U’s stun Latics at the DW Stadium to blow the League One promotion race wide open


Sky Sports decided to make Easter weekend all about League One.

The broadcasters moved three games from Good Friday to Easter Saturday, meaning that all of the automatic promotion contenders would play at the same time, one after the other.

Rotherham United were up first. The Millers had seen their form nosedive in March, picking up just one win in their seven league games from the start of the month until the middle of April. While they did claim the Papa John’s Trophy in a comeback win against League Two outfit Sutton United, Paul Warne’s side also suffered embarrassing 3-0 defeats at home to Shrewsbury Town and away to Portsmouth, damaging their top two hopes.

They would host an Ipswich Town side who’s playoff aspirations were dented by a home defeat to Cambridge United and a draw away at Shrewsbury Town. Any lingering optimism was dealt a hammer blow at the New York Stadium, as Michael Smith scored with 12 minutes to play to seal the points for the hosts, reigniting their season at the crucial time.

This put a bit more pressure on Wigan Athletic, who knew that they would finish the day at the top of the table regardless of results elsewhere. The Latics hosted a Cambridge side that secured mathematical safety, but the U’s had won three of their last four games, highlighting them as a significant threat to the top teams in the division.

They certainly proved to be that, as Mark Bonner’s outfit edged the opening exchanges and took the lead after 33 minutes as Joe Ironside barged through the Wigan defence to set up Harvey Knibbs, who in turn fired a low shot underneath Ben Amos for the lead.

Concern turned to panic at the DW Stadium as the U’s doubled their lead just before half time. James Brophy was given too much space to deliver a pinpoint cross into the box, allowing Sam Smith to aim a looping header into the back of the net.

A change in formation for the hosts saw them spring into life, although it took until the 77th minute for Wigan to get on the scoresheet. Despite a number of attacking changes, it was defensive midfielder Tom Naylor who headed home to half Cambridge’s lead.

Although the Latics continued to push in the dying stages of the game, they couldn’t get past U’s goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov, who pulled off a stunning double save at the death to deny Will Keane and Josh Magennis, securing a fourth win in five for Cambridge.

This gave MK Dons the chance to move just one point behind the leaders, with Sheffield Wednesday travelling to Stadium MK in Saturday’s late kickoff. But within 30 minutes, the hosts found themselves 3-0 down thanks to Saido Berahino, Lee Gregory and a screamer from Barry Bannan. Despite Troy Parrott finding the net shortly before the break and Scott Twine scoring in the sixth minute of stoppage time, they couldn’t complete the comeback.

While a Dons victory would certainly have made things tense for Wigan and Rotherham, the run-in is perfectly set up for the three teams to fight it out for automatic promotion.

The state of play

The League One title and the second automatic promotion place are both up for grabs.

Barring a miraculous turnaround that would push Plymouth Argyle back into contention, there are three teams fighting for a top two finish. The third-placed team will, of course, have to contest the playoffs.

Despite Wigan’s defeat, they still have breathing room at the summit of the division. The Latics hold a four-point lead on Rotherham and MK Dons, with the latter having played a game more than the two sides above them. This means that a win for Leam Richardson’s side at Ipswich coupled with a Dons defeat at Oxford United on Tuesday evening would see the current league leaders promoted at Portman Road.

This is because of MK Dons’ extra game, which means that Liam Manning’s men only have three games left to play. It also gives Rotherham United the advantage in the automatic promotion race, knowing that their fate is in their own hands.

Wigan Athletic and Rotherham United have the upper hand in the run-in.

MK Dons also have the hardest run-in, facing two sides aiming to cement a playoff place and one team in a fierce relegation battle. Ultimately, teams chasing automatic promotion will prefer to be playing opponents with little to play for, such as Wigan and Rotherham facing the likes of Ipswich, Portsmouth, Shrewsbury and Burton.

But that can also come with the risk of complacency, as Wigan found out at home to Cambridge on Easter Saturday. MK Dons have often performed better against teams in and around them, and will still fancy their chances of pouncing on Rotherham should they slip up.

No rest for the U’s

Mark Bonner considered Cambridge’s win at AFC Wimbledon to be the point where his side had secured another season in League One, even though mathematical safety wasn’t confirmed until two weeks after. This has allowed the U’s head coach to rotate his side, although their winning mentality hasn’t changed.

In fact, Cambridge’s best form of the campaign has come in the last five games, securing wins against Ipswich, Wigan and Morecambe. Although they have nothing to play for in terms of promotion or relegation, Bonner confirmed that his side were desperate to secure a top half finish.

This is certainly achievable. In fact, Cambridge are already sat in 12th place, but Cheltenham Town and Accrington Stanley are sat just two points behind them. Even Charlton Athletic, a side who’s form has spiralled in recent months, can move just one point behind the U’s with a win at The Abbey on Tuesday evening.

Bonner’s men seem to be thriving in a pressure-free environment, relishing the opportunity to beat Ipswich and Wigan in their own back yards in recent weeks. This certainly has Sunderland fans concerned, with Cambridge travelling to the Stadium of Light in the midst of the Black Cats’ playoff fight.

However, the U’s head coach told Prost International that he doesn’t see his side’s performances impacted by the lack of consequences that the results have.

“I think we’ve had so many spells where we’ve been very good and we’ve had good results. I don’t actually feel that we’ve ever played with pressure or fear of the situation. We’ve never been in the bottom six and we’ve never had a run of bad defeats, so in that sense I don’t think there’s ever been that pressure building on us internally.

“We think we’re quite good and we’re improving all the time. I think what we’re seeing is that there is certainly no pressure in that respect going into the game, but you have to put yourself under real pressure to play like that [vs Wigan]. So I’m delighted that we’re doing that and we’re not one of the teams that are drifting into the summer”.

The run-in has also given Cambridge the chance to rotate their first-choice lineup, with the likes of Ben Worman, Lewis Simper, Liam Bennett and Jack Lankester getting more opportunities to show their quality ahead of pre-season.

But the U’s have also been planning their outgoings too, with Bonner confirming that Jack Iredale is unlikely to renew his contract while Lorent Tolaj has returned to parent club Brighton & Hove Albion without making a single appearance for Cambridge. Jensen Weir (Brighton) and Sam Sherring (AFC Bournemouth) are both likely to resume their loan spells at the club after picking up injuries.

Charlton are in a similar position, with their inconsistent form resulting in their season fizzling out. Despite some impressive performances in Johnnie Jackson’s interim spell as manager, their results have worsened drastically since he was appointed on a permanent basis. As a result, many supporters have started to turn on new owner Thomas Sandgaard, as well as many of the players who are expected to leave the club in the summer.

Although the U’s and the Addicks are in very different positions, the overall atmosphere at the two clubs is vastly different. Another win for Cambridge would certainly add to that narrative, and further sour the relations between the fans and the board at Charlton.

Follow us on Twitter @ProstInt


About Author

East Anglian football editor for Prost International.

Comments are closed.