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League One: Third tier set for final day drama at top and bottom of division

Will Keane, Paul Warne, Adebayo Akinfenwa, Neil Harris
Wigan striker Will Keane, Rotherham boss Paul Warne, retiring Wycombe frontman Adebayo Akinfenwa and Gillingham boss Neil Harris are all hoping to be celebrating success on Saturday

Tuesday’s midweek action in League One summed up what has been a terrific season in the third tier.

At one point Wigan were promoted and Fleetwood were safe from relegation. But by full-time the Latics had blown a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 at Portsmouth and Fleetwood had dropped right back into trouble after Lee Gregory’s hat-trick for Sheffield Wednesday.

With the regular season drawing to a close on Saturday, BBC Sport talks you through who needs what at the top, for the play-offs and down at the bottom.

  • Up, downs and the race for Europe

Automatic promotion race ‘brilliant for the neutrals’

Wigan have now had, and not taken, two chances to secure automatic promotion to the Championship.

The Latics looked to be coasting to victory at Pompey before a double from George Hirst and Aiden O’Brien’s late goal consigned them to a defeat that they are going to need to recover from quickly.

Three points clear of third-placed MK Dons and with a better goal difference, they remain in the driving seat to return to the second tier after a tough two years that saw them relegated from the Championship after having 12 points deducted for going into administration and then, their future looking uncertain, they have to scrap to avoid going down to League Two.

However, winless in their past five, their fans will now travel to Shrewsbury on Saturday with trepidation as much as expectation.

But Wigan boss Leam Richardson is remaining relaxed about the chances of his side finally getting over the line.

“We’ve worked hard, we won’t gamble on anything or pre-empt anything, we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing all year which is to be competitive in every game, and if we do that on Saturday, everyone will end up where they’re supposed to be,” he told BBC Radio Manchester.

“In the main, the league table will tell you we’ve been performing very well because we’re in a place that we deserve to be. Over the 46 games people end up where they deserve to be.”

Perhaps the Latics could learn a thing or two from Rotherham, the experts of winning promotion from this level.

Remarkably, victory on Saturday would see them promoted to the Championship for the fourth time in eight years.

Paul Warne’s men had seemed set to cruise to the title but a tricky run of form since March means they go into the final-day trip to Gillingham needing to better the result of third-place MK Dons.

“Every game brings challenges and stresses and this is no different,” Warne told BBC Radio Sheffield.

“We’ve had a meeting here about how next week will look if we don’t get the result on Saturday.

“I presume this is brilliant for the neutral. It’s the most exciting end to the season in League One that I’ve seen in a while.

“I want the players to have that moment in time that will keep them connected forever. If we can go up automatically it will be the greatest achievement I have ever had, given the quality in this league.”

Liam Manning’s MK Dons have enjoyed a brilliant campaign, despite losing boss Russell Martin to Swansea before the first league match.

Like the two sides above them, they have also had a wobble recently. Successive defeats by Sheffield Wednesday and Oxford over Easter have proved damaging, and goal difference means that only a win at play-off hopefuls Plymouth will be enough to give them a chance of going up automatically.

“I’m looking forward to it irrespective of what happens. It’s a stage of the season where you can reflect on certain aspects and the lads have been brilliant. They have done a terrific job,” Manning told BBC Three Counties Radio.

“The other results are irrelevant to us, we have to win. Whatever happens in the other game, we need to win. That is the positive. There is no distraction from that side.”

Still, after the way this season has gone so far you would not bet against another late twist.

Three from four in the race for the play-offs

So, whatever happens on Saturday one of the three teams mentioned above will find themselves in the play-offs.

The identity of who will be joining them there remains unsettled though, with four teams scrapping it out for three available spots.

At present the positions are occupied by Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland and Plymouth – but Wycombe are only behind the latter on goal difference.

The Owls looked to have put themselves in a tricky position when they fell behind at lowly Fleetwood but now go into their final day clash against Portsmouth at Hillsborough knowing a point will almost certainly be sufficient.

However, Wednesday boss Darren Moore insists his side “know there’s a lot of work to be done”.

“We’re not by any means tapping ourselves on the back,” Moore told BBC Radio Sheffield. “We worked really hard to get to this point of the season and we’ve still got a massive test ahead of us.

“They’re a team that’s capable, they’re a team that’s coming to enjoy the day and we’ve got to make sure we apply ourselves right.”

Victory for Sunderland over second-place Rotherham in midweek would have meant they would be going into the final day with a sliver of a shot at automatic promotion but, just to emphasise how close it is, had they lost heavily they could have started Saturday outside the top six altogether.

They travel to struggling Morecambe who are just two points above the bottom four.

