Hull City lead the way and Doncaster Rovers will still hope to make the play-offs despite a terrible run.
Easter is traditionally pivotal in the Football League, and Hull must aim for six points from mid-table Crewe Alexandra and relegation-threatened Northampton Town.
The really big game will be on Monday when Peterborough United host Sunderland With Posh at Fleetwood Town and Sunderland versus Oxford United on Good Friday, the picture could have changed by then but they look the main threats to Hull.
Lincoln City have won just two of 12 league games since the Tigers held the then-leaders to a 0-0 draw, and the same run dropped the once ominously-placed Doncaster out of the top six on Saturday. Portsmouth have impetus under former Huddersfield Town manager Danny Cowley and generous fixtures, but ground to make up.
Peterborough’s form was poor until Saturday’s 7-0 win over Accrington Stanley, but as injuries mount at Hull – Alfie Jones following fellow centre-back Reece Burke into the treatment room – Posh could go into Easter with a fully-fit squad.
Third-placed Sunderland have momentum as the form team – two points better off than Hull over the last six games, confidence after winning the Football League Trophy – an early success for their new manager (Lee Johnson) and owner (Kyril Louis-Dreyfus), and games in hand. But they also have painful memories of Peterborough.
“There is a quiet confidence but the scarring of the last couple of years means no one wants to get carried away,” explains the Sunderland Echo’s Phil Smith. “Two years ago they were in a very similar position. They drew 1-1 at Peterborough on Easter Monday and that sort of ended their push for the top two.”
In 2019 Sunderland went to London Road on the back of losing the Trophy final on penalties at Wembley.
“There’s definitely been a shift in the mood and Wembley was a big part of it,” says Smith. “Even with the fans not there everyone at the club is aware of it.
“The ownership being settled has been massive and it’s allowed everyone to focus on the football and enjoy it. Now he’s had a few months you can see the Lee Johnson impact. In the early part of the season they were dropping so many points against teams near the bottom but they’re gone from a win-one-draw-one situation into the last 10 games, where they’ve won eight.”
Johnson has brought Aiden McGeady out of exile and the ex-Sheffield Wednesday loanee has justified the wages the Black Cats were so keen to wipe off their payroll. Former Bradford City striker Charlie Wyke has 27 goals this season, compared to 11 in his previous two Wearside campaigns combined, but Smith points to the other end too.
“They’ve been without four of Phil Parkinson’s first-choice back five – (Jordan) Willis, (Tom) Flanagan, (Bailey) Wright and Denver Hume have been injured – but Luke O’Nien has been playing alongside Dion Sanderson at centre-half and they’ve both been excellent,” he says.
Despite not having the depth of Sunderland or Hull, who had plentiful attacking options to make light of Josh Magennis and Gavin Whyte’s international call-ups, the mood at Peterborough is good too.
“We’ve won two out of seven and there we are a point behind with a game in hand!” says Alan Swann of the Peterborough Telegraph.
“They’re a very experienced League One club and the manager (Darren Ferguson) has won promotion from the division twice before.
“Also, they could have a fully-fit squad by Friday. Siriki Dembele’s been carrying a back injury but if he and Jack Taylor are back, that will be massive because our first-choice XI is as good as anybody’s but we probably haven’t got the strength of cover of some others.”
Sunderland have three consecutive away games in mid-April, the last at the KCOM Stadium, whereas Peterborough’s biggest remaining tests will be at the end, Charlton Athletic and Lincoln intertwined with Doncaster home and away.
Consecutive games against Fleetwood and Sunderland – sandwiching them in the form table – then Lincoln look massive for Hull.
“Once you start looking at that end goal and lose focus on what’s two feet in front of you, you’re in trouble,” warns Hull’s coach and former Peterborough player and manager Grant McCann.
It is easier said than done.
Left-back Callum Elder admitted to The Yorkshire Post: “When other teams around you are playing you’re going to see how they’re getting on, it’s natural isn’t it?”
The task for Peterborough and Sunderland is therefore simply to keep up the pressure on Hull, who piled it on themselves at the start by insisting only promotion would do this season.
Thirteen points behind, even with four games in hand, Doncaster’s form means they can no longer do that but they can make the play-offs if they can pull themselves together.
“As you saw with us, you can lose a game then win four or five to put yourself back in the picture,” says McCann, who managed Rovers too. “You can’t write anybody off at the minute.”
That is the beauty of this season’s League One.
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