Last season’s League Two was a demonstration that in order to be successful in the Football League, it is necessary to be strong throughout the entire season and not just in certain phases of it. This was clear with the way that the season finished, with Swindon Town taking the title in style after going from strength to strength throughout the season and teams such as Southend and Torquay United narrowly missing out on an automatic promotion. Both sides had phases of the season where their form stuttered somewhat and it ultimately cost them, as Crawley Town took the final spot by just a single point.
The season also demonstrated how important it can be to have momentum at critical times, as Crewe Alexandra finished the season in terrific form following a very below-par start, were able to snatch the final playoff place and went on to secure promotion.
I think you will see many of the same trends in League Two this season. Much importance will be placed upon having a squad which can play at a consistent level throughout the entire season, as having a period of a few weeks where results just don’t go your way can and will ultimately cost you by the time the season comes to a close. The teams that play the best football will inevitably be the ones that occupy the top half-dozen places in the table but the difference in which order the teams finish will ultimately be the ones that are able to cope best with the demands of injuries, suspensions and luck that can all take its toll throughout a league season.
It will be a similar story through the table, and although I can see there being quite a difference in quality between the teams at the top and those at the bottom, it will still be the teams that manage best with what they have at their disposal that will be the most successful, regardless of whether their aims are more ambitious or perhaps slightly more modest.
It will be fascinating to see who emerges as the strongest of the promotion contenders this season because I believe there are eight or nine teams in with a genuine chance of mounting a promotion challenge, including all four of the teams that came down from League One. All of them have dealt with the blow of relegation pretty well and will be heading into the new season in decent shape, looking to be competitive from the opening day.
For Rochdale, relegation last season also signalled the end of an era, with club stalwart Gary Jones leaving the club. On the one hand, he will be missed for sure. Jones was practically part of the furniture and there is no doubt that Dale fans will be sad to see him go. On the other hand, life must go on, and this is a chance for John Coleman to do different things with the squad and take the club in a different direction. This may be a great time for one of the younger members in the squad to step up and try to achieve the same kind of status as Jones did, and if one or two of the players are able to step up then this may actually be a very good thing for Rochdale. They will definitely be in the promotion chase, but just how close they can get to the summit of the League Two table will depend on how well the new faces adjust to life at Spotland.
Exeter City will have been disappointed not to have been more competitive last season, but relegation always seemed like something of an inevitability to the club. The number of injuries they had at critical time always seemed to go against them and for a club of Exeter’s size playing at the level they were at, it made the task of survival infinitely more difficult. Despite relegation, the club remains in
decent shape and I would be very surprised if they weren’t mixing it with the better sides in this division. With that said, I’m not convinced they will be contenders for an automatic promotion spot, but should have a good chance of making the playoffs. I’m glad that Paul Tisdale has been kept on as manager because I think continuity is the best thing for the club right now. It would be easy for the club to change managers and go in a different direction but I don’t think that would have been the right move for the club. He is a good manager and deserves the opportunity to get the team moving back in the right direction.
Wycombe Wanderers were definitely unfortunate to go down, but always just found themselves on the wrong side of the battle against the drop. I always believe that there is one team that drops out of League One every season that was desperately unlucky and Wycombe were the fall team in this instance. They’re not a fundamentally bad team though, and they will be able to challenge for promotion. I’m not convinced that Gary Waddock is the best manager in the world but he is certainly competent and able to do a very good job, and with the players he has at his disposal should be able to get the team working in the right direction after a disappointing season last time out and I expect to see some good football from them. New arrivals like Gary Docherty bring much-needed influence to the dressing room and to have players of that calibre at this level is never a bad thing.
Chesterfield baffled me last season. After storming to the League Two title the season before, they were nowhere all season until the last couple of months but left their charge until far too late. They did, however, win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. So despite a fairly poor season, this is still a club that has won two trophies in as many seasons and will be hungry to keep up the winning habit. John Sheridan obviously knows how to win at this level, too, having won this division two years ago. Despite his age, Jack Lester will still be an influential player for the club and, along with Marc Richards, could be a big threat to opposition defences at this level. I feel that there are stronger teams than Chesterfield in this division so they will need to be on top form in order to challenge for promotion.
There will be other teams battling for honours in the division, too. I can see four other obvious contenders for promotion who I think will be capable of pushing for at least a playoff place, if not more. The first of these sides is Southend United, who narrowly missed out on promotion last season despite occupying a promotion place for much of the season. Paul Sturrock is no mug, however. He knows all about winning promotion and the fact that he missed out last time around will have given him sleepless nights. It will be tricky because there are some other very strong sides in this league, but the return of Freddy Eastwood could prove to be Sturrock’s trump card – if he can recapture the kind of form that helped Southend win back-to-back promotions the last time Eastwood was at Roots Hall. The main concern for Shrimpers fans at current will be the time it has taken to sign a replacement goalkeeper after Glenn Morris left the club and Cameron Belford’s loan spell was not made permanent.
