Last season’s League One was probably the greatest season of third-tier football anywhere in the world, ever. The standard of football that we saw from the teams battling it out at the top end of the table was superb, and the intensity of the title battle was fantastic, with three teams from Yorkshire all putting absolutely everything on the line to be best of the rest behind Charlton, who fully deserved the title after playing some fantastic football throughout the season.
The passion of the fans last season was also tremendous, with over 36,000 fans turning up at Hillsborough for the second of the season’s Steel City derbies, which Sheffield Wednesday won 1-0 in a result which would prove crucial to the promotion race. I know it was a derby game, but the fact that so many fans showed up for a third-tier football match just further proves why the English league system is the greatest in the world.
It will be difficult for League One to live up to the same standards as last season, but I have no doubt that it will still be a fiercely contested division. This division has the greatest potential for teams to have massive changes in levels of achievement, with just a few changes sometimes being the difference between being promotion contenders and relegation battlers, as Swindon Town showed when they reached the playoff final in the 2009-10 season, only to be relegated just 12 months later. It is a division which can be very tight in the midfield, with only a few points often making a big difference between a respectable league finish and a lower-table position. Last season proved this, with just nine points separating 10th and 20th.
This season could well be just as competitive throughout the table, but there are a few teams who do stand out as promotion candidates.
I’ll start with my tip for the title, Sheffield United. They were tremendously unlucky as four teams deserved to be promoted last season with only three places up for grabs, and it was the Blades who were squeezed out. They will be equally strong again this season, and will definitely benefit from being arguably the highest profile club in this division. Questions may be asked of how they will the void left by last season’s top scorer Ched Evans, but to think that Danny Wilson won’t be able to replace Evans would be naive. The only thing I can see going against United this season is the weight of expectation.
I don’t expect them to have it all their own way, by any means. The Blades will face stiff competition, particularly from two of the sides coming down from the Championship, who came down in differing circumstances. Coventry City didn’t end up being as bad as I thought they were going to be last season and played some good football, so I admire them for keeping faith in Andy Thorn, even though I don’t necessarily agree with the decision to do so – I’m still not overly convinced of his ability as a manager but this season is where he will be truly tested.
Doncaster Rovers, on the other hand, probably were good enough to stay up last season, but had an absolutely atrocious opening which saw 2 wins from the opening 15 games. The aim of survival wasn’t achieved, of course, but I actually think that as a result of having players such as El-Hadji Diouf at the club last season, the idea of playing for Doncaster Rovers is a more attractive proposition than a year ago, despite the fact that the club are now in a lower division. With this in mind, although there will be a bit of a rebuilding job at the Keepmoat, they should be able to attract the calibre of player to challenge at the top end of the table.
The teams that ended last season in 5th, 6th and 7th will all build on their success and contesting for honours at the top. Of the three, MK Dons are probably in the strongest shape because they have now been have been challenging for promotion for a number of seasons, having made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. Next season will be the one where the Dons look to take that crucial step forward so that they can propel themselves to the next level, and this season could be the best opportunity they get to claim promotion. They have a strong team and a fantastic young manager who I’m convinced will go on to manage at the highest level.
Notts County had a bit of a strange season last time around and it’s still difficult to know what to make of it. They started well, and looked like being a team that would be firmly in the playoffs, only for a run of inconsistent form to see them drop back towards the mediocrity of mid-table. The interesting thing to note is that, at their best, they were as good a side as any of the three that eventually went up, but weren’t able to hit their peak of performance consistently enough to fulfil the promise they showed at times last season. It will be interesting to see how Keith Curle addresses this problem. If he can get the team playing as well as they did in his first few games in charge, they will be very difficult to stop.
Stevenage were undoubtedly the surprise package of League One last season, and the pressure will be on them to make sure they don’t regress. I like their manager Gary Smith, who came in midway through last season, and so far he hasn’t disappointed. I suspect that Stevenage will continue to make progress, and will be as equally difficult to play against as they were last season, particularly at the Lamex Stadium where they were the only League 1 side to record victories over all three promoted teams. The main obstacle standing between Stevenage and further success is money. They are working on a pretty small budget compared to some of the teams they are up against this season, and this obstacle might just prevent Stevenage climbing further up the Football League. They’ll be contenders, though.
Preston were a lot of people’s pre-season favourites last year but nothing seemed to go to plan for them. Even when Graham Westley took charge there was a still a lot of negativity coming from the club, with accusations of players leaking tactics and all sorts of other nonsense. Over the summer, he’s been given the freedom to completely overhaul the squad and start again. If Westley gets in a full squad of players who fit the vision of what he wants, Preston could definitely be challenging for promotion this season. This could work spectacularly well or it could go horrendously wrong. If it is the latter, Preston could even find themselves battling relegation.
