they have likely done enough to secure both promotion and the title already, sitting 9 points clear at the summit of the table.
Therefore, this leaves two remaining automatic promotion slots.
The teams currently in possession of those places are Mansfield Town in second and Milton Keynes Dons in third, both clubs amassing 72 points thus far. Whilst teams as far down the table as Newport County in thirteenth can still obtain that number of points, and therefore go above either team on goal difference, the realistic line-up of contenders can be truncated much further up the table.
Sitting in the play-off positions, Exeter City (seventh) and Forest Green Rovers (sixth) appear to have too much to do, seeking to overturn deficits of 10 and 8 points respectively with just 15 available. Although not mathematically impossible, the prospect of either troubling third position is somewhat improbable and they have therefore been ruled out of the running for the remainder of this analysis.
The focus shifts to the four clubs with realistic hopes of breaking into the automatic places; Mansfield Town, Milton Keynes Dons, Bury and Tranmere Rovers.
In order to better understand each contender, they will be assessed in five key areas — Attack, Defence, Form, Remaining Opposition and Intangibles.
Starting with goals scored, the most potent attack of the four contenders belongs to Bury, whose 74 goals is a league-best total. Next come MK Dons, a total of 66 goals placing them above a Mansfield side with 61, whilst Tranmere have a total of 59.
However, the overall number of goals scored tells a partial tale. It is also important to assess how each team shares the goal throughout their ranks. If we work on the assumption that having a second-top scorer as close to the first as possible is desirable, then MK Dons appear to have the advantage here, with 19-goal Kieran Agard (28.8%) and 16-goal Chuks Aneke (24.2%) proving a double threat.
At Bury, 19-goal Nicky Maynard (25.7%) is supported by 15-goal Jay O'Shea 15 (20.3%), with a sizeable gap apparent at Mansfield, where 20-goal Tyler Walker (32.8%) has scored twice as many as 10-goal CJ Hamilton (16.4%). Unfortunately, it is Tranmere who fall short on this front, 27-goal James Norwood (45.8%) netting almost four times as often as second-placed, 7-goal Connor Jennings (11.9%).
Advantage: Bury and MK Dons
At the opposite end of the pitch, keeping goals out of the net will ease the burden on the clubs' respective front lines.
With regards goals conceded, Mansfield's total of 34 is significantly lower than the totals shipped by MK Dons (43 goals) and Tranmere (44 goals), whilst Bury have the worst defence of the four having allowed 50 goals thus far.
As with goal-scoring, overall totals only reveal a fraction of the picture. Indeed, the team with the greatest number of clean sheets is Tranmere, Scott Davies' 18 representing 44% of Rovers total matches. Mansfield have kept 17 (41%) and MK Dons 16 (39%), whilst Bury lag behind with just 12 clean sheets (29%).
In the case of Tranmere, their defensive totals have been heavily impacted by results against Swindon Town (3 goals conceded with ten men), Morecambe (3 goals in a 3-4 victory), Forest Green (3 goals), Crewe Alexandra (3 goals), Notts County (3 goals), Mansfield (3 goals) and Grimsby Town (5 goals) — 23 goals in seven matches, 21 goals in the other thirty-four .
Furthermore, just one of those results occurred in 2019, with Rovers conceding just 11 goals since 1st January and keeping clean sheets in eight of their last eleven games. For comparison, Mansfield have conceded 18, Bury 22 and MK Dons 24 in the same period.
Advantage: Mansfield and Tranmere
Whereas there are cases to be made for Mansfield, MK Dons and Bury from an attacking or defensive standpoint (for some, both), there is one undisputed leader when it comes to form; Tranmere.
Topping the twelve-game, ten-game and eight-game overall form tables, Rovers are on a roll, in part due to the aforementioned defensive solidity. Whilst Tranmere have collected 23 points from the last 30 available, MK Dons have collected 22, Bury 17 and Mansfield just 14.
Concentrate on the six most recent results and the differences become even more pronounced. Whilst Tranmere have won four of their last six, collecting 13 points, MK Dons have won three and collected 10 points, Mansfield two and 8 points and Bury just one win and 5 points. In fact, Bury are on a four-game winless streak and have lost their last three games, conceding three goals in each.
It is a combination of Rovers' good form and the stuttering form of their rivals that has opened the door for Tranmere to enter the automatic race.
Advantage: Tranmere and MK Dons
In interview after interview, managers and players the length and breadth of the country repeat, ad infinitum, the fact that there are no easy games. With five games to go (six for Oldham and Newport), there isn't a single team who are both mathematically safe and unable to gain promotion. Whilst in reality sixteenth-place Cheltenham Town will neither reach the play-offs nor be relegated, the mathematical chance that they could do either signifies the fact that every team has something to play for over the remaining five (six) games.
Working on the assumption that it is more desirable to play a poorer team fighting for survival than a better team fighting for promotion, one can compare the respective fixture lists of the four contenders to see who has the 'easier' run-in.
In doing so, it is clear Mansfield have the most desirable run of games, playing just one team in the top ten positions — MK Dons — on the final day of the season. The preceding run of matches could yet be favourable enough to obtain a promotion place before this game takes place and is arguably Mansfield's biggest strength over their promotion rivals.
Bury also have a more advantageous set of games, with an average opposition position of twelfth, although they play two of the top ten as opposed to Mansfield's one, with an away trip to the team in fifth in the penultimate match of the campaign.
