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Football League Review - League Two

Sunday 13th May 2012
It's been a phenomenal season in League Two this year. Both ends of the table have been incredibly competitive, and it says a lot that a favourite for the title didn't emerge until March and that likely relegation contenders didn't begin to fall away until barely a month ago.

League Two has had it all this year – battles throughout the table, a number of different teams topping the table at various points throughout the season, and a final day in which the last promotion, playoff and relegation spots were all decided.

It speaks volumes for the strength of English League football right now that the fourth tier generates so much interest up and down the country, with many people saying before the season began that any one of about eight teams were capable of winning the title. For much of the season it was between four or five teams, but finally Swindon Town emerged from the pack to claim the crown.

Under Paolo di Canio, Swindon were a team that had a start almost as erratic as their manager's temper – something displayed all too often as di Canio attracted attention for all the wrong reasons on more than one occasion, and who can forget the Chihuahua rant? But as the season wore on di Canio's side found more consistent form, and as players like Matt Ritchie began to emerge they became a team to watch. By the time it got to March, they were most people's favourites to clinch the title and, despite a few more eccentric moments from di Canio, went on to claim the League Two title with a little bit in hand.

Shrewsbury Town booked their place in League One next season, five points behind Swindon, but it was no surprise that the battle for third place went right down to the final day - with Torquay, Crawley, and Southend separated by just a single point. It was Crawley who snatched the honours following a narrow win at Accrington, but there is certainly no shame in being narrowly short of making the top 3 places in such a competitive season.

The surprise package of the season was Crewe. Despite a challenging start, in which they looked a fair way short of having the quality to challenge for honours in this league, they battled all season long and results finally started to go their way. They were ultimately able to snatch the final play-off place away from Oxford, who had looked likely to claim a place in the playoffs having been there or thereabouts all season. You have to give Steve Davis credit for the way his side have gone about their business, and they definitely have momentum heading into the playoffs.

A lot of credit also goes to Morecambe for the way they started the season. In the first half of the season they were mixing it with the big teams and spent several weeks in an automatic promotion spot. They did eventually fall away in the second half of the season and actually finished quite a way down the table, but their challenge in the early part of the season shows there is clearly some quality in the side and that they just need to start getting results when things like injuries and suspensions go against them to push further on up the table. Considering it was manager Jim Bentley's first season in management too, they did an admirable job and can be proud of their achievement this year, but the important thing is to make sure that they don't fall backwards next season.

There were two teams who really disappointed this season, for different reasons. Bradford made a number of changes behind the scenes over the off-season and were talking with real optimism about starting to arrest the slump which has plagued that club for a number of years. Unfortunately, once the talking stopped and the football began, they again fell a long way off the mark. Although there were spells of the season where things weren't actually going too badly for them, it took a very long time to pull clear of the relegation battle, and it's a position that this club shouldn't be finding themselves in year in, year out.

The other major disappointment was Gillingham. For sure, this is a tough, competitive division, but Gillingham were a team that a lot of people had picked out for promotion, and I think the weight of expectation got to them. At stages, they played some really good, attractive football, but also went missing at times, which really hurt them. Their failure to take advantage of situations when they were on top also didn't help their cause and they found themselves just short of making it into the play-offs.

The really fascinating thing about this season in League Two was the relegation battle. In recent years, there has been the trend of one team looking woefully uncompetitive from virtually the first kick of a ball and then for maybe two or three others to fall away from the midfield pack and have their own little scrap for the last relegation place. This hasn't been the case this season, for a number of reasons, but what has been fascinating to see is how a number of different clubs in a number of different sets of circumstances have all found themselves scrapping for Football League survival.

March was a key month in the relegation battle. Hereford had begun to drop off the pace and were struggling to catch up, while Macclesfield's form was tailing off dramatically and, although they weren't yet in trouble, the warning signs were definitely there. Unfortunately for the Silkmen, they were seemingly powerless to avoid the slump and ended up finishing bottom. Ultimately, despite their best efforts (they beat Crawley and Torquay in the last two games of the season) Hereford were also unable to prevent the drop, with Barnet once again having to get a result on the final day of the season to ensure their survival in the Football League. Both of these clubs will struggle to make an immediate return to the Football League, too, as the Blue Square Bet Premier is an intense and competitive league. Both Stockport and Lincoln, who were relegated last season, have struggled to find form this time around.

The play-off battle will be an intense and tough one to call, but my prediction (perhaps slightly biased on this occasion) is that Southend United will go up. Paul Sturrock is a manager who knows how to win promotion, and his experience and guidance should give them an edge.
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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