AS the promotion battle in League One nears its final month, we asked reporters involved at each of the top six clubs to give their thoughts on what lies ahead.

While the mood among Wanderers supporters remains somewhat fragile following defeat to Derby County last weekend, how are things shaping up at rival clubs, and which players could make the difference as we enter into the final stretch of fixtures?

The Bolton News: Portsmouth manager John MousinhoPortsmouth manager John Mousinho (Image: PA)



What’s left: Wycombe (A), Derby (H), Shrewsbury (H), Bolton (A), Barnsley (H), Wigan (H), Lincoln (A).

How it started: There was a bit of a stir before the campaign started when head coach John Mousinho neglected to mention the word ‘promotion’ among club goals during the traditional Radio Solent fans’ forum. Some took that as proof that the club lacked ambition and the club had to move to clarify.

Certainly, Pompey expected a play-off challenge, but stopped short of publicly targeting the automatics. What has subsequently unfolded has far exceeded that. Since September 19, they have occupied League One’s top spot for all but one week. Understandably, expectations have long since been adjusted.

How it’s going: Pompey have an unfortunate League One habit of imploding at Christmas. Well, it appeared history was repeating itself after collecting just five points from six matches during the festive period and heading into the New Year. That included defeats to Leyton Orient and Cheltenham.

However, since the home loss to Orient on January 13, described by Mousinho as his lowest point of the season, the Blues have bounced back with an unbeaten 12-match run, consisting of nine wins and three draws.

No League One side has picked up as many points during that period, while 18 clean sheets in total reflects the best defensive record in the division.

And not even recognition as February Manager of the Month has put Mousino’s men out of their stride - definitely going against tradition.

Gut feeling: Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Peterborough is, without question, regarded as the season’s pivotal result so far. It ended six straight wins for the Posh but, more importantly, means Pompey are now nine points clear of third place in the automatic promotion spots, with seven matches remaining.

That represents the moment when Pompey fans started believing this finally can be the year when they leave League One. There has been plenty of heartache along the way, including twice leading the league at Christmas and not even getting into the play-off final.

Now, after seven seasons at this level, the Blues are on the verge of returning to the Championship for the first time since 2012.

The Bolton News: Bolton Wanderers' Paris Maghoma (right) battles with Portsmouth's Marlon Pack (left)Bolton Wanderers' Paris Maghoma (right) battles with Portsmouth's Marlon Pack (left) (Image: Camerasport)

Star and saviour: Marlon Park is on the verge of a dream season. A former Pompey season-ticket holder who was released at the age of 19, he has returned to skipper the side. Not only that, but he’ll comfortably be in the top two for most fans’ player of the season.

The central midfielder has been a revelation this term. A natural leader, the driving force, and heartbeat of this team, he remains a massively important performer and arguably the one player that cannot be replaced in a season when the squad has been devastated by injury.

Worry lines: It has to be injuries! By February 2, Pompey had lost six players for the remainder of the season, including three of their best performers - Joe Morrell, Alex Robertson and Regan Poole.

When they won at Peterborough on Saturday, they did so without 14 players through illness and injury. Then Christian Saydee came off with a hamstring problem during the match! The previous Saturday, two players went off injured in the second half of a goalless draw at Blackpool.

It is truly remarkable that Pompey continue to lead the table considering they have suffered so many injury setbacks throughout the campaign.

The Bolton News: Derby County boss Paul WarneDerby County boss Paul Warne (Image: Camerasport)



What’s left: Northampton (A), Blackpool (H), Portsmouth (A), Wycombe (A), Leyton Orient (H), Cambridge Utd (A), Carlisle (H).

How it started: After the heartbreak of missing out on the top six on the final day of last season at Sheffield Wednesday, everybody expected Derby to strengthen significantly during the window that would help propel them one step further. The start to the season wasn't the greatest and the defeat to Stevenage was undoubtedly the nadir, but since then they haven't looked back.

How it’s going: With Derby not on the international break, they have a chance to make it five wins on the spin that would give them some considerable daylight in the chase for the top two. I don't think anybody would dispute that Derby have not been vintage in terms of their quality this season, but they have been so consistent and very diffcult to score against. As the old adage goes, good attacks win you games, good defences win you titles.

Gut feeling: Well, I don't see any team winning their last seven games on the spin that is for sure. Pompey have got a tough run-inm and I can see them perhaps being dragged into it. As for Derby, their run-in bar Portsmouth away is actually not bad. They've not given up for the chase of the title, but a lot of things would need to go right for them as there are seven injuries at the moment. The experienced players will be vital to ensure they stay in the top two.

