West Country football is well and truly on the charge. A quick glance at the top of the League Two table showed five of the top nine places filled by teams from the South West of the country going into this weekend’s round of fixtures, writes Tom Howe.
Swindon Town sat at the forefront, two points clear of second place Exeter City. Forest Green Rovers occupied a play-off place in fifth, with Cheltenham Town and Plymouth Argyle breathing down their neck but below the dotted line at the time of writing.
Forest Green, managed by Mark Cooper, boast the equal meanest defence in all of English football’s fourth tier – tied with Bradford City on 19 goals conceded – with free-scoring Irishman Eoin Doyle weighing in with 23 of Swindon’s 45 goals to keep his side in the running for most scored.
The form table over the last eight games mirrors the league standings, with Swindon taking 19 points from eight games, one more than the Grecians. Plymouth have climbed the table with 15 points from a possible 24 but Cheltenham and Forest Green have slipped back, with both accruing just nine points.
Attendances have been high as a result of the success, with Plymouth second only to Bradford with an average home crowd of 9,627. Swindon are next up with 7,143 while Exeter come in sixth with 5,032. Cheltenham and Forest Green, meanwhile, are further down the pecking order with 3,112 and 2,523 respectively.
Team of the moment, Exeter City, have five wins and three draws from their last eight games. Key to their charge has been 20-year-old central defensive midfielder Archie Collins, now in his second season since breaking through the Grecians’ youth ranks. The metronome has been a towering figure, turning defence into attack with composure far beyond his tender years.
On the flanks are two more youngsters, Randell Williams (23) on the right and Jack Sparkes (19) the left. Williams has been a whirlwind since his arrival from Watford last January, and boasts a quite impressive resume having spent time in the academies of Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur.
Sparkes, still a teenager until September, is another product of Exeter’s famed youth set-up and, after spending time on loan at nearby Chippenham Town and Salisbury, has grabbed the opportunity of first-team football without thinking twice.
The focal point at the top end of the park is the wiley Ryan Bowman, 28, who has nine goals to his name this season, that figure contributing largely to 14 in 46 since his move south from Motherwell 12 months ago. Taylor has certainly got a tune from the journeyman forward who, to put it into context, took 86 games to reach that figure when in Scotland.
Their Devon rivals, Plymouth Argyle, are also a team in form and another with a fine balance of youth and experience looking to fire the Green Army straight back into League One. A solid, structured back line features the likes of Gary Sawyer (34), Scott Wootton (28) and Niall Canavan (28) alongside Chelsea loanee Josh Grant (21) and goalkeeper Alex Palmer (23), who is also at Home Park on a temporary deal, from West Bromwich Albion.
Following relegation last term, the early hiccups that came with a new-look squad and under a new influence in Ryan Lowe, seem to have been remedied somewhat, with Argyle, who pushed the leaders to their absolute limits on New Year’s Day, one of League Two’s most dangerous teams. Such is Lowe’s personality, it seems very all or nothing with Argyle, with the record showing five wins and three defeats in the last eight games.
The goals have been shared around with midfielder maestros Antoni Sarcevic, Callum McFadzean and Joel Grant all pitching in with five each. Their lack of an out-and-out goal scorer is what is missing, and Lowe’s search for a striker during this month’s transfer window has been the talk of the terraces for weeks.
Another team with a lack of lethal energy at the top end is Forest Green. Built upon one of the finest defences in the country, with clean sheets recorded in a little under half of their fixtures this season, their problems lie firmly at the other end of the park. When your left-back is by far and away your top scorer, it does not take a genius to work out what the issues are.
Cooper appears to be on the case, linked with Leamington’s Josh March and Colchester United’s Jevani Brown in recent days. As he said earlier this week, after losing 1-0 at home to West Country rivals Exeter: “If we get two or three really good attacking players we can get automatic promotion. If we do not then we will have to be content with fighting for a play-off place.”
With, in effect, three wins separating Northampton Town, who hold the final play-off place, from Walsall down in 15th spot, the finale to the League Two season is set to have fans on the edge of their seats right up until the final play on Saturday, April 25. Four teams will move up to the third tier for 2020-21.
What if they were all from the South West and went on to continue the revival of football in the West Country?