The mid-table pack are going to be very finely balanced, and I can see there being 8 or 9 teams in this pack. I can’t really see any of the middle of the road sides being able to break out of the mediocrity of mid-table to stake a genuine claim for promotion.
With that said, if I were to pick one from the pack to have a stand-out season, it would be Brentford. Uwe Rosler has done a very good job so far and probably deserves more credit for the success he’s had, consistently outperforming teams which have significantly more cash available to them. Brentford are never going to be a particular fanciable outfit, which in some ways works in their favour as it allows them to fly under the radar and make decent progress without drawing too much attention to themselves. If the good work continues, however, they might just find themselves in the spotlight a bit more often as they could find themselves upsetting the apple cart a little.
Bournemouth and Oldham should be towards the top of the pack, too. Bournemouth are a club who made a huge amount of progress in a short space of time and have dropped back a step or two. I think Lee Bradbury’s dismissal towards the end of last season was a bit harsh but it was clearly a sign that the Cherries are not satisfied with just mid-table. That said, it’s a good squad that Paul Groves has at his disposal so if he can get things settled, there may be a chance of a playoff place for them.
I’m not quite so optimistic about Oldham’s chances of making the playoffs but they should be in the top half of the table. They have a decent squad and, in Paul Dickov, have a good young manager who looks to have all the necessary skills to be successful in the game. My concern for Oldham lies in who will replace the goals and experience of Shefki Kuqi this season. It’s asking a lot of younger players to step up straight away, so I suspect another striker with experience may be needed at Boundary Park. If they aren’t able to fill the hole left by Kuqi’s departure, that could be the difference between which half of the table they ultimately finish in.
I also worry for Colchester United’s chances of maintaining a top-half position this season. They have lost a number of players who were first-team regulars last season and I wonder how much of an unsettling effect it might have on what was already a small squad. John Ward has signed some decent replacements but they will need to rely on younger players coming through to provide the necessary depth to be competitive in this league. This has worked well in recent years, so I suspect that Colchester will be competitive and in the mid-table pack, but they still look too short in numbers to consistently trouble the better sides.
Bury, Carlisle United and Hartlepool United should also end up in the mid-table pack. Bury would have been hoping to solidify the progress that has been made over the last couple of years, despite working on one of the smallest budgets in this division. They did very well to finish where they did last season, especially after the loss of Ryan Lowe at such an early stage of the season. The loss of manager Richie Barker, to Crawley, so soon to the season kick-off will be a huge blow to Bury, and it’ll be interesting to see how it affects the team. They will be relying on players like Shaun Harrad to step up and contribute more in attack this season.
For Hartlepool, consistency is key this season. They enjoyed a stunning start to last season, particularly at home, and for a while it looked as though they might be surprise candidates for a playoff place, only for the form to disappear and the club slide down the table. If Neale Cooper can replicate the start that Hartlepool enjoyed last season under Mick Wadsworth, and be able to combat any drop-offs in form, Hartlepool could find themselves towards the front of the mid-table pack. I do think the playoffs would be too much to ask of them, however.
Carlisle United certainly overachieved last season. I was surprised to see them pushing for a playoff place right until the last couple of weeks of the season, and Greg Abbott has his work cut out repeating the feat. Abbott has a talented side at his disposal, but there’s a lack of depth in certain positions that might just hurt them. But I would be surprised if Carlisle finished towards the back of the midfield pack.
With little to separate many of these teams in the midfield, the battles between them for points will be as important as ever. It will be even more important to be as far away from the back of the midfield pack as possible as the teams coming up from League Two may be competitive from the start.
League Two champions Swindon in particular played some very attractive and effective football on their way to taking the title, and will be looking forward to the challenge of playing at a higher level. They’ve got players in their squad who shouldn’t really have been in League Two but you have to credit their professionalism for getting their heads down and getting the job done. They won’t have to raise their game too much to be able to compete in League One but their manager Paolo di Canio will demand 100% effort from everyone or risk facing his wrath.
Crawley Town enter this season with high expectations after back to back promotions. They have certainly spent the money to get to this level but it remains to be seen how much and how quickly Victor Marley is willing to spend to keep Crawley moving on an upwards trend. They played some very good football last season but at times went completely off the boil when they didn’t have key players available to them. Their pre-season preparations will have been hampered by the departure of Sean O’Driscoll, who only arrived at the club in May, but have just appointed former Bury boss Richie Barker. This might result in Crawley having a slightly slow start to the season but I don’t expect them to struggle too much.