The Bolton News: Nathaniel Mendez-Laing - rated as the best winger in League OneNathaniel Mendez-Laing - rated as the best winger in League One (Image: PA)

Star and saviour: The centre-backs have been incredible and Eiran Cashin and Curtis Nelson are both serious contenders for the players of the season. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing has also been terrific and for me, is the best winger in the league.

Worry lines: Injuries. Derby have had their fair share and they keep on coming. Losing Dwight Gayle has been a huge blow. It has left them with two strikers in Martyn Waghorn and Conor Washington and they've only just come back from injury. And Derby do have the oldest squad in the league.

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What’s left: Stevenage (A), Reading (H), Bristol R (A), Portsmouth (H), Shrewsbury (H), Port Vale (H), Peterborough (A).

How it started: Wanderers made no secret of wanting automatic promotion this time around, in fact manager Ian Evatt had declared it before he left Oakwell in May after losing the play-off semi-final. That was always going to need investment – and without spending the daft sums some club have in League One in recent years, the Bolton board backed their man. All the notes are there, it seems, they just need to be played in the correct order.

How it’s going: Bolton have been there or thereabouts all season and were very handily placed at the turn of the year, tucked in behind Pompey with games in hand. They have had some stinking luck with injuries and a relentless schedule of 22 league and cup games in 76 days, but they now find themselves chasing a daunting gap to Derby in second and simply haven’t taken enough points in the high-pressure games.

Gut feeling: If Wanderers can get top scorer Dion Charles and keeper Nathan Baxter back fit and firing, I think they can keep pressure on Derby in case they slip up. If they are destined for the play-offs then I’d back them against anyone at Wembley. Getting there over a two-legged semi-final is the hard part.

The Bolton News: Josh Sheehan in action for Wanderers against Carlisle UnitedJosh Sheehan in action for Wanderers against Carlisle United (Image: Camerasport)

Star and saviour: Wales international Josh Sheehan has risen to the fore as Bolton’s chief playmaker and, quite frankly, he’s a gorgeous player to watch. At his best, he knits things together effortlessly, and even though he gets kicked up in the air at least half a dozen times each week, keeps on coming back.

Worry lines: Results have been patchy in 2024 and Bolton haven’t won enough games against the teams around them to make folk feel easy about the run-in. When they are at it, they are sublime, but there is still an air of inconsistency which makes them a hard team to read.

The Bolton News: Peterborough United boss Darren FergusonPeterborough United boss Darren Ferguson (Image: Camerasport)



What’s left: Carlisle (H), Orient (A), Port Vale (H), Oxford (A), Fleetwood (H), Bristol R (A), Cheltenham (A), Bolton (H).

How it started: For the first time in recent memory, I tipped us to finish outside the top six in a League One season. I went for 12th after we shed a load of seasoned promotion winners at this level in favour of youngsters with pace. In my defence I did expect Ronnie Edwards to be sold in August. The club were quietly (unusually for our chairman) confident of a good season, but they weren't shouting from the rooftops. I expect they have been pleasantly surprised by what they've seen so far.

How it’s going: It's been an exceptional season so far, as much for the style of play as the results. I've been watching them for 50 years and can't remember ever seeing such easy-on-the-eye enterprising football. A 12-game unbeaten run (remarkably in between two Wigan defeats) had us dreaming of a top two finish and five wins in a row (after four straight defeats) raised optimism levels again until losing to Pompey on Saturday. We played well in that game, so form remains strong.

Gut feeling: We will finish third behind Pompey and Derby. I can see us winning many of our last 8 games, but we might need to win them all to get into the top two and we've only ever done that twice in our 64 year Football League history. We do have the bottom four to play so you never know, but we have a lot of games in April.

The Bolton News: Peterborough United's Ephron Mason-Clark (left) and Derby County's Korey Smith battle for the ballPeterborough United's Ephron Mason-Clark (left) and Derby County's Korey Smith battle for the ball (Image: PA)

Star and saviour: Top scorer Ephron Mason-Clark to leave with a bang before he formally joins Coventry City in the summer.

Worry lines: The lack of a natural goal-scoring centre forward to complement two exciting wingers. If we could combine the speed of Ricky-Jade Jones with the finishing of Jonson Clarke-Harris we would be top two now!

