For sure last night’s result materially shortened the odds on us being in the play-offs (more likely now in sixth rather than fifth place, but them’s the breaks). But Bowyer and the team can’t go into the final game at Rochdale thinking that it is a done deal. Plymouth win, we lose and a six-goal swing is unlikely but far from being only a theoretical possibility, especially as Plymouth will know from the start what they have to do away at Gillingham: not just win but win by at least a couple of goals, which means attack from the start (and if they win by four and we lose by two we would miss out – unless our result is something like 4-6, in which case Plymouth would need another to top us on goal difference rather than being level and it going to goals scored). It surely helps our cause that they are not exactly rip-roaring, high-scoring, having netted two fewer than us so far.
How the match at Rochdale plays out could be influenced by the news from Gillingham and Northampton (who are at home to Oldham, the team Rochdale have to overtake if they are to stay up). If Oldham are losing badly and our game is level, we could have a players’ pact to keep it that way as a draw would suit us both (of course we need to win to have a chance of taking fifth place but that requires Scunthorpe losing at home to Bradford). There’s a slight regret that the Scunthorpe-Plymouth result does rule out the reverse scenario: that with 20 minutes to go in our game a draw is no good to either us or Rochdale, so both teams go desperately in search of a winner; for the neutrals watching it on live TV that would have been fun. And of course if we hear that Oldham are winning at Northampton, it’s reasonable to suppose that Rochdale’s motivation would wane.
Quite rightly the line from Bowyer and the players will no doubt be that they step out on Saturday evening intent on winning the game. A draw would suffice but – unless you’re an Italian team of the 1960s or most Premier League teams playing away at Man City – you can never go into a game with the mentality of playing for a draw. That said, there can’t be any question of selecting players carrying knocks if that would threaten their availability for the play-offs; neither can there be a case for giving key players a rest as it isn’t over yet. At least they have the rest of the week to make these decisions – and perhaps most important we are not in the position (unlike Plymouth) where we have to consider altering the team’s set-up in order to chase a game.
So in all probability it will be a two-legged affair against Shrewsbury followed by a Wembley final against Rotherham or Scunthorpe. Do results against these teams during the season matter? I’d say not a lot – especially given the up and down nature of our season – but at the margins yes. We’ve lost twice to Scunthorpe and not scored against them, conceding three goals. That could be coincidence or it might be because their formation and players have certain advantages when it comes to being matched up against us, factors that would be in the back of the minds of management and players. It might be only a psychological edge, it might be more than that. Perhaps in that context it favours us that we can only play Scunthorpe in a one-off final. In reverse, we’ve done the double over Rotherham, scoring five and conceding one. That puts the question marks in their heads if we were to meet at Wembley.
Of course those thoughts don’t count for much as we’re assuming it will be Shrewsbury over two legs. We lost at home to them 0-2 and won at their place 2-0. So read into that what you will. We might argue that our home defeat against them, in February, came at a bad time for us and proved to be the first of three successive defeats. When we won at their place we were under a new management team, one which has revitalised our season. If I was them I might suggest that by the team we played at their place it was win or bust for us, while they were already seeing an automatic promotion spot slipping away.
Just looking at the records of us and Shrewsbury this season and it’s apparent why they are third and we are sixth: not much difference in goals scored, with both teams struggling on that front (58 and 60 respectively in 45 games), but they’ve conceded only 38 – the best in the league except for Wigan – and we’ve let in 50. But perhaps even that is balanced by recent performance, with us putting together three straight wins – and three clean sheets – and six wins and a draw in nine, while Shrewsbury haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last four and have won only two of their last eight. We can claim to have the momentum, they would say they’ve been resting ahead of the play-offs to be physically and mentally prepared.
All you can really say is that it will probably be close, very close. The stand-out statistic in the nine games so far under Bowyer is that we’ve won every game in which we’ve scored first – and haven’t won any when we conceded first. Put together two low-scoring teams and that surely underlines how important it will be to get ahead. So let’s get Saturday out of the way first and then reassess.