Torquay United were another team who came very close to automatic promotion last season, only to lose out in the critical final few weeks of the season. I fear they could just miss out again this season. I think they still have a strong squad and will do quite well in this division, but I think there are a number of other teams who have been able to do more to strengthen their position over the summer. Despite this, I’m sure Martin Ling will have been maximising what he has available to him and because of that I think Torquay will still be amongst the front-running teams in this division. If they can produce a similarly consistent run of form this season to what they managed last season, Torquay could still contend for a top-three position in the league.
Gillingham are another team I expect to be challengers, but again I fear they may fall short. The squad is one of the better ones in the league but a period of instability amongst the management in recent years hasn’t really helped the team. They will be hoping that the recent appointment of Martin Allen will rectify this problem and provide not just stability, but also direction for the club as they strive to take the step forward that will see them push for the return to the third tier that the club so desperately craves. Much was expected of Danny Kedwell when he joined the club last summer, but he didn’t quite reach the high expectations that were placed upon him last season. However, I believe Allen is the kind of manager who recognises a player with the ability to be a match-winner and I think he sees this quality in Kedwell. If Allen’s management can bring out the best in Kedwell, and other players, Gillingham could challenge for the title.
The team everyone is talking about is Rotherham United, and for good reason too. It’s been tough for them in the last few seasons, but they are a team that are now about to start going places. They have had to be very frugal in recent seasons but now they are in a much better position financially and over the summer have been able to unleash their spending power in the transfer market. Their move to a new stadium and the appointment of Steve Evans as manager are further steps forward as the club are now putting the pieces into place to launch a challenge to get back to playing at a higher level, but more importantly, to stay there. I try to avoid looking at the promotion odds but I couldn’t help but notice that it isn’t just the smart money on Rotherham this year, it’s everybody’s money. This is not just a coincidence and I also believe that they will be the team to beat this season.
However, do not write off or ignore Fleetwood Town. This is a team that means business. They might be newcomers to the Football League, but in a lot of ways this makes them more dangerous because people won’t be entirely sure what to expect from them. Top scorer Jamie Vardy played a massive part in the club’s promotion from the Blue Square Bet Premier last season, but despite him leaving, there have been a lot of very experienced players join the club over the summer and they will be a force to be reckoned with. It could definitely be a season to remember for the Cod Army.
The group of teams that end up occupying the mid-table positions is always an intriguing one in League Two because I always feel that it ends up being a mix of teams that have underachieved throughout the season, teams that have perhaps overachieved and surprised people by avoiding the relegation dogfight, and a few teams that you would probably expect to end up in mid-table on the basis that they’re not the worst teams in the league but aren’t quite the best either. This season will be no different, and I can see the League Two mid-table being as much of a mish-mash of teams as it usually is.
I’ll start the mid-table group off by talking about one of last season’s underachievers, Bristol Rovers. This was a team which ought to have done a lot better than they did last season, given the players they have at the club. However, a management decision was decision heading into last season which ultimately didn’t work out for them, prompting a mid-season change after which things did begin to improve. Mark McGhee has now had a whole summer to get things working in a way which is more comfortable and familiar to him and the end result should be that Bristol Rovers look a more competent side from the start of this season. I still think they may be a season or two away from challenging the best teams in the league, but I think given where they could have ended up last season, a steady season in the league resulting in a top-half finish would definitely mark progress for the club and would be a small step in the right direction.
I can see them competing for positions with two teams who I feel may drop back this season after very promising campaigns last time out. The first of these two sides is Cheltenham Town, who were just ninety minutes away from reaching League One, only to be beaten in the playoff final by Crewe. More often than not, losing playoff finalists go one of two ways. They either go on and claim automatic promotion next season or drop away quite significantly, and I fear that Cheltenham could see the latter happening to them. I think the team did fantastically last season but I’m not sure that they will be able to achieve similar things this season, simply because I think the quality at the top end of this division has stepped up a notch and I think Mark Yates’ side will get left behind, unfortunately for them.
Similarly, I think Oxford United will also drop back following a near miss last season. They looked in contention for a playoff place for much of the second half of the season, only to be denied in the last few weeks by a combination of some poor results and a surging run of form from Crewe, which ultimately took them through the playoffs and onto promotion. They have a good blend of youth and experience in the side which Chris Wilder has managed well, but I’m not sure they have the quality and consistency to be a top-7 side. A top-half finish should be achievable for this side, but I have a feeling they could be one of the underperformers this season, as is so often the case for teams who arguably punch above their weight the season before.
