At the end of January, Scunthorpe United were dreaming of a return to the Championship, holding an eight-point lead over third-place Bolton Wanderers at the top of the League One table. Graham Alexander’s men had won 17 of their opening 28 matches and were unbeaten at Glanford Park. Simply maintaining their form until the end of the campaign would have been enough to guide them into the second tier. However, a nine-match winless run between the beginning of February and the middle of the March derailed the Iron’s promotion surge.
Although they displayed improvement towards the end of the season – winning their final four matches – their earlier lapse allowed Bolton to snatch the second automatic place to the Championship from under their noses. Scunthorpe now have to go through the emotional rollercoaster that is the playoffs. Millwall stand in their way of a trip to Wembley and a potential return to the second tier of English football after a six-year absence. The Irons have experience at earning promotion by overcoming the Lions in the playoffs, having defeated them in a thrilling 3-2 victory at Wembley in the League One playoff final in 2009. Scunthorpe will need to channel that sprit to get over the line, with odds of 100/30 to secure their spot in the Championship.
However, United will know anything other than success will see their season classed as an underachievement given their strong position in January, with comparisons to that of Arsenal of the past under Arsene Wenger. The Gunners previously allowed commanding leads to slip at the top of the Premier League, suffering costly defeats to mediocre outfits. As a result of their slide this term, the Gunners are considered one of the top flight’s leading underachievers by sports betting site Betway, with punters recording a significant loss had they bet £10 on each of the club’s league fixtures this term. Arsenal are not a club Scunthorpe want to be sharing many traits with – other than perhaps their Premier League status. Therefore it’s imperative that the Iron’s get over the line.
Alexander entered his first full season in the dugout after pulling the club out of the mediocrity of mid-table last term with a strong run of form at the climax of the campaign, winning the final six matches of the season. The Iron’s missed out on the playoffs to Barnsley, with the Tykes going on to win promotion. The Iron’s carried their momentum into the early stages of the season and had a solid complement between their strikeforce and their backline.
The team were playing with freedom in the final third, which yielded comprehensive victories over Gillingham, Southend, Walsall, and Chesterfield. The form of Josh Morris was crucial in guiding the Iron’s to the top of the table, with the midfielder finding the net with regularity, while support came from Paddy Madden and Kevin van Veen.
However, the first sign of trouble reared its head in December when the Iron’s lost their grip on pole position due to a run of one win in six games, including a damaging late defeat to Bolton. Three wins on the spin during January appeared to have righted the ship, but the death knell for the club’s automatic promotion bid was to come in their nine-match winless run. The goals from Morris dried up, while Madden and van Veen failed to alleviate the pressure on their teammate. The problems at the other end of the pitch were even worse for Alexander’s men as they were unable to put in a clean defensive performance, with disastrous consequences.
Before their collapse only Bolton and Bradford had boasted a stronger defensive record than Iron’s, but by the beginning of April Alexander’s men found themselves in the middle of the pack, shipping 49 goals in their 40 matches. Although the club ended their season on a high note with four-straight wins – their record at the back will concern their manager heading into the playoffs. Scunthorpe have kept only two clean sheets since the turn of the year – compared to the 11 they kept in the 24 matches from August to December. As a result this has heaped pressure on Morris and the forwards to perform.
They began to click into gear in the final month of the campaign, but it will take a complete effort from all concerned drive their side over the line and back into the Championship. The playoffs are often considered to be a lottery, but the Iron’s have momentum at the back thanks to their five-match winning streak to end the term. Should they maintain their April form then their path to the Championship should be secure.