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Football League Review - League One

Sunday 13th May 2012
This season League One was probably the toughest third-tier league there's ever been, and with good reason too. Never before has a third-tier division been packed so full of clubs with long traditions of footballinf history and successes, as well as a number of clubs who have recently played in the top tier.

With names like Charlton Athletic, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Preston North End and Notts County, the League One table at times looked like a ‘who's who' of English football history.

With all that said, however, from almost the opening day of the season, there has only ever been one likely winner of the division – Charlton Athletic. There had been a lot made of the fact that Chris Powell had made a large number of changes to the playing staff at the club, with over a dozen players shown the exit door and a similar number arriving, and questions were asked pre-season about how long it would take for this new Charlton squad to gel. The answer seemed to be about five minutes, with Powell's side playing everyone else off the park in the first half of the season.

Although there was the occasional blip as the season wore on, they always had so much in hand over everybody else that there was never really any question that they would go and lift the title. For a team to have won the league so convincingly only points to even better things ahead, and don't be surprised if in October people start talking about Charlton joining Norwich and Southampton in going straight up from the Championship in their first season.

The battle for the second automatic place in League One was as fierce as I've ever seen a promotion battle, with three Yorkshire sides Huddersfield Town and both Sheffield teams fighting it out. It says a lot about how badly each of these teams wanted to get second when you consider that Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield both replaced their manager mid-season at the first sniff of things not going their way. In Wednesday's case, it seemed to work, with Dave Jones able to galvanise the Hillsborough club at a critical time and just pip their bitter rivals into second place, whilst leaving seemingly the world's least popular manager, Gary Megson, out of work once again despite not having done a great deal wrong.

In Huddersfield's case, the decision to replace Lee Clark was a disaster. Huddersfield under Clark were a team that everyone feared, particularly with the goalscoring threat of Jordan Rhodes, who has been an absolute revelation this season and I tip him to be playing at a higher level next season, whatever happens to the team. The board got a long way ahead of themselves, and got on a massive ego-trip following the long unbeaten run that Clark had the Terriers on.

When that run came to an end, a blip was inevitable, and for the board to believe that this was a sign that Clark had to go was absolutely ridiculous. When you consider that Huddersfield were never going to be favourites for automatic promotion anyhow, for them to be scrapping it out alongside the two Sheffield sides was a tremendous achievement in itself and one that was clearly massively undervalued by the Terriers board. Simon Grayson will do a reasonable job at the club, but I fear the club risk going backwards if they aren't able to win the playoffs this year.

Looking into the middle of League One, there were several teams that punched above their weight this year. Colchester United did a tremendous job to finish where they did, given that they spent large parts of the season having to play 4-5-1 because they only had one fit striker on the books, although quite why John Ward didn't address the situation of only having two out-and-out strikers at the club is beyond me, particularly when he's all too aware that Steven Gillespie is particularly injury-prone. Brentford also overachieved this season and weren't too far away from challenging for a playoff place, so they'll be hoping to keep up the good work next term.

There were two major disappointments in League One. Scunthorpe struggled all season following relegation from the Championship. At times there was definitely concern they might have been dragged into the relegation dogfight, but they managed to keep just about enough about them to ensure that they weren't in great danger by the end of the season. You often see a side like Scunthorpe – for whom being in the Championship was arguably punching above their weight – go through a period of transition following relegation, so I suspect this is the case here. They will need to improve next season though, or wider changes may have to be made from top to bottom to stop the club going into a slump.

The other major disappointment were Preston, who were similarly left reeling following relegation last season. The difference here is that Preston are a big club and should have been capable of attracting players of a good enough calibre, as well as keeping hold of some of the ones that they had, to challenge for an immediate return to the Championship. This wasn't the case for them, and Phil Brown looked badly out of place at the helm at Deepdale. Unfortunately, the appointment of Graham Westley from Stevenage doesn't seem to have helped things much, with the former Farnborough and Rushden & Diamonds boss all too keen to point out what's going wrong at the club but not particularly forthcoming with solutions to these problems.

The relegation fight in League One is always a particularly challenging one because four teams are thrown through the trapdoor at the end of every season. Perhaps the only likely relegation was Wycombe who, despite putting up a good fight, always lacked the quality to survive. Chesterfield went on an incredible run of form towards the end of the season, buoyed by their Johnstone's Paint Trophy success, but they looked badly out of place for much of the season in this division, which is surprising given the manner in which they claimed the League Two title just twelve months ago. Exeter and Rochdale have simply gone backwards, and paid the ultimate price for it.

Looking ahead to the playoffs, the obvious choice is Sheffield United, who narrowly missed out on promotion. This disappointment could actually end up hindering their chances, as they come up against a Stevenage side who have impressed no end since their arrival in the Football League, and it will be a tough ask for United to come through that tie.
Bruce Halling
Bruce is a 24-year-old self-confessed Football League addict and author of the 'Road To The Promised Land' column. He is a passionate Southend United fan who has witnessed the Shrimpers' rise to the Championship as well as their more recent fall back to their current position in League Two. Though he doesn’t get to many games as a spectator, he has worked at Southend, Colchester United and now Queens Park Rangers as a steward, so is never too far away from the action on a matchday. Away from football, he is a Politics graduate and currently jobhunting. Follow Bruce on Twitter @brucehalling

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