League One Playoffs: Bolton clear favourites in War of Roses

After a characteristically topsy-turvy campaign, another League One season has drawn to a close. 

Portsmouth and Derby County pulled away late on to secure the two League One automatic promotion spots, but there is plenty left up for grabs in the playoffs.

Bolton Wanderers and Barnsley will compete in a two legged tie for the chance to meet either Peterborough or Oxford United at Wembley on 18th May and join Portsmouth and Derby in next year’s Championship.

League One Playoffs: The Teams

Bolton Wanderers are League One playoffs favourites
Bolton Wanderers are League One playoffs favourites – Photo by Icon Sport

Bolton Wanderers: The bookies’ favourite

Bolton Wanderers have many reasons to be optimistic that they will return to the Championship through the League One playoffs after a five year spell away, which included an ignominious season in League Two.

Firstly, Wanderers have been the best side outside of the top two. They have the tightest defence besides Portsmouth and Derby and the second most prolific attack in the league .

Secondly, they have been in good form in the run-in, with only one loss since the start of March, away to second-placed Derby.

Finally, they possess quality all over the pitch. Eoin Toal has had a fine season at centre-back and Josh Sheehan has an impressive ten assists from deep midfield. Up top, Dion Charles has been as reliable as ever in front of goal.

But from the bench, they have 37-year-old super-sub Cameron Jerome. One of the EFL's longest-serving journeymen comes into this in red-hot form, with a goal in each of the final games of the league season. 

Having won the playoffs and scored both the semi-final and final for Norwich City in 2015, could Jerome repeat the trick?

Bolton's resident grizzled veteran Cameron Jerome has already been a playoff hero once… – Photo by Icon Sport

Peterborough United: Better days ahead after last year’s heartbreak

Peterborough United will be hoping to slay the demons of last season’s playoff heartbreak, where they were eliminated by Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-finals.

Ever the entertainers, Posh fans have seen 150 league goals this season, between both ends. Their 89 goals for is the highest in the league, showing they have the firepower to trouble any side.

Peterborough United lost on penalties at Hillsborough in last season's playoffs – Photo by Icon Sport

Peterborough are famous for nurturing attacking talent, with the likes of Ivan Toney, Dwight Gayle and Britt Assombalonga all playing for the club in their formative years.

The players most likely to carry on this forward-facing legacy are 22-year-old Kwame Poku and 24-year-old Ephron Mason-Clark. 

Poku, a Ghana international, is blessed with searing pace, but has end product to match, with 18 goal contributions this campaign. Mason-Clark is on loan from Coventry City, and has 21 goal contributions.

Finally, having won the EFL Trophy under a month ago, Posh will feel right at home should they make it to Wembley.

Though thirsting to redeem themselves, Peterborough will be dreading their trip to the Kassam Stadium – Photo by Icon Sport

Oxford United: A meteoric rise awaits?

After a struggle of a 2022/23 campaign, which saw the club finish 19th in League One, Oxford United have been a side transformed this season.

The U’s are riding high in fifth place, quite the turnaround. And in their current form, it would be unwise to bet against them making their first appearance in the modern Championship.

Oxford were last in England’s second tier in 1998/99, when the league was still named Division One. 

But these days, Oxford can boast a midfield composed of top Premier League academy graduates in Cameron Brannagan, Marcus McGuane and Josh McEachran.

They have ended the season in superb form, winning seven of their final ten games. One result of particular interest is their 5-0 win over semi-final rivals Peterborough, which will be fresh in the minds of players on both sides.

Like Peterborough, Barnsley were defeated by Sheffield Wednesday in last season's League One playoffs, and will also have sky-high motivation – Photo by Icon Sport

Barnsley: Manager-less miracle?

In a stunning turn of events, Barnsley are going into the playoffs without a permanent manager. The Tykes were led by assistant manager Martin Devaney in their final day draw with Northampton, after they sacked manager Neill Collins on account of a run of awful form.

Barnsley won just one of Collins’ final eight games, and came incredibly close to losing out on sixth place to Lincoln City.

There had been a plan to install Austrian coach Dominik Thalhammer for their final game of the season, with the former Oostende, Cercle Brugge and LASK manager even travelling to Yorkshire to get settled in. However, the move collapsed on account of work permit issues.

Still, on the positive side, Barnsley possess some excellent players. They boast the league’s top scorer in Devante Cole, and Herbie Kane has contributed plenty from midfield. They also have more playoffs experience than most, with this being their fourth playoff entry since 2016.

And adversity can bring strength through a siege mentality. Should the Tykes perform a manager-less miracle, they will hope to emulate their solid 14th-placed finish upon promotion through the League One playoffs in 2016/17.

Not sure how the playoffs work? Check out our guide on how the EFL playoffs work.

William Evans is a football and politics fanatic. A first-class graduate of UEA's Broadcast and Digital Journalism MA course, he also achieved a first class degree in politics and media studies during his time at UEA.