Crewe Alexandra will be similarly optimistic of their hopes of doing well in League One this season. After all, when Steve Davis took over last November Crewe were in the bottom third of League Two and certainly didn’t have the look of a team that were likely to get anywhere near challenging for a promotion spot. The job that Davis did was a remarkable one, getting Crewe playing the sort of flowing, attractive football that they have been known for in years gone by. It was an incredible feat to win promotion through the playoffs, and as a result Crewe will head into the start of this season with a lot of momentum. Some may point to the sale of Nick Powell as a hindrance to the team, and while they will clearly miss a player of Powell’s calibre, Crewe aren’t a one-man team. How well Crewe do this season will depend on how long the momentum can last.
Shrewsbury Town will probably come into this season with relatively modest ambitions. They don’t have the resources available to them that the likes of Swindon and Crawley do, but Graham Turner is a manager with a huge amount of experience in the lower leagues. The fact that he knows the club, knows the game and knows the task ahead of him will be of great benefit to Shrewsbury. It must be acknowledged, however, that it is going to be a difficult task for Shrewsbury to come up into the division and establish themselves immediately. Of the four newly promoted sides, Shrewsbury are the most likely to go straight back down.
My tip for relegation this year are Yeovil Town. In Gary Johnson they have a good manager, but I just don’t think their squad is strong enough to compete at this level. They have a few good players and it will be crucially important that they keep hold of their better players, otherwise their season could be a write-off. For me, their key weaknesses are a general lack of quality, experienced players that will help them through when things aren’t going their way, and I can’t see many match-winners in the side either. James Hayter does stand out as one that might be able to help them survive in this league, but it is not going to be an easy task.
Leyton Orient could be in for a tough season too. In recent seasons, they have developed a somewhat unwelcome habit of being perennially slow starters in the league. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Orient chairman Barry Hearn’s loyalty to his managers then Russell Slade may have have been sacked last October. Ultimately, Orient finished one place above the bottom four last season and fans must be hoping that their side can start the season in better form than they have in recent years. I believe that they will need to or it will be a season of struggle at the Matchroom Stadium. They have again had a high turnover of players and it cannot be easy to expect the squad to gel straight away. What Slade does have at his disposal is players like Kevin Lisbie and Nathan Clarke who have a lot of experience and will be able to play a role in the development of the younger players in the side.
Tranmere Rovers and Walsall could also find themselves struggling this season. Walsall cannot compete with the bigger clubs in the league both in terms of finances and the type of player they are able to attract to the club, and as such tend to find themselves in the bottom third of the table. They never looked in trouble last season and ended up just clear of the bottom four, but it is going to be much more difficult to achieve the same feat this season. They will have to be able to raise their game when the bigger clubs come to town in order to survive in this league.
Tranmere, on the other hand, actually had a decent season last year and finished just inside the top half of the table. I do think, however, that they punched above their weight and it will be difficult for them to continue to achieve such results without significant improvements to the playing squad. I don’t think their squad is any worse than it was last season but I’m not sure the changes that they have made will be enough for them to progress and they will have to play well to avoid falling backwards. There is clearly some quality in the side, and while I wouldn’t place Tranmere amongst the hot favourites for a relegation scrap this season, I do fear they are one of the teams that might just get dragged down into the mire.
Scunthorpe are another team who could have issues this season. Last season they were unimpressive, considering they had come down from the Championship, and never looked like they would come close to challenging for a return. This season there’s been little sign of improvement for Alan Knill’s side and I suspect they might have trouble steering clear of the bottom four.
That leaves just one more team to mention – Portsmouth. I think it’s tragically sad to see what has happened to Pompey. Remember, this is a club that won the FA Cup in 2008, just 4 years ago, with the likes of Sulley Muntari, Lassana Diarra and Glen Johnson amongst the many stars in the side. The club has since suffered a staggering fall from grace and they now find themselves still unclear as to whether they will even be in existence when the League One season kicks off. Trevor Birch deserves a lot of credit as he has done almost anything to try and keep the club alive but ultimately it all depends on whether or not agreements can be done, and it seems even his very best efforts may fail.
On the assumption that the club does survive and take their place in League One this season, it is still going to be a tremendously difficult task for them to be competitive. They will still have a very small, if not non-existent, squad and the odds will still be very much stacked against them. On the bright side, they have incredible support from their fans, who I believe are amongst the best in the country for sticking by their club through thick and thin, and they also have a highly talented young manager in Michael Appleton. The best Pompey can hope for this season is to somehow do enough to stay in League One. However, they must first beat the clock and actually get to the start of the season.
It is going to be a fascinating season at both ends of the table, and if the quality of the football and the intensity of the competition even comes close to matching what we saw in this division last season, it is going to be another season to remember. I genuinely hope that Portsmouth will be part of it.