As the season has turned the corner into the second half, and the January transfer window is in full flame, all eyes are now fixed on the finish line of this League One campaign.
At the front of the pack, four teams have seemingly pulled away and are jostling week to week for a position in the two automatic promotion places up for grabs.
Sunderland find themselves in a battle with Wigan, Rotherham, and Wycombe for those all-important positions that guarantee qualification for the Championship next season without the stress of the crapshoot that is the playoff route.
Having tried and failed that route multiple times now, Sunderland will no doubt be pushing hard for a top-two finish to take the step to the league above. But can they achieve it? Let’s take a look at some of the factors at hand for all four teams in this all-important race.
Current form isn’t a perfect indicator of future success, but it can show team trends of who needs to improve and who needs to continue their runs.
Over the last ten league games, the top four have been neck and neck.
Wigan have taken 23 points from their last 10 games, Wycombe 21, Rotherham 20, and Sunderland 19. The last week obviously hurt the lad’s forward momentum as they dropped 2 points at the death against Wycombe and another 2 points against a 10 manned Accrington.
Let’s not also forget that Sunderland have but one league loss in their last 12 matches. What this shows me more than anything is that Sunderland’s form is there or thereabouts with the best in the league and if we can raise our standards in late-game situations, there’s no reason we can’t secure a top-two spot come season’s end.
The race to the season’s end is one that certainly will not be without its twists and one of the largest factors in that run-in is the amount of games that each of the top four teams has remaining on the calendar.
As of this coming weekend’s fixtures, there are now 14 weeks left until the conclusive April 30th game day. In those 14 weeks, Wycombe and Sunderland both have 19 league games remaining (10 home, 9 away each).
Rotherham have 21 league fixtures to complete in that time, and also have at least one more cup tie to compete in.
Wigan are saddled with 23 remaining league matches and at minimum two cup fixtures in as many competitions. The fact of the remaining schedule could be one of the biggest factors in the race for automatic promotion this season.
Rotherham, and especially Wigan will most likely be playing two fixtures a week for the rest of the campaign while Wycombe and Sunderland will have far less to worry about in the way of a fixture backlog.
Difficulty of the Run-in
While it’s true that any League One club could beat another on any given match week, the quality of opponent does raise the difficulty in maintaining a good run until the end of the season.
Of Wycombe’s 19 remaining league games, they will face only three teams currently in the league one’s top six, all three being home matches.
In contrast, they will have six games in their final 19 against sides currently in the bottom six in the league. Of all the remaining schedules, Wycombe’s does seem to look, on paper, as the most favorable.
Rotherham look to me to have the most difficult run-in ahead of them, as they will face five teams in the top six in their final 21 league fixtures, only two of which will be at home.
Wigan face the same predicament, five top six teams in their final 23 games, two at home.
However, Wigan hold one more game than Rotherham against bottom six opponents at six and five respectively. In Sunderland’s final 19 league games, they face a fairly balanced schedule. Four games against the league’s top six sides, including a trip to the DW to face Wigan and a game where Rotherham travel to the Stadium of Light.
Five of those remaining 19 games will be against teams in the relegation scrap, including the season finale trip to the Mazuma Stadium to face Morecambe.
I placed a poll on Twitter following Sunderland’s 1-1 draw to Accrington to see where the fans’ collective thoughts were on who would finish in the top two spots.
An overwhelming majority of fans who responded believe that Wigan will finish top spot as the league winners and the league’s first automatic qualifier for Championship level football next season. I can’t say, at this point, that I’d disagree with that too much.
I think there’s always a chance for a bobble or slip in form to level the playing field, but Wigan do look quite a strong side.
The surprising response in the fan poll was that most fans believe that Sunderland won’t be the ones to grab that second automatic spot, but Rotherham in their place. As noted above, Rotherham face a massive pile-up of fixtures, including a possible cup run and what looks to be the most difficult run of the four teams at the top.
With all things considered, I feel quite confident that the Lads have what it takes to finish in an automatic place come season’s end. I think Rotherham will fade out of the race completely by Easter and all Sunderland will have to do is keep pace with Wycombe to give ourselves the opportunity to have a top spot.
In other words, there’s a lot of football left to be played, good quality of reinforcements coming through the door, and more than enough talent to get SAFC the promotion we’ve been looking for, for far too long.