Story by Aaron Bliss
The bottom tier of the Football League is either a springboard or a tar pit. With every team beginning the season on the cusp of either glory or oblivion, here is a comprehensive preview on the movers and shakers in this season’s division.
The team made famous by the little Scouse lad in the milk advert came through a season of transition in 2011/12, after losing six of the players from their play-off team the season before. Their fourteenth place finish was tempered with a finish of just 3 wins in the last 17 matches, and Stanley will be hoping rookie Paul Cook can emulate his long-serving predecessor’s accomplishments in establishing the club in the Football League, while progressing towards a play-off chase. The club are hopeful that their loan signing of Premier League club Reading’s young striker Karl Sheppard will be worth its weight in goals, though one may expect anything from a relegation battle to mid-table security.
The fully co-operatively founded and run team begins its second decade in existence in League Two, after finishing a creditable 16th in their debut league season last year. After setting numerous records on their ascent, Wimbledon will simply be hoping for an exciting season of progression. They finished their maiden season winning a ‘Big Society’ award for their involvement in community projects, and long-term are still hoping to clear their debts and buy their own ground. If ex-Oxford United striker Jack Midson can replicate his 20 goals of last season, the Wombles just might trouble the play-off zone come the curtain call.
Dean Holdsworth’s managerial stock rose again last season, with the Shots finishing an excellent 11th, whilst also impressing in the League Cup against Manchester United, despite defeat. Their pre-season preparations have been hampered by new midfielder Craig Stanley suffering a broken leg, though holding onto Holdsworth, despite overtures from Crawley, will give Aldershot every chance of reaching the play-offs at least.
League Two wouldn’t be League Two without Barnet. The Bees buzz perennially between the Conference and bottom Football League division, and have escaped relegation on the last day for the last three seasons running. Curiously, they have released last season’s joint top divisional goalscorer Izale Mcleod. Their incessant desperation probably accounts for their tally of eight managers in the last four years, and, unless current incumbent Mark Robson lifts them to a relatively secure position, mascot Mr Bumble is said to be next in line for the top job.
The Bantams continue to struggle financially: a remnant of their ill-fated Premier League adventure over a decade ago. They narrowly avoided disaster last season, but Phil Parkinson is a steady hand. They have the advantage of the largest ground in League Two by far, and, should the football inspire them, a huge fanbase who could propel them to safety, though perhaps beyond that is unrealistic at this moment in time.
Mark McGhee will be hoping to push onwards and upwards, following last season’s turnaround to finish midtable after Paul Buckle’s dismissal. McGhee is confident that the signing of ex-Dundee United defender Garry Kenneth will bolster a promotion push, saying he hoped to get Kenneth back into the Scotland squad with his potential. Roving left-back Lee Brown contributed a staggering seven goals last season, and if the midfield can contribute similar amounts, Rovers have plenty of firepower to plan an assault on the play-off places at least. Whether they get there or not is another matter.
Last season was a tad traumatic for Burton, having sacked stalwart Paul Peschisolodo, who had established them as a league club. Six defeats in a row forced Ben Robinson’s hand, and Peschisolodo’s assistant Gary Rowett stepped in to guide the Brewers to 17th. With Congolese winger Jacques Maghoma providing the ammunition, and Calvin Zola banging them away, Albion may hope to improve this term. However, it will more than likely by a season of transition at the Pirelli.
Losing out in the play-off final to Crewe Alexandra last season will either prove the making or breaking of this Cheltenham side, led by their 2002 League Two play-off winning ex-captain Mark Yates. Most of the buzz around the club last season came from their loan signing Jack Butland, who later appeared in the Euro 2012 England squad, and turned out for Team GB in the Olympic Games. He has returned to Birmingham, but the loan signing of Bury’s Shaun Harrad, as well as the acquisition of utility front-man Chris Zebrowski show some clear attacking intent for the season ahead.
A season of glory saw them lift the Football League trophy, beating League Two champions Swindon Town, but ended in tragic fashion for Chesterfield, who were relegated after a solitary season in League One. Manager John Sheridan will be hoping to take the Spireites straight back up, but it will be done on the leanest of budgets: Chesterfield’s five summer signings thus far have all been free transfers.
DAGENHAM AND REDBRIDGE
The Daggers narrowly avoided a second successive relegation last season, and will need their strikers to contribute a lot more, with Brian Woodall the only striker scoring more than twice. That said, the club will be hopeful that their signing of Arsenal Academy defender Gavin Hoyte, younger brother of Justin, will tighten them up at the back, and perhaps add some culture too. All the signs still point to a tough season at Victoria Road though.
Devon’s finest, owned entirely by their own fans, are welcomed back to League Two, after a brief, three year sojourn in the division above. They will relish the West Country derbies with Plymouth and Torquay, but most of all will be hoping to return to looking down on their rivals this time next season. They have lost lower league stalwarts Lenny Pidgeley and Daniel Nardiello, along with a raft of others, but have also recruited seven new faces, including Scottish midfield/attacker Alan Gow, who scored three goals in the seven games he played at the end of last season.
The team tipped as ‘the new Crawley’ will be hoping to live up to the hype, as they look to build on their glorious promotion from the Conference last season. With big investment, and proven pedigree in players like Jon Parkin and Damien Johnson, the Cod Army will be hoping some of the eleven new signing this summer will gel into a unit even more formidable than the all-conquering Conference version. Anything other than a serious promotion challenge will be a disappointment.