“I’ve not got any sense of nerves from anybody, we’ve had to work extremely hard to get to this position and put ourselves in the issue and secure a play-off place,” Black Cats boss Alex Neil told BBC Look North.

“I sense anticipation more than anything else. It’ll be a tough game for different reasons. Morecambe have their own agenda they need to try to fulfil and we’ve got ours.

“You could argue there are games in the division where they are equally important to both teams, but we’ve just got to get the job done.

“We have to approach it like any other game and get the game won. What is different is the magnitude behind it, what we can achieve.”

Sixth-place Plymouth have failed to win in their past four, though three of those games were against Wycombe, Sunderland and Wigan.

That being so, the Pilgrims could probably do without a home game against promotion-chasing MK Dons on the last day. Nonetheless, boss Steven Schumacher is in a positive mood.

“It’s going to be great. There’s so much riding on it for so many teams in League One, so it should be an exciting day,” he told BBC Radio Devon.

“It’s been a great journey, a brilliant season for everyone involved, so many highs, a few lows obviously, but we’ve enjoyed it and we want to continue to enjoy it – we hope that there’s still a few more chapters to be written.”

Seventh-placed Wycombe will go into their game at Burton with a spring in their step on the back of an 11-game unbeaten run.

“We’ve got nothing to lose now. We’re in a great place,” Chairboys boss Gareth Ainsworth told BBC Three Counties Radio.

“We are hunting and we like it like that. We’ve done that time and time again in my managerial career.

“No-one expects Wycombe now to be in the play-offs. Everyone has sort of closed the door on us.

“We’re out of this on goal difference. Do not discount us yet. We do crash parties and that’s a big party to crash.”

‘Cup finals’ in the bid to avoid the trapdoor

Officially speaking, only one of the four relegation spots have been resolved going into the final day.

However, Doncaster’s goal difference means that they are already effectively relegated. Rovers travel to Oxford needing to win, the three teams immediately above them to lose and enjoy a 28-goal swing in their favour.

Understandably, boss Gary McSheffrey is already planning for next season in League Two.

“We’ve obviously run out of games. I feel we’ve got a consistency to our performance level and the boys have got the messages we’ve been delivering. It’s frustrating but at the same time it’s good that the momentum is there a little bit,” he told BBC Radio Sheffield.

“I said numerous times that we had our opportunities. We can’t focus on what ifs. We have to be positive.

“With some tweaks I think we’ve got a capable squad to bounce right back.”

AFC Wimbledon, winless in the league since December, are going to need to win handsomely against Accrington and will hope both Gillingham and Fleetwood lose if they are to extend their stay in the third tier. Possible but unlikely.

So the real battle looks to be between Gillingham, Fleetwood and Morecambe, with one of them certain to end the day a League Two club.

The Shrimps have the advantage mathematically, as they sit two points above the Cod Army and the Gills, who are separated by goal difference alone.

But the fact that Neil Harris’s Gillingham host a Rotherham side needing a win to ensure their promotion and the Shrimps welcome a Sunderland team in need of a result to guarantee a play-off spot only increases the stakes.

“We have put ourselves in a position now where we know all the permutations that will allow us to have another season in League One,” Morecambe boss Derek Adams told BBC Radio Lancashire.

“We understand what we have to do and understand that other teams can help us.

“They (Sunderland) are the same as us, it’s a similar scenario where we want to get the three points which will enable us to have a League One future next season.

“We’ve only had one defeat at home in the last eight games. We understand that Sunderland are on a 12-game unbeaten run, but we are really confident at home. We have a huge backing, a sell-out crowd for the game. We are all thoroughly looking forward to that.”

For Gills captain Stuart O’Keefe, there is a “feeling of excitement” around the MEMS Priestfield Stadium.

“Everyone knows everything’s on this game, it’s a cup final and it’s got that cup final feel about the place,” he told BBC Radio Kent.

“We also know that Rotherham have got everything on the game as well, so I think that itself will create an atmosphere that you want to play in and I think everyone’s thriving off that around the club.”

Fleetwood, who have won three times this year, visit Bolton who might not have anything left to play for but have won 13 of their past 21 games.

“It’s a one-game season now, it’s still in our own hands,” Fleetwood boss Stephen Crainey told BBC Radio Lancashire. “If we go to Bolton and win, we stay in this league regardless of what happens anywhere else.

“We need to focus on what we do, and make sure we turn up on the day.

“Hopefully we can be brave, take the ball in tight areas and handle the occasion, dominate the game and get the three points.”

Who will end up joining Crewe Alexandra in League Two next year?

Compiled by BBC Sport’s Ian Woodcock

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