Victories for both of Torquay United’s automatic promotion rivals, Shrewsbury and Crawley, have left the Gulls unable to afford to slip up in their remaining three league matches if they are to finish in the top three.
The Shrews’ 1-0 win over Port Vale last night means that they are now four points clear of both Torquay and Crawley and Graham Turner’s men are on course for a second-place finish. The fact that Torquay would have to win two of their remaining three games and hope that Shrewsbury lose all three in order to finish above them leaves United realistically fighting it out with Crawley for the final automatic promotion place. It would take a major slip for Shrewsbury to career out of the top three at this late stage.
Shrewsbury fans will not be too anxious about their team’s run-in. On Saturday they travel to mid-table Accrington, a club that are safe from relegation but cannot mathematically reach the play-offs. Stanley have nothing to play for and, adding to Shrewsbury’s confidence, are currently in the midst of a defensive crisis that has seen striker Craig Lindfield forced to play as a right-back. On 28 April the Shrews face Dagenham & Redbridge, currently in 19th place in League Two. The Daggers are now mathematically safe from relegation, which could lead to John Still’s men relaxing for the final few fixtures safe in the knowledge that their league status is assured. Shrewsbury will certainly hope so.
The final day of the season sees Shrewsbury visiting AFC Wimbledon’s Kingsmeadow stadium. Like both Accrington and Dagenham, Wimbledon’s mid-table mediocrity means that their fans and players can see out the rest of the season in comfort. These end-of-season encounters, which leave mid-table clubs with little to play for, often see managers use the final games of the season to blood young, inexperienced reserves. This could also work in Shrewsbury’s favour.
Crawley leapfrogged Torquay in the table following the 3-1 defeat of Aidy Boothroyd’s Northampton last night. The Red Devils have shrugged off manager Steve Evans’ departure to Rotherham and are determined to achieve a second consecutive promotion, following their Conference title in 2010-11. Crawley travel to Dagenham on Saturday and face Hereford, currently at the foot of the Football League, the week after. Hereford could well be relegated by then, making Crawley’s job significantly easier against demoralized opposition. If Hereford can still mathematically survive on 28 April, they will surely put up a fight to save their league status. Accrington host the Red Devils on the last day, and like Shrewsbury, Crawley will hope to be met with little resistance against a team with little to play for.
Torquay’s run-in is arguably the hardest of the three sides. United’s next match is away to Wimbledon, highlighting the similarities between their fixture list and that of their rivals. However, the Gulls’ penultimate game of the season sees them take on Crewe – one of the hardest teams Martin Ling’s men could have come up against. Crewe currently sit on the fringes of the play-offs, trailing seventh-placed Oxford only on goal difference, and both sides desperately need the points to boost their promotion credentials. Like Crawley, Torquay will be hoping Richard O’Kelly’s Hereford are relegated by the time the Gulls visit on the last day. Doomed or not, Hereford will be eager to put on a show for what could be the last game of league football at Edgar Street for years to come.
The Gulls have enjoyed their best season for years under new manager Martin Ling, and it will be a great shame if the side was to miss out on promotion at this late stage, having been there or thereabouts for the majority of 2012. Torquay’s Achilles heel has been their lack of a natural goalscorer – despite the admirable efforts of captain Lee Mansell from midfield and the double-figures also reached by Rene Howe, the Gulls have often relied on a sturdy defence to hold on to 1-0 leads. The result is the lowest goal difference in the top five – even 15th placed Port Vale have outscored the goal-shy Gulls this season.
Back-to-back draws with fellow promotion hopefuls Southend and Oxford would have been considered good results under normal circumstances, but the increased number of points required for promotion this season mean that the stalemate against Southend has left Torquay trailing Shrewsbury and Crawley with little time to bounce back. The Gulls have already attained 80 points – a figure which would have secured automatic promotion in two of the previous three League Two campaigns.
After the disappointment of last season’s final-hurdle defeat to Stevenage at Old Trafford, Torquay fans are desperate to avoid the lottery of the play-offs this time around. 7 of the club’s current squad, including captain Mansell, featured against Stevenage, and they will be reminding the rest of the players of the importance of securing promotion automatically. Torquay will have the support of most neutrals in their battle against Crawley: Steve Evans’ antics have ensured that. The club will need all the help it can get in its search to overcome the limits of a small, tired squad against financially stronger opponents with more players to choose from. How Torquay fare in the final few games of 2011-12 will decide their fate not only for this season, but for years to come. Three wins and League One beckons, but a slip-up will leave United ruing the cost of a huge chance missed as star players start to think about leaving.