12 January ~ However much Charlton Athletic manager Chris Powell plays down his side's next two games, the coming fortnight is likely to define the race for promotion at the top of League One. Powell's team travel to Hillsborough on Saturday to face a Sheffield Wednesday side that are unbeaten at home in all competitions this season. The following weekend Charlton will host Sheffield United, who have won nine of their last ten matches. Win both and Charlton will extend their current four point lead at the top of the division, while harming their rivals' chances and confidence. Lose them both and the Addicks will be dragged into the scrap behind them for the first time since the opening few weeks of the season.
First up are Gary Megson's Owls. Although not a first-against-second match, by virtue of Sheffield United's midweek victory over Yeovil Town at Bramall Lane, it still promises to be a tense affair. Wednesday will be confident after dispatching Championship promotion hopefuls West Ham United in the FA Cup last weekend. They will also take heart from their successful defence during 11 minutes of additional time in that game, having thrown away five points against Huddersfield and Walsall after the 90 were up in recent weeks.
Though unpopular among many other fans, Gary Megson has cemented his place in the hearts of Wednesday fans this season. He has built a team that plays with honesty, passion and power. They are a menace from set plays, but it would be unfair to label their style of play "hoofball". Their build-up play is often fast and smooth, getting into dangerous positions before delivering accurate balls into the box. Megson has also brought the fans on side by making them feel appreciated, which goes some way to explaining Wednesday's good home form.
For a decade Hillsborough has been a poisonous place to play. Confidence in the players' ability – and the effort they were putting in – has been rock-bottom, with any conceded goal automatically spelling the start of another decline. This season the fans appreciate the players' effort and know that even when they go one or two goals behind they still have a chance, as proved against both Sheffield United and Huddersfield Town already.
There is a rapport between players, fans and coaching staff. For the first time since the 1990s the Hillsborough crowd has chants for the majority of their players because, for the first time since the 1990s, they feel like their players deserve them.
Wednesday are not without their problems, having relied heavily on loan players. Ben Marshall, from Stoke City, has arguably been the best performer. The Charlton match is the final one of his loan spell, with negotiations to extend it hampered by the 20-year-old's ongoing contract talks with his parent club. The loss of his creativity, along with James Tavernier's return to Newcastle United, would leave Wednesday relying on the ever-unreliable Jermaine Johnson to provide a bit of ingenuity on the wings.
For Charlton the worry is that, despite their impressive form in the first half of the season, they are still not clear at the top of the table. At the same stage last season, League One's runaway winners Brighton had 46 points. This season that total would leave Gus Poyet's eventual champions in sixth, eight points from the summit. Such is the relentless pace in the promotion places of League One this time around.
Hillsborough this Saturday is where both Wednesday and Charlton are focussing for the moment, though. Both Megson and Powell will be acutely aware that Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town and MK Dons will be watching closely, eager to take advantage of whoever slips up. Tom Hocking