MK Dons have a slightly less favourable fixture list, with an average opposition position of eleventh and three of the top ten to play, including away trips to the teams in fifth and second, the latter on the final day of the season.
Meanwhile, Tranmere have a proverbial mountain to climb. Whilst they travel to twenty-first-placed Crawley Town on the last day of the regular calendar, the average position of the opposition in the preceding four fixtures is fourth.
They play MK Dons next before meetings with Forest Green Rovers, leaders (and by then probable champions) Lincoln City and Bury. Whilst three of those fixtures are at home, where Rovers have the best home record in the league and have won five in a row, MK Dons, Forest Green and Bury possess the fourth-, second- and third-best away records in the division. Having already played (and beaten) the team with the best away record (Lincoln City) at Prenton Park, the three matches represent the three 'hardest' home games Rovers could possibly face.
Advantage: Mansfield and Bury
|Rank||Scored||Conceded||10-Game Form (Points)||Average Opposition Position|
|1||Bury (74)||Mansfield (34)||Tranmere (23)||Mansfield (12th)|
|2||MK Dons (66)||MK Dons (43)||MK Dons (22)||Bury (12th)|
|3||Mansfield (61)||Tranmere (44)||Bury (17)||MK Dons (11th)|
|4||Tranmere (59)||Bury (50)||Mansfield (14)||Tranmere (7th)|
Having addressed the key statistical components of the promotion race, it is now appropriate to scrutinise the one area that is inherently subjective — intangibles. When referring to intangibles, one must not look purely at scoring charts, clean sheets records or form guides.
Such an examination must also include the various situations and circumstances facing each contender club.
Mansfield Town entered the 2018-19 season as one of the promotion favourites, just as they did in 2017-18. They have constructed a good squad and have undoubted ability, just as they did in 2017-18. However, their run of five wins from the last twelve games, and indeed two from the last six, invokes memories of last season's late collapse, which saw the Stags win just two of their final twelve games as they slid to an eighth-place finish, failing to make the play-offs altogether. Whilst they are almost assured a play-off berth this time, can the players, staff and fans handle the pressure of pre-season expectations coupled with last season's failings?
A Championship club as recently as 2015-16, MK Dons appear to be under the most pressure to secure promotion. Their recent form is the closest to Tranmere's and, of the four teams, they also appear to have the greatest resources to obtain their objective. But make no mistake, for MK Dons, not getting promoted would be a failure. Can they manage the pressure of avoiding a play-off lottery? How will they navigate two particularly difficult away fixtures at Tranmere and Mansfield, games that could well decide their season?
Bury are in turmoil. Besides their aforementioned questionable form, huge off-field pressures have enveloped the Shakers. On 10th April, a winding-up petition against the club was adjourned until 15th May. Nonetheless, the distraction is unwelcome. How Bury deal with this situation will play a significant role in their ability to finish in the top three. As of now, it doesn't look good for them.
And then there is Tranmere.
The undoubted surprise package of the promotion race, Tranmere are arguably the best-placed of the four clubs when it comes to intangibles. Riding the crest of a promotion wave, the off-field atmosphere reflects the on-field improvements. There appears no real pressure on Rovers to secure a top-three space; a play-off position would still be a fantastic achievement after a three-year absence from the EFL. Tranmere as a club are used to duking it out in the upper echelons of their respective league, finishing runners-up twice and reaching two successive Wembley finals in the previous two seasons.
In James Norwood, they possess League Two's Player of the Season, in Scott Davies the frontrunner for the Golden Gloves award and in David Perkins, arguably the League Two signing of the January transfer window.
And, of course, there is the Super White Army. Naturally, there will be an element of bias, however Rovers' fans genuinely could make the difference. With home games against MK Dons and Bury, the Prenton Park atmosphere may just edge Tranmere over the line.
Advantage: MK Dons and Tranmere
Having assessed the four contenders across five categories, the final tally sees MK Dons and Tranmere having the advantage in three categories, whilst Mansfield and Bury have the upper hand in two. It is an incredibly difficult race to call, with four points separating the four clubs:
- Mansfield's excellent defence may not be needed as much in their relatively 'easy' fixtures, the pressure on their attack to avoid a repeat of 2017-18's collapse.
- MK Dons' brilliant attack and commendable form will be tested in reasonably challenging fixtures, including trips to Prenton Park and Field Mill.
- Bury's unrivalled attack is greatly let down by their relatively porous defence. The whole club could become preoccupied with off-field activities.
- Tranmere don't score as many as the others but in 2019 they possess the best defence, the best form, the League's best player and the best intangibles of the contenders. However, they have the most difficult course to promotion, facing four of the top seven.
The close nature of the promotion race should give the SWA cause for optimism. Although all results matter, the home games against MK Dons and Bury could have the decisive impact in the hunt for the top three. Win both and one would imagine Rovers will be right in the mix on the final day. Lose either and it would appear to signal a likely play-off position.
Perhaps the most important comment to make is this; Regardless of their eventual finishing position, Rovers have already performed over and above all honest expectations. Should they fail to make the automatic places, it has still been a season worthy of much praise.
Notwithstanding, who fancies a repeat of last May?
Well, the statistics show there is no reason those scenes cannot be replicated in just five, perhaps eight, games' time.
If you can, get down to Prenton Park and support the lads as they aim to finish the job. With your backing, this Tranmere team can make a remarkable season unforgettable. The opportunity is there to secure the club's first-ever back-to-back promotions.
Let's seize it!
Prediction: MK Dons and Tranmere to achieve automatic promotion.