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The League Two Play-Offs begin on Saturday and EFL pundit Gab Sutton dissects the strengths and weaknesses of all four candidates for promotion, before picking his winner!

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Stockport County


Why they might win it


Of the four teams, Stockport have not only accumulated the most points over the whole season, but also put in the most convincing performances.

With aggressive, attacking wing-backs, two centre-forwards, a midfield full of running but also capable of controlling games, County have been among the league’s most creative sides.

They possess an excellent goalkeeper, too, in Ben Hinchcliffe, who has kept 18 clean sheets in 36 this season, while Fraser Horsfall has recovered from one or two errors in the early weeks to become one of the most consistent defenders in the league, along with Akil Wright.

Will Collar is the all-action box-to-box man who loves to create, while Ryan Croasdale is the glue in midfield with his tenacity and industry.

Plus, the Hatters possess a manager in Dave Challinor who has experienced the Play-Off format five times as a gaffer, winning on four of those occasions, with six promotions already to his name.

Granted, those successes might have been at lower levels, but it’s someone who knows the pressure.


Why they might not


Stockport have had conversion issues all season.

The fact that they are massively underperforming their shot data is in some ways a credit to how good they are in general play, but it raises concerns as to whether they’ll be clinical enough at the high-stakes moments.

Target man Kyle Wootton has been key for County this season, and is central to how Challinor’s sides play.

That’s not to say the Hatters are exclusively a long ball team by any means, but they do like to start their moves by looking for the forward ball early, and Wootton’s presence facilitates that.

Without the former Notts County striker, they have Paddy Madden, who is more of a link-up specialist and poacher – though even he has only poached 10 goals, a modest tally by his lofty standards – Isaac Olaofe, Jack Stretton and Scott Quigley.

Olaofe is powerful but raw, and does his best work facing goal rather than with his back to it, and the same is true of Stretton, a slight, willing runner, while Quigley’s involvement would be something of a last resort.

The 30-year-old had an excellent season at this level with Barrow in 2020-21, but has since endured a tough couple of years, struggling to make an impression at both Stockport in the National League last season, then on loan at Rochdale in this one, in a League Two dogfight.

The 6’4” striker may be rushed back into the fold as an alternative focal point to Wootton, to minimize the systematic disruption, but it’s questionable whether he can do the same job.


Carlisle United


Why they might win it


They’ve got Simmo.

Paul Simpson is a club legend, having inspired Carlisle to successive promotions in his first stint as manager, then transformed their fortunes once again in his second.

The Cumbrians boast a strong midfield, and one of League Two’s star performers of 2022-23 in Owen Moxon, who was an inspired recruit from Annan Athletic.

Bursting with energy, Moxon is a set piece specialist and loves a long-range pass which can really unlock defences which, with the pace of Omari Patrick in attack, can be dangerous.

Alfie McCalmont is the technician you’d expect of one once deemed the heir to Kalvin Phillips’ throne at Leeds, and he now presses brilliantly under his current manager, while Callum Guy has also added a more destructive side to his game thanks to Simpson’s work too.

In contrast with Semi-Final opponents Bradford, Carlisle’s midfield is a huge strength: and they have the experience of Paul Huntington at the back.


Why they might not


The Cumbrians have looked a little one-dimensional of late, and their squad depth isn’t quite as strong as Simpson might like.

That’s not the end of the world: they managed great form in the first half of the season, when the list of absentees was often into double-figures, and sometimes having a set starting XI can aid cohesion more than having 24 players in contention.

If Carlisle don’t start the first leg strongly, though, Simmo may be limited in terms of options to change things up.

United are without key man Jon Mellish, who’s aggressive versatility allows the team to flip formations at will, which has meant Jack Armer has had to play on the left of a three-man defence, rather than his best position of left wing-back.

If Armer gets caught out of position through being too far up the field, opponents with pace in attack may have chances to get at veteran Huntington, who won’t win many footraces.


Bradford City


Why they might win it


They’ve got match-winners at both ends.

