The heated relegation battle in League One got turned up a little more this weekend when Tranmere managed to get a second win on the bounce against Accrington Stanley.
There is a belief that the three teams currently in the dropzone will be on their way back down and it would be hard to argue against Southend or Bolton being in the basement division next season. Unlike previous years, very few teams seem to be in mortal danger of the drop, with Tranmere sitting six points adrift of safety but, crucially, with two games in hand over Wimbledon.
As we enter the final furlong of the season, can Mickey Mellon’s side pull off an unlikely great escape, just as Wimbledon did last season? If they can, who will be the fall guys? Could Bristol Rovers, currently 13 points above Tranmere, be the unlikely relegated side?
There’s certainly a feeling around the Memorial Ground that they’re currently in a spin of relegation form. They were comfortably beaten 3-1 by doomed Southend this weekend and their next three fixtures are against Ipswich, Sunderland and Peterborough. Whilst the Tractor Boys are out of form, the other two sides are hungry for points to put towards their promotion push.
Indeed, of Rovers’ remaining ten games, only two are against sides below them in the league. Whilst Tranmere would need to win four or five games without Rovers picking up a point, the spectre of relegation is still looming large. Clashes with Accrington and Rochdale are going to be crucial in keeping Ben Garner’s side in the third-tier because as things stand, they look woefully out of sorts. The fear could be that defeats in their next three fixtures, coupled with half-decent results for teams below them, could give them a nervous finish which might be a big knock to any confidence the players have.
Lincoln City perhaps just dispelled any fears they might go down with a win against Burton this weekend and below Bristol, Shrewsbury, Accrington and MK Dons might feel they’ve shown enough form to get themselves out of trouble. They’re all below the Gas, but have at least picked up points here and there, rather than just sinking like a ton of cement. If we were writing before the weekend, a worried observer might have put Rochdale at some risk, but they pulled a huge victory out of the bag against Rotherham to suggest they can pick up enough points to remain in the division as well.
Much will rest on Tranmere’s ability to secure points in their next five fixtures, against Lincoln, MK Dons, Blackpool, Rochdale and crucially, Wimbledon. That clash in London on March 21st could be the difference between staying up and going down for both sides. After that, Mellon’s side has a tough run-in, with Doncaster, Peterborough, Rotherham, Gillingham, Fleetwood and Oxford. They’re going to need to grab ten points from their next five games, as a minimum, if they’re going to haul in Bristol Rovers.
That does make this look like a straight fight between Tranmere and Wimbledon. The Wombles have flirted with the drop for a couple of seasons and given their means, they’re always likely to be a favourite for relegation, but will they be able to find enough to either hold off Tranmere or also haul in Bristol Rovers? Of their nine remaining matches, five are against sides in and around the bottom half, with Sunderland and Coventry both to visit West London for challenging ties. They’re not actually losing a lot of games either, just three of their last ten fixtures have been defeats and they’ve lost just once at home since the turn of the year.
Some Gas fans are fearful of the drop but, even if they lost every game between now and the end of the season, it would take a huge push by Wimbledon and Tranmere to overhaul them, and that’s assuming Mk Dons, Shrewsbury, Accrington and Rochdale all keep picking up points as well. One thing for their supporters to fear is the Southend effect; they Shrimpers followed a similar pattern last season to Garner’s side this time out and they’ve been hot favourites for relegation since the opening day of this season.
Whilst the unbalanced nature of the 2019/20 season might see the Gas get a stay of execution, next season is going to be very frightening indeed.