Coventry City are in the play-offs for the first time in our history – although it will be a somewhat arbitrary landmark if we don’t manage to pull off promotion at the end of it – which very much puts us into uncharted territory. In an attempt to make sense of this new reality that we find ourselves in, I thought it would be fitting to go in-depth to look at how the four teams match up against each other, and to make some more of my unerringly accurate predictions.
Exeter City (4th Place)
Despite having booked their second consecutive trip to the play-offs and being on one of the division’s lower budgets, Paul Tisdale is likely to leave Exeter City this summer due to a dispute that dates back over 18 months ago when the Fans’ Trust activated a release clause in Tisdale’s contract with the club struggling at the wrong end of the League Two table. Tisdale has endured a love-hate relationship with Exeter’s fan-base and there is a sense that both parties are looking forward to his likely departure from the club.
Before they reach that point, there is a job to finish off in returning to League One for the first time in six years. Having been regarded as one of the more progressive managers at this level, Tisdale has employed a more direct style of play this season based around getting the best out of the dynamic target-man Jayden Stockley. Aside from Stockley, Exeter’s key performers are in defence, via the centre-back partnership of Jordan Moore-Taylor and Troy Brown, along with the impressive Christy Pym in goal. If Exeter are to achieve success in the play-offs this season, much rests on the shoulders of Jayden Stockley to score the goals to fire them to promotion.
Notts County (5th Place)
Having blitzed the division in the opening months, Notts County looked to be in danger of entering a freefall for a period of the second half of the season. The loss of key midfielder Ryan Yates after he was recalled by parent club Nottingham Forest looked to be a huge blow, especially after manager Kevin Nolan failed to bring in a like-for-like replacement, leading to an extended period of tactical experimentation before an improvement in form over the final month of the campaign.
Notts County are a relatively direct side and rely heavily on team spirit, organisation and work-rate – which are important characteristics of successful sides at this level. For a long period of the season, Notts County were reliant on the efforts of the supremely technically gifted Jorge Grant to decide games for them coming off the flank, however, it has been the form of Shola Ameobi and the livewire Jonathan Forte up front that has helped Notts County over the line, even threatening to challenge Wycombe for the final automatic promotion spot. They are seen in some quarters as perhaps the weakest side in the play-offs, as a team greater than the sum of its parts though, it would be foolish to underestimate them.
Coventry City (6th Place)
Inconsistency has dogged the Sky Blues’ season, despite securing the club’s first ever play-off place, beating Premier League opposition in the FA Cup and avoiding the kind of second half of the campaign collapses that have derailed previous promotion bids. A lack of tactical and personnel consistency from Mark Robins has at times broken periods of momentum, but recent heavy defeats to Yeovil and Lincoln have demonstrated an underlying mental fragility in big games that seems adverse to success in a knock-out competition to secure promotion.
For the opening months of the season, it was all about a watertight defence and the form of Jodi Jones out wide along with the maverick Duckens Nazon affecting moments of magic onto otherwise dull games. However a season-ending injury to Jodi Jones and the return of Duckens Nazon to his parent club Wolves forced Mark Robins to change things up and seek new heroes, Marc McNulty hit goalscoring form at just the right time to overcome the injury to Jodi Jones, while teenager Tom Bayliss has seamlessly stepped up to first-team football as a creative midfield lynchpin. It has come at the cost of defensive rigidity, while there may not be quite enough firepower at the other end to successfully go toe-to-toe in a slugfest with play-off rivals if the defence fails to hold strong.
Lincoln City (7th Place)
Lincoln are probably the most unified club heading into the play-offs in League Two this season. Last year saw them pull off a number of FA Cup giant-killings while simultaneously to storming the National League title, which really galvanised a club that had been stagnating in mid-table in the fifth-tier for all too long. The reason for the turnaround in fortunes is simple, the Cowley brothers as a management team have dragged the club up by the bootstraps, and there is now an incredible emotional bond between fans, players and managers, along with a powerful sense of momentum and destiny behind them.
Nonetheless, Lincoln have shown at times this season growing pains related to their rapid ascent. A lack of a reliable goalscorer had made it difficult for them at times to finish games off that they have dominated, while a lack of pace in defence can leave them exposed to teams with quick and direct runners. Of the four sides heading into the play-offs, Lincoln probably have the least to lose, because they are likely to be the most stable, most capable of challenging for promotion next season, club, while their recent experience of winning the Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley – along with other wins in big-games – has demonstrated they have the mental fortitude to come out on top in highly-pressured matches.
Exeter City vs Lincoln City
Whether it really is an advantage to play the home leg as the second leg in these contests is debatable. Given the fiery atmosphere that Lincoln are likely to generate at Sincil Bank, there’s every chance a highly motivated Imps side blows Exeter away in the first leg to render the return leg something of a dead rubber. For Exeter, it will be about how well they manage that first leg against a Lincoln side that may well believe they have destiny in their favour. For Lincoln, the tie could well be determined by how well their hard-working but profligate strike force take their chances at Sincil Bank against one of the division’s best goalkeepers in Christy Pym.
It feels to me like Lincoln having home advantage in the first leg could be an important factor in them triumphing over two legs in this tie. Their physical defence should be able to nullify Exeter’s chief attacking threat in Jayden Stockley, which makes it hard to see Exeter scoring too many goals over two legs here – unless they take the lead and can play on the counter.
Predicted Winner: Lincoln City
Notts County vs Coventry City
Notts County and Coventry City are two of the division’s biggest clubs and with Coventry City competing in their first ever play-offs and Notts County in their first play-offs since 1996, there will be plenty of excitement in both fan-bases and some big crowds to witness each tie. The key for both sides is how well they manage the tense atmosphere that these games are going to be played under. The Sky Blues have shown in big home games against Accrington and Lincoln recently that they could fold under the pressure, while Notts County are the worst away side out of the four play-off teams in League Two this season.
It would seem that both managers would prefer a low-scoring affair over the two legs, but the first leg at an excited and nervous Ricoh Arena could well set the tone for the contest. Notts County’s poor away form could prove irrelevant if the Sky Blues buckle under the bright lights on the big occasion yet again. If the Sky Blues can avoid another bout of stagefright, it will still be a tough ask to see the tie out away against the side with the strongest home record out of the four play-off sides. The underlying fragility of Coventry City makes Notts County favourites for this tie for me over two legs.
Predicted Winner: Notts County
A Potential Lincoln City vs Notts County Final
While it seems somewhat foolish to predict a game that potentially may never take place, I’m going to follow through on my attempt to predict the play-offs nonetheless.
For Lincoln it would be a second Wembley final within the space of a couple of months, for Notts County, it would be their first trip to the national stadium since 1991. Lincoln would have the advantage of Wembley experience, Notts County the excitement that a first Wembley trip for large numbers of their fans will generate.
It seems unlikely to be a final packed with goals as both teams lack reliable firepower and are well-suited to defending against direct and physical opposition, while playing that style of football themselves. Lincoln’s recent experience of winning big games could well make them favourites in a tight contest. Furthermore, Notts County manager Kevin Nolan has made a number of comments recently around the premise that he feels his side is overachieving and that he hadn’t expected that they would be in the play-offs at this stage of his tenure, which suggests that he’s not as hungry for promotion as the Cowley brother at Lincoln City seem to be.
Predicted Play-Off Champions: Lincoln City