I also think Plymouth Argyle will be amongst the teams towards the top of the mid-table pack, which will be the step forward that many Pilgrims fans will be hoping their club can achieve after what has been a difficult couple of seasons for the club. Their season last year was heavily compromised by the uncertainty surrounding the future of the club at the beginning of the season, and although James Brent’s takeover put the club on a much more secure and steady footing, it isn’t easy to play catch-up in any division and so just steering clear of relegation was the best that Plymouth could have hoped for in the circumstances last season.]
This time around though, everyone at the club will be looking for progress to be made and I believe they can make the progress needed. What is interesting about Plymouth is that even the younger members of the squad have experience now, so complimented with arrivals who have much experience, I suspect Plymouth may surprise a few people this season with the progress they are able to make.
There are a number of other teams for whom progress is the key aim for this season. Perhaps for Bradford City more than most, with a lot of people feeling that this is a club still struggling to halt their decline which has seen them rapidly fall from grace since an appearance in the top flight just a dozen years ago. This season is so critical for the club because a failure to arrest the slump could lead to a genuine relegation dogfight for the club. However, I don’t feel that they need to worry about the bottom end of the table too much and that they may finally take the much-needed step forward that the club has been striving for in the last few seasons. I have been impressed with some of Phil Parkinson’s summer signings and think that, although naturally the club will be disappointed if they finish too far away from being contenders for a playoff place, that this is going to be a positive season for the club and an important one in helping them build for the future. The key will be ensuring Phil Parkinson is able to do his job to the best of his ability. He is a good manager at this level and will be able to continue to provide some much-needed stability for the club moving forwards.
Morecambe will also be looking for progress after an impressive outing last season, in which they spent much of the first half of the season occupying a place towards the top end of the table. Given the resources available to the club and the fact it was Jim Bentley’s first in management, it was a very good season for the club and they will undoubtedly have been disappointed that they couldn’t maintain the same form throughout the second half of the season. The key to Morecambe’s ability to succeed this season will be if Bentley is able to identify what went well last season, what didn’t go so well, and be able to strike a balance between maintaining the things that were good along with improving the things that weren’t so good. This season will be a key part of his development as a manager and if Bentley is up to the job, Morecambe will move forwards, of that I have no doubt.
Aldershot Town are another side for whom just the smallest amount of progress could make a massive difference. Heading into last season, they were looking to address the problem that they were simply drawing too many games. By the end of the season, they were ruing the fact that they didn’t draw enough games. It is such a fine balance and one which they are so close to getting a lid on, and if they do, they could be a surprise package this season. Their manager, Dean Holdsworth, rejected an approach from Crawley Town over the summer, which shows not only how well thought of Holdsworth is in the game but also that he is doing a very good job at the club. Aldershot won’t be too far away from the playoffs this season, but I’m unsure whether they will quite be able to break in either. One crucial step forwards will be the key to their success.
The last team that I think falls into this category are Accrington Stanley. The last couple of seasons have been something of a yo-yo for the club, with them making the playoffs a couple of seasons ago, but only managing a mid-table finish last season. They will be looking to head back in the right direction again this season, but it may be tricky for them. They clearly don’t have the budget of some of the teams they are competing against, and I have concerns over both the lack of a proven goalscorer in the side and the lack of strength in depth in their attacking options generally. With that said, Swindon won this division last season and their top scorer only managed 11 league goals so this isn’t essential for success, but it would definitely help in Accrington’s position. They will be in the mid-table pack again, but I would be surprised if they were at the top of it.
This therefore leaves a number of teams that I think will struggle in this division. Last season was unique in that there was not any single team that looked ‘doomed’ to relegation until the last few weeks of the season, which is quite unusual because there is almost always one team which just doesn’t look up to the job. Last season, this wasn’t the case and I think it will be the case this season that there won’t be any single team which falls off the back of the pack early on. I can see it being a close battle at the bottom involving a number of teams and it could be the finest of margins that separates them.
I find myself talking about Port Vale as strugglers but not really because I think they will be battling relegation, but more because they are going through a difficult time as a club. Finances have been something of a nightmare for Vale boss Micky Adams, who was very frank and honest last January when he stated that he wouldn’t be able to bring any players in, regardless of whether any were sold or not, and ultimately Port Vale went into administration. Despite this, though, they still have a decent squad of players and Adams is doing a reasonable job given what’s available to him. It will be a struggle for Vale this season while they rebuild, both on and off the pitch, but I think they will be safe in this division for the foreseeable future.
My tip for relegation this season are Barnet. They are a team that I actually admire because every year they look like they’re probably going to go down but somehow just manage to crawl out of it towards the end of the season and survive for another year. I do think, however, that any team can only go on cheating the odds for so long and I think Barnet’s number might be up this season. I look at some of the other teams around the bottom end of the table and I just have a feeling that Barnet don’t quite have the quality that some of the others do and it might cost them crucial points at critical times. There are a lot of new faces at Underhill too, and if they fail to bed in quickly then this will not help the side’s cause either.
Northampton Town are a team that I don’t see finishing too far away from the bottom of the table either, even though they seem to have found the stability under Aidy Boothroyd that they have been in need of for a number of years. The club’s recent underachievement has been much attributed to a period of time where the club weren’t been able to settle with a manager and have swapped managers during the season on a fairly regular basis, but Boothroyd appears to have the complete faith of the Cobblers’ hierarchy. It will take time to build up a side that can compete further up the table, but I do think there are teams that will find it more of a struggle than Northampton will this season. With that said, they will be reliant on Adebayo Akinfenwa reproducing the same kind of form that saw him place amongst the division’s top scorers last season. If his goals dry up, that could be a serious issue for Boothroyd.
Dagenham & Redbridge are a side who will have gone back to the drawing board over the summer to try to figure out what it is that helped them move forwards so quickly as they aim to start taking steps back in the right direction following a difficult season. It won’t be easy for them, because resources certainly aren’t something that the Daggers have a huge amount of, but they do have a number of players with potential and it will be important for their potential to be realised this season if John Still’s side are to remain in the Football League. The key to survival for Dagenham will be making sure that they aren’t affected to heavily if they lose important players to suspension or injury. Losing points at crucial times in a relegation battle can sometimes be the difference between survival and disaster, and the Daggers will be hoping that they end up on the right side of the line come the end of the season.
Burton Albion will also be looking to turn things around and get the club moving back in the right direction after an alarming slump in the second half of last season which saw the club almost drop right into the relegation dogfight at one stage. Gary Rowett was given the managerial job on a permanent basis in May following a couple of months as caretaker boss, and this will have definitely been an advantage for the club to appoint someone who already knows what he has at his disposal, as it makes it much easier to make the changes needed to move forward. It could be another tricky season for Burton, however, because it is a difficult division to be competitive in and consistency is such an important part of remaining competitive. It will still be fresh in the minds of many at the club how things went from looking reasonably good to pretty shaky in the space of a couple of months and it will be important for the club to put this behind them and for it not to happen again. If they are able to do this, I think they will be clear of the drop-zone.
Despite a good first season in the Football League, I find myself worrying about AFC Wimbledon this season. Things went about as well as could be expected for Terry Brown’s side. They had some good days as well as some pretty horrendous days at the office but they always looked like a side that would be able to finish somewhere in the middle of the table, which is exactly what they did. The key for them this season is how they consolidate their status as a Football League club and avoid the infamous ‘second season syndrome’ that often happens to a number of clubs when they move up to a new level for the first time. It is generally highlighted more often in the higher divisions but no team at any level is immune to it and it will be important that Wimbledon keep doing the things right they were doing last season, which can so easily be undone when looking to change the things that didn’t go so well. The opening dozen games will be key to Wimbledon’s chances. If they have a poor start to the season, they could be in genuine trouble.
The final team that could have a fight on their hands this season are newly-promoted York City. It seems hard to imagine that they had been absent from the Football League for nearly a decade, but that is an illustration of just how long it can take to rebuild and then be able to fight for promotion following relegation from the Football League. As such, you can be sure that York will want to make sure that this isn’t a brief stay back in the League. They seem to have done all the right things in the transfer market over the summer like strengthening in key areas and bringing in players with Football League experience but I still think that they will still have a fight on their hands to secure survival. Their manager, Gary Mills, is no mug and he knows what it takes to win. He was part of a side that won a European Cup at the age of 18, and when you win things at such a young age, it becomes part of your mentality and he will need to call on all of his experiences as a player and a manager to ensure York’s survival. It is a tricky, but not impossible task.
This relegation battle is perhaps the most intense in all the three divisions as the penalty of dropping out of the Football League is one that hits a club hard and is very difficult to come back from. It took York eight years to return to the Football League, and several other established former Football League clubs are finding it difficult to return, too. Cambridge United have now been out of the Football League for seven years, while Grimsby Town, Mansfield Town, Wrexham and Luton Town are all struggling to find their way back, with Luton having lost in the playoffs on several occasions in the past few seasons. Football League status is definitely something that clubs cherish and strive to either earn, or keep, and for that reason it is always just as competitive at the bottom of League Two as it is at the top. In fact, it is often even more so at the bottom, because nobody wants to leave the Football League.