After missing out on the play-offs by two points last season, Gillingham will be hoping the appointment of Martin Allen will make the difference this time around. Allen will surely be glad of having more resources at his disposal than at Barnet, and Gillingham’s poor disciplinary record may well continue in ‘Mad Dog’s hands!
After their table-topping start to last season, Shrimps fans may have been pretty crestfallen to see them finish 15th, but it was a huge improvement on the struggles that saw an end to stalwart Sammy McIlroy’s reign the previous season, and proves that they are getting to grips with playing at the Globe Arena. Morecambe will be relying on their defence and fan’s favourite Barry Roche between the sticks to see them clear of trouble, but perhaps anything other than midtable mediocrity may be beyond them.
Dark horses for the division under Aidy Boothroyd in some people’s eyes, relegation strugglers based on last season’s 20th place finish in others, Northampton will be something of an unknown quantity in the coming season. They ended last season having used an incredible 47 different players. The loss of top provider Michael Jacobs to Derby County will hurt, but Boothroyd will be hoping the addition of young Liverpool attacking talent Henoc Mukendi on loan will fill the void, supplying the chances for top scorer Adebayo Akinfenwa to gobble up.
The mighty U’s had an excellent season last time around, narrowly missing out on a play-off berth. Third only to Bradford and promoted Swindon in average attendances, they have improved year on year since their return to the Football League, and will surely by aiming for the play-offs. Chris Wilder will be hopeful that Manchester United youngster Sean McGinty can show some class in defence, whilst folk hero and top scorer James Constable will hope to improve on his relatively meagre 11 goals last term to fire them to glory.
The pride of the West Coast survived by the skin of their teeth last season, narrowly avoiding an unwanted hat-trick of relegations. This was a far cry from their halcyon days making the all-day trip to Newcastle in the Championship just three seasons ago, and they have sunk like a stone since. Argyle have had a strange decade, in that they improved their league standing every year since 2001, before going into reverse in 2008, with their last four finishing positions in any division reading: 21st, 23rd, 23rd, 21st. Former player-coach Carl Fletcher has retired to take the reigns unfettered, but will have to cope with a tiny budget. After losing combative midfielder Damien Johnson, Fletcher will be pinning hopes on Jed Harper-Penman making the grade, after stepping up from the under-18s, but few would bet against another desperate relegation struggle for the Pilgrims.
Vale’s excellent season was tarnished by their ten-point deduction for entering administration, though in the end it wouldn’t have made the difference in play-off terms. Vale fans are simply hopeful the club will still exist, after a winding up order was deferred, but the club takeover has yet to be resolved, after deadlines were missed by chief bidder Keith Ryder. Micky Adams has proven ability in turning around languishing clubs, but whether he will get the opportunity to build on last season’s optimism remains to be seen.
League Two can once again be affectionately titled the Rochdale Division, after Dale’s fairytale promotion to League One lasted just two seasons. As was to be expected, there have been many ins and outs at Spotland, with forward Craig Curran and goalkeeper Ben Smith being purchased from Tranmere and Shrewsbury respectively, among others, the most interesting and possibly exciting being lower league legend Dele Adebola. Although his career has gone off the boil in recent times, fans will have their fingers crossed that the big man rediscovers his striking edge in the twilight of his career, in order to lift them out of the division that has become something of a black hole for them.
The Millers will hope to be in the shake-up for promotion, having missed out on the play-offs last term, though they’ll have to do it without the services of top scorer Lewis Grabban, who has left for Bournemouth for an estimated £300k: the League Two equivalent of a £15 million sale. In return they have brought in a host of new faces, including the powerful Nigerian who is as renowned for his misses as his physique…no it’s not Akinbiyi, it’s Kayode Odejayi! With other potentially shrewd signings like Lionel Ainsworth and Daniel Nardiello, this could be an eventful and successful season for Steve Evans’ side.
The Shrimpers have gone back to a glorious past in re-signing cult hero Freddy Eastwood on a free transfer from Coventry. Not bad business considering they sold him for £1.5 million five years ago. They also possess the most prolific assist-merchant in the league in Ryan Hall, who notched up a staggering 19 assists last season, on their way to missing automatic promotion by a point, and losing out in the play-offs. Things look good for Paul Sturrock’s men, and Roots Hall could be rocking again come the season’s climax.
Despite usually struggling for survival, Torquay have been on the up since their return to the Football League, and finished 4th last season, though blowing their promotion chance in the play-off. Their miserly defence, who kept 20 clean sheets last season, will give them a strong foundation, especially if their team can be as settled as last season, in which they possessed five of the top ten players in terms of league appearances. Experienced midfielder Craig Easton could be a crucial addition, while Rene Howe will potentially need to top last season’s goal tally of 13 if the Devon Club are to hope for knocking on the promotion door.
A galling relegation saw Wycombe rejoin League Two, but they have done well to hold on to the core of their squad, while promoting many of their Under-19s squad, and adding some potentially useful players, including ex-Premier League centre-back Gary Doherty. Wycombe should be safe from freefall, but other than that it is a bit of a mystery to most as to where they will finish.
The Minstermen made a triumphant return to the Football League, following a Conference play-off victory against Luton Town. A battle for survival is inevitably expected, though fans will hope Jason Walker can translate his Conference goalscoring form to the Football League. On another note, league veteran Paul Musselwhite is still an active goalkeeper at the club, as well as a coach, at the age of 43.
Whatever happens in this season’s League Two, let’s hope it contains plenty of moments like this, from a League One Essex derby in 2010. At least Southend are involved!