The Bolton News: Barnsley manager Neil CollinsBarnsley manager Neil Collins (Image: Camerasport)



What’s left: Burton (A), Charlton (A), Stevenage (A), Reading (H), Portsmouth (A), Blackpool (A), Northampton (H).

How it started: After last season’s disappointment in the League One play-off final against Sheffield Wednesday, the aim for the club was promotion - ideally automatic. But after head coach Michael Duff left for Swansea, followed by the entirety of the starting back three heading to either Luton or Coventry, I think most fans would have accepted going up via the play-offs.

How it’s going: Neill Collins couldn’t have asked for a better start than the 7-0 thumping of Port Vale on the opening day, but since then the home form has been generally mediocre. The Reds generally struggled against the so-called big sides in the league early on, with losses against Portsmouth and Derby County. But they’ve picked up some big points away and sit fifth in the league table. At one point in recent weeks they looked front runners for the top two, but a disappointing 5-1 defeat against high-flying Lincoln City and a 0-0 draw against Cheltenham last weekend has dampened spirits for the Oakwell faithful.

Gut feeling: Unfortunately the top two looks like it’s becoming out of reach. Last Saturday’s game against Cheltenham was the perfect chance for the Reds to pounce with the top four facing each other. But a goalless draw now leaves them seven points behind Derby in second, albeit they have a game in hand on most teams above them. It looks more and more likely Barnsley will have to settle for the play-offs - and hopefully this time out they’ll go one better.

The Bolton News: Barnsley's Luca Connell passes the ball under pressure from Bolton Wanderers' Paris MaghomaBarnsley's Luca Connell passes the ball under pressure from Bolton Wanderers' Paris Maghoma (Image: Camerasport)

Star and saviour: Luca Connell missed the first few months of the season through injury and he was a big miss in the centre of midfield. He captained the side in the absence of Jordan Williams on Saturday and is a big presence on and off the pitch at Oakwell. He’s capable of chipping in with both goals and assists and the fans probably haven’t seen the best of him yet this season. But if he can find last season’s form then there’s no doubt his leadership and skill will push the Reds on with their hopes of promotion.

Worry lines: Barnsley have perhaps the best away form in the league this season, losing only once to Derby back in November. However, the same can’t be said about their home form. Fortunately, five of the last eight games are away from Oakwell in the run-in and if the season so far has anything to go by that’s where they’ll pick up their points. The defence, which started the season well, has started to become quite leaky and with January signing Donovan Pines currently out they’ll need to sure up the backline if they want promotion. Top-scorer Devante Cole also hasn’t scored since the 1-1 draw with Bolton on February 2 - so they’ll need him to start firing again if they’re to push on.

The Bolton News: Oxford United's manager Des BuckinghamOxford United's manager Des Buckingham (Image: Camerasport)



What’s left: Shrewsbury (A), Fleetwood (H), Burton (A), Peterborough (H), Lincoln (H), Stevenage (H), Exeter (A).

How it started: After battling relegation last season when Liam Manning joined the club in March, the club came into this season without huge expectations of promotion but Liam Manning quickly turned this on its head as he propelled the club to the top of table. Manning departed the club in November for Bristol City after just 15 games leaving the U’s in second, three points behind leaders Portsmouth at the time.

How it’s going: Manning’s replacement Des Buckingham has had mixed results since his arrival at the Kassam Stadium but going into the Easter period his side sit just inside the play-off spots after only winning just three of their previous 10 league games. There have been four draws in that run meaning the U’s took 13 points from a possible 30.

Gut feeling: If United continue with their current form and points per game ration since the turn of the year it will be hard to see them keep a play-off spot, however, there have been some decent results and it is clear there is enough talent in the squad for them to go on a winning run as we saw at the beginning of the season which started so brightly.

The Bolton News: Oxford's Cameron Branagan challenges Wanderers' Josh Dacres-CogleyOxford's Cameron Branagan challenges Wanderers' Josh Dacres-Cogley (Image: Camerasport)

Star and saviour: Cameron Brannagan has been excellent this season as per usual, chipping in with nine goals and nine assists as he continues to be United’s all-action star. Whether it be set piece duties, his wide passing range, or energy in the middle of the park, there is, quite simply, no replacement for Brannagan in the U’s midfield.

Worry lines: Inconsistency will be the main factor is stopping United getting a play-off spot. If Buckingham can find a way to spark a run of form, then the U’s should find themselves in the top six come the end of the season.