This is something Bradford can say definitively, in a way that none of their three rivals can.

Harry Lewis has been the joint-best goalkeeper in League Two this season (second-best if Leyton Orient fans are reading this), and his saves and quality of distribution have got the Bantams into the Play-Offs.

At the other end, Andy Cook has been potent for Mark Hughes’ side, bagging a whopping 28 goals – six more than anyone else in the league.

Once an industrious, stocky target man, Cook has now added another layer of mobility and individuality to his game, which have allowed him to score a couple of outstanding solo goals.

It will be a huge plus for City to have, in tight games, two players who can really make the difference, and ensure they find themselves on the right side of fine margins.

Scott Banks is a real threat, too, from the right of attack, is strong on either foot, and can certainly hit them from outside the box.


Why they might not


Bradford without Lewis and Cook are arguably a bottom half team.

Alex Gilliead has established his career as a winger, yet has played as an energetic, box-to-box type this season, while Richie Smallwood has fostered a niche as a tenacious destroyer, yet has asked to take on creative duties.

Neither have had bad seasons, but if we’re looking at City’s midfield against Owen Moxon at Carlisle, Elliot Watt at Salford, and Will Collar at Stockport, it’s incomparable.

Similarly, the Bantams don’t have an experienced defensive lynchpin, in the same way Carlisle have Paul Huntington, Salford have Adrian Mariappa and Stockport have Fraser Horsfall.

On top of that, they don’t have great attacking full-backs capable of breaking down compact opposition – though Brad Halliday can swing in an accurate cross once he gets into the final third.


Salford City


Why they might win it


Elliot Watt.

The deep-lying playmaker has a stunning passing range that belongs at a far higher level, and has proved a key threat from set pieces, as League Two’s assist-king: tied with Moxon on 15.

Not only that, Watt gets through some excellent defensive work, averaging two tackles per game, and will surely be playing above the fourth tier next season regardless of Salford’s results.

Luke Bolton is another key man for the Ammies, with pace to frighten defences from the right, Callum Hendry is top scorer with 12 goals, while right-back Liam Shephard has registered four assists in seven, after coming back from a long-term injury in March.

Ibou Touray hasn’t quite hit the heights he’s capable of this season, but the left-back has been largely consistent over the last four seasons at this level and is more than capable of hitting the standards in the big games.


Why they might not


Salford have looked disjointed for parts of the season: for instance, they’ve played a possession-based three-at-the-back system on 14 occasions, without having the natural wide centre-backs to make it work.

More recently, it’s been a 4-2-3-1, but with a second striker and inside forwards, it’s perhaps a little top heavy and may miss some support for Watt and Stevie Mallan in midfield.

While the Ammies have won four of their final six league games, three of those victories have come from late winners: a sign of their depth and spirit of course, but not a ringing endorsement of their ability to control games from the outset.

Before that run, Head Coach Neil Wood may have been under pressure, and due to the way the club operates, there may be more of that on him to deliver promotion than there is on Dave Challinor, Mark Hughes and Paul Simpson.




Brilliant though Stockport have been, it’s incredibly important to go into the Play-Offs with the players who are central to the style of play to be fit and available, and finding the right solutions to Kyle Wootton’s absence may be too much of a tall order for Challinor.

As such, it’s difficult to back Stockport as favourites, especially at quotes as short as 13/8.

Conversely, Bradford are a top-heavy side that have a yawning chasm between their two best players and the rest of their squad, with only two or three coming close to bridging that gap.

Salford are also a little imbalanced, and when one considers that each of the last four League Two Play-Off winners have had a manager who had won promotion beforehand, there’s more question marks over Wood in this situation than any of the other three managers – despite his esteemed coaching pedigree.

That brings us to Carlisle.

With a legendary manager, a strong midfield, a settled XI, a nippy poacher in Kristian Dennis, and an experienced defence, the Cumbrians tick a lot of boxes required for Play-Off success and could be the ones to back.

Carlisle to win promotion – 3/1

Odds are correct at the time of posting

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