League Two play-offs: Northampton, Cheltenham, Exeter & Colchester go for promotion

The four managers hoping to guide their sides to League Two play-off success: Matt Taylor of Exeter, Keith Curle of Northampton, Michael Duff of Cheltenham and John McGreal of Colchester
Sky Bet League Two play-offs
Dates: 18-29 June Coverage: BBC local radio, plus live text commentary of every game on the BBC Sport website and app

“If you were to say in the normal season that you’ll come back into pre-season and 10 training sessions later you’re going to play your first competitive game, you’d be called a bit bonkers,” says Northampton Town midfielder Alan McCormack.

Not only are four League Two sides doing just that, but they are returning for up to three games that will decide the outcome of their entire season.

The English Football League returns for the first time since March on Thursday, when Colchester United host Exeter City and Cheltenham Town visit McCormack’s Northampton in the first legs of their play-off semi-final ties.

The build-up is not the only thing different because of the coronavirus pandemic; matches will be played behind closed doors, players could be travelling to matches on the day, teams can make five substitutions for the first time in an EFL game, and there are a myriad of hygiene and sanitisation controls.

‘We thought the season was over’

Colchester United are happy just to be in the play-offs.

After a majority of clubs voted to curtail the League Two season and decide final league positions based on points per game, the U’s finished sixth, just above Northampton and Port Vale.

But that came only thanks to two wins in their final three games before the suspension, taking a total of six points from long away trips to Salford and Carlisle.

“A couple of months ago we thought the season was over, but now we’ve been given an opportunity and it’s up to us to take that opportunity,” manager John McGreal told BBC Look East.

“The boys were always up to speed with their fitness programmes and we always knew there was a possibility.

“We went to Carlisle knowing that we had to win and get back on the front foot and we were able to do that – it proved to be a massive three points that has kept us in the play-offs and got us into this position.”

They will face an Exeter side that were in the hunt for a top-three finish for much of the early season and were fourth, three points off third place, when the season was halted.

City ended the season fifth on average points, with Cheltenham jumping above them, having been a point behind them with a game in hand.

Exeter are no strangers to the play-offs – the Grecians are embarking on a third League Two play-off campaign in four years. They lost the 2017 final to Blackpool and were beaten at Wembley by Coventry 12 months later.

“Just because we’ve been in the play-offs for three of the last four seasons, they don’t come around that often,” City manager Matt Taylor told BBC Radio Devon.

“I know that sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but we’ve been almost spoilt to a certain extent in being involved in these games an awful lot, so we’ve got to enjoy it.”

Taylor says the lack of preparation – or recent form to study – has forced him and his coaching team into a simpler build-up than normal for a game of such magnitude.

He added: “There’s not enough time to get details into these players. We just have to get them fully fit, fully motivated – which they are – and hopefully they play to the best of their ability.

“We can’t look too much into the opposition, because I’m sure they’ve encountered the same problems as ourselves. I’m sure they can’t second-guess our formation or our personnel and I certainly can’t do the same for Colchester, so that will be strange because usually we go into a lot of detail in regards to the opposition.”

Who can handle the ‘weirdness’ of playing in an empty ground?

Social distancing rules mean fans will not be able to attend any of the play-off matches.

All four clubs have set up schemes for supporters to buy a cardboard cutout of themselves to place in the stands. Northampton will have basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal among the ‘crowd’ for their home semi-final.

But how will playing a game with massive pressure be affected by not having any supporters in the ground?

“It is going to be weird – it might be who handles the weirdness, but some players might enjoy it,” Cheltenham manager Michael Duff told BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

“Everyone assumes players like playing in front of crowds. Not all of them will.

“It’s actually easier sometimes playing in front of 40,000 or 50,000 because it’s just noise. Sometimes when you play at our level and it’s the one bloke every week who keeps digging you out and you know exactly where he’s stood – and I’ve been there – sometimes that’s worse.

“So actually some players might relax, put their shoulders back and say ‘I can play like this all the time’ and certain players might come out of themselves.”

A cardboard cut-out of basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal will be ‘watching’ Northampton v Cheltenham in the League Two play-offs

McCormack told BBC Radio Northampton: “Everybody’s played reserve games at stadiums. As a young player coming up, you play a lot of reserve games and you’ve been in that position before.

“I think it’s going to be a lot stranger for fans watching on the TV not seeing any fans in the stadium, hearing all the players.”

Could a lack of fans see an end to home advantage?

“There might be no fans there, and that will have a big effect, but the home comforts are still there,” said Exeter boss Taylor.

“Your preparation time and schedule is a lot more comfortable when you’re at home – especially if you’re setting off early in the morning and travelling a long way on the coach.”

Huge pressure

What are the logistics of picking teams for two massive games that can define your season in a short space of time?

“We will need everyone; I can’t imagine both teams will look the same in the second leg,” Cheltenham boss Duff said.

“When you speak to other clubs in the Championship or the Premier League, they can maybe have a couple of off-days because they’ve still got a quarter of a season to play.

“These are two-off games, so if you don’t turn up for one of them, that’s your season done.”

It is a sentiment that Northampton boss Keith Curle agrees with, adding: “You’re not preparing for a 46-game season, we’re potentially preparing ourselves physically and mentally for a sprint, which means ‘don’t leave anything in the blocks; you don’t miss the starting gun’.

“We play how we want to play, we impose ourselves on the opposition, we’re respectful of the opposition and the threats they hold, but our mindset is very much on what we’re about and what we want to do.”

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