NIGEL CLOUGH describes this season’s League One as “ridiculous”, while Paul Dickov prefers the adjective “crazy”.
The captains of Bradford City and Barnsley, meanwhile, both concur that the final month of the third tier play-off race is going to be all about who can build sufficient momentum to pull clear of the rest.
Either way, there can be little doubt that an Easter featuring no less than three mouth-watering Yorkshire derbies could prove pivotal for our quartet of clubs bidding to make the end of season promotion deciders.
The fun begins on Good Friday, when Doncaster Rovers host Bradford City at the Keepmoat Stadium. The following day, Sheffield United travel to in-form Barnsley before the trio of all-White Rose affairs culminates on Tuesday night when Dickov’s Rovers travel to Bramall Lane.
Bradford also host second-placed Preston North End on Easter Monday as Lee Johnson’s Reds head to Colchester United so, by the time the holiday period is over, there is a chance – slim, admittedly, considering just how many teams are chasing a top-six berth – that the play-off picture could have become clearer.
For Sheffield United, fifth in the table and five points clear of seventh-placed Rochdale, a couple of derby wins would surely leave Clough’s men sitting pretty.
“We have been looking at the table for quite a few weeks,” said the Blades chief to The Yorkshire Post. “Gary Crosby called it right recently when he said in all the leagues that this is the one with the smallest gap between the teams chasing the play-offs and those fighting relegation.
“It really is the tightest league around. The small gap is why teams can go from 19th to sixth (as Barnsley did recently) or 13th to sixth in a short space of time – and back again if you then lose a few games.
“Look at Gillingham. A few weeks ago, they were fancying their chances of getting in the play-offs but are now in the bottom half. It is a ridiculous league.”
Chesterfield’s scrappy 1-0 win at Valley Parade on Tuesday night means just five points separate the Spireites in the final play-off place from Oldham Athletic in 13th.
Had Bradford won, however, it would be Phil Parkinson’s men who would be sitting sixth rather than 10th.
“This is a big weekend for us,” said Bantams captain Stephen Darby. “There was nothing in the Chesterfield game but we can’t dwell on it. The league is so tight and the good thing is we are playing teams around us.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves and I am sure there will be plenty more twists and turns to come. We have to bounce back and, hopefully, that starts on Friday night.”
City’s midweek loss ended a five-game unbeaten run, leaving Barnsley as the county’s clear form team in the third tier.
The Oakwell club last suffered a reverse on St Valentine’s Day, when a 5-1 mauling at Crawley Town saw the Reds slump to sixth bottom and to within three points of the relegation zone.
Since then, Barnsley have been unbeaten in nine – seven of which have been with Lee Johnson at the helm – and captain Martin Cranie believes coming late to the play-off party can work in their favour.
“The pressure is off us in a way,” he said. “A month ago, we were 19th. I thought I would be involved in another relegation battle so it is nice to be in this situation.
“I really want to get in the play-offs and we still have to play the teams around us. Peterborough, Rochdale, Bradford – all are teams that are near us. That puts it in our hands. It is down to us and, on our day, I believe we can beat anyone.”
Not so long ago, Doncaster were on the sort of run that has fired Barnsley up the table. One defeat in 11 games took Rovers from 17th to sixth in mid-February and even though results have been mixed since then there is no doubt that Dickov’s men are firmly in the hunt ahead of an Easter that will bring derbies with Bradford and the Blades.
“The focus for us has to be Friday,” said the Scot. “We cannot affect what other teams do. It is a crazy league but all we can do is get our own house in order.
“We will be doing everything in our power to make sure we are fully prepared for the Bradford game.”
Recent history suggests all four Yorkshire sides in League One still have plenty to do. A breakdown of the last 10 seasons shows that the points tally for the team finishing sixth ranges from 71 by Bournemouth in 2011 to Huddersfield Town’s 80 a year earlier.
On average, 74.7 points has been enough to clinch sixth, while in the past two seasons Peterborough and Swindon Town both made it with 74.
That points to Sheffield United, for instance, possibly needing four more wins and a draw or two from the final seven games.
Asked by The Yorkshire Post what points tally he feels might be enough, Blades chief Clough was unequivocal. “I honestly don’t have a target,” he said. “I don’t care if we get in on goal difference.
“Relief will be the first emotion. By that, I mean getting there is all that matters, nothing else. Especially as, once there, nothing in the season will matter.
“It will just be total Cup football and, hopefully, that will suit us if we get there as we have done well in the Cups in